New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Jesus the Cause of Division
49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
Interpreting the Time
54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
Every time our high school daughter leaves our house to go to a new setting, I try to remind her that she represents our family out in the world. If she meets someone, they learn about our family and the things we value through her words and actions. As a teenager, I can assure you she has an eyeroll and a sigh for every time she has heard that speech, but hopefully she has learned that she teaches others about our family with her every interaction.
I think all of us parents want our children to represent our beliefs and make us proud as they make their way in the world. I can only imagine how God must feel about how we represent our faith in the world as well. Today’s Gospel reading is a tough one and seems to contradict the Jesus who we all look to as a model of unconditional love. What do you mean, “No peace on earth?” Jesus as a uniter, not a divider – that is our usual thinking about Christianity and loving our neighbors as ourselves, right?
Although this passage throws a ringer in the non-messy version of Christianity that we like to believe is the outcome of our love for God, if we really are reflective, we have all experienced exactly what Jesus may mean about division. I have a very distinct memory from high school that stands out. Three of us – my two best buds and me – were like a joke that starts with “three girls walk into a bar; a Baptist, a Catholic and an Episcopalian.” We didn’t yet go to bars, but we did have many deep debates about our Christian beliefs through the lens of our family traditions of worship and teaching. We didn’t agree on many things, and even faced a hard conversation about the fact that our Baptist friend believed our Catholic friend wouldn’t make it to heaven because of her faith (awkward!!!). We were inseparable – but divided on many fundamental issues.
As an adult, especially as a school leader, I spend a lot of time talking to our staff about building strong relationships with our students. Every relationship starts with love, but sometimes there are students who sure make it hard to love them. And they need it more than anyone – but it’s hard for teachers to not take their gruff exterior and problem behaviors personally. We all fail to truly love others at times and this passage shines a light on our failings. We judge others – not our job to do. We ignore injustices, neglect our faith, covet our friends’ possessions and give permission for others to speak gossip and untruths by standing by and doing nothing; or worse still – joining in. We just try to get along in the world without being the ‘squeaky wheel.’ Jesus knows this about is and calls us out in this inflammatory passage. As I read it through several times, I realized that my response to the words was one of guilt. I think I know everything and am busy trying to live the life I think I should be living, while Jesus himself points out the stress he was under to get the words of faith spread throughout the land in the limited time he had here on earth. I’m pretty self-righteous when it gets right down to it – I think I have things figured out while I drive right past a homeless family on the road without much of a thought at all.
But it’s so hard to be that person God wants us to be, and I can think of many examples in our church and within my family and friends where we allow wrongs to stay wrongs because it just easier. I believe Jesus is saying that it is okay if it’s hard – in fact, that is the very divisiveness that he EXPECTS to have happen when we wrestle with the truth. Polite conversation is what we are all taught to have, but what if Jesus really wants us to be assertive about his will for the world? What if the bad things that happen all around us were confronted by us and the world was a changed place? I think we might make some enemies in the process, and it sounds to me if God is okay with that.
I’ve learned something about myself as an adult – that change only happens when I am uncomfortable enough to start adjusting my behaviors. This passage makes me uncomfortable on so many levels – hopefully enough to challenge the status quo.
God of love, help me to reflect on my place in your world and your will for me to be the change you desire. Give me courage and strength to stand for the right things and confront the wrongs I see. With your love and never ending grace, I know that I can spread your word in all I say and do. Thank you for your many gifts, even the ones that make me uncomfortable. AMEN.