Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Friday, August 16, 2019

Not Peace, But Division - 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 12:49-53
Jesus said to his disciples:
"I have come to set the earth on fire,
and how I wish it were already blazing! 
There is a baptism with which I must be baptized,
and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished! 
Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? 
No, I tell you, but rather division. 
From now on a household of five will be divided,
three against two and two against three;
a father will be divided against his son
and a son against his father,
a mother against her daughter
and a daughter against her mother,
a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law."


Jesus is often saying disconcerting things. Luke’s gospel in particular, from which this week’s reading is taken, reports many of his most unsettling sayings. “I have come to set the earth on fire…. Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. A household will be divided; a father will be divided against his son; a mother against her daughter.” In light of everything else Christianity has to say about the goodness of peace and the family, it’s normal for Christians to be a little unnerved by this. So what is Jesus doing here? 

It helps to know that, in this scene, Jesus was actually alluding to a set of famous Jewish poems from the Old Testament. Those listening to Jesus would have recognized in his words the similarity to what they’d heard recited in their synagogues. One poem, from the Book of Micah, was meant to depict how broken a generation can become: “the son treats the father with contempt / the daughter rises up against her mother / the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Mc 7:6). By alluding to this passage, Jesus indicates that these days Micah had predicted are happening right now, and have come to pass on account of Jesus’s own life and message. But how does that make sense? Isn’t Jesus the “prince of peace,” the one who said “blessed are the peacemakers”? Certainly Jesus brings peace, but not every kind of peace. There is an indifferent or complacent kind of peace - a way of “making peace with the way things are” - that Jesus has not come to establish. Consider this: the world is filled with evils - Jesus spent considerable time identifying and cautioning us against them. It is not enough to stand peacefully by, say nothing, and ascribe our silence to a peaceable Christian nature. In fact, in these circumstances, Jesus invites us to incite division, even if that unsettles the peace of our households. 

Certainly it is painful - as many can attest - when the tranquility of our families is sacrificed in preference for the Gospel. But the Jews listening to Jesus would also have recalled a second poem from his words, one that introduces a note of hope into the family unrest he’s describing. The poem from the Book of Malachi describes a giant fire that will someday initiate “the great day of the Lord.” Here’s the interesting part: on account of that fire, it was said that God would turn “the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Ml 4:6). It is a fire that heals the division within families. With all this in mind, look again at Jesus’s first words: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” The Jews standing by would have understood the allusion. Jesus is saying that the “great day of the Lord” is here, and it’s here in his very person! Jesus brings a fire that both divides and heals. Yes, his words are meant to stir people into action and out of their sleepy and indifferent forms of peace. Yes, sometimes this will disrupt the tranquility of families. But he unsettles the heart so that it may come to rest on something more worthy. And even if families are sometimes stirred against each other, it is only so that their hearts can be drawn toward each other again in a more perfect peace. 

Click here to subscribe to these reflections by email