When I read this gospel text as a young man I did not understand it, and I did not like it. It seemed completely out of character for Jesus. The Jesus I thought I was getting to know came to bring peace, right? Isn’t that what the angels sang about at his birth? “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth.” Didn’t Jesus himself say “blessed are the peace-makers”? So what was all this about bringing not peace but division?
Furthermore, I used to think, who needs this message? We don’t want our households divided, we long for peace in our families. We don’t need to have help getting people upset with each other – we manage that fine on our own. How does this help us?
Well things have changed. I believe I do understand the text now, and now I see how it fit perfectly well with Jesus’ message. And I believe this text has an important message for us today – in fact a crucial one which we need to hear and respond to. Let us look at it together.
The Journey to the Conflict
As you know, we have been with Jesus on a journey from Galilee in the north down to Jerusalem. On the way he meets different groups of people and he responds as they need: to his opponents, he offers parable of rejection. To the crowds he calls for repentance and to his disciples he teaches.
What is going to happen? Shortly after Jesus gets to Jerusalem he is going to be arrested, tried, sentenced to death and crucified. A short number of years later a Jewish revolt will be ignited, and quickly suppressed by the Roman army. They will march into Jerusalem, desecrate the temple, then burn it to the ground. One generation later another revolt will start, ending in the complete destruction of the whole Jewish state, sending the survivors into exile around the known world.
Jesus and everyone else knows that violent revolution is in the air. It’s a part of whispered conversations. It is the subject of secret meetings. Some have already started collecting weapons and organizing. Violence, like assassinations of collaborators has already begun.
Why Risk it?
Why in the world would Jesus leave the relatively peaceful and quiet region of Galilee and head right into the lion’s den of Jerusalem where it is most dangerous – especially if you are drawing crowds. In fact his disciples asked him this very question.
Here is why. Jesus, and everyone else who read scripture, knew that God had a purpose and plan. The world that God made good and blessed had been corrupted by evil. God’s response was to choose one family, Abraham’s, and to bless them as his chosen people so that they would become a light for all the nations and peoples of the world.
Abraham’s family became the nation of Israel. They did not do so well at fulfilling their vocation as the vehicles for God’s blessing of the whole world, and ended up in exile, without temple, land or king. Now they were in an exile of a different sort – in their land but under foreign domination – and they were on the verge of revolution to try to put matters right.
But Jesus, and everyone who read scripture, knew that God had promised, through the prophets, that one day in the future he would return to Jerusalem, to Mount Zion as they call it, to bring his Kingdom, the Kingdom of God. God would return with his Messiah leading the way; there would be judgment of the forces of evil, and then the dawning of the new age of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus understood that he was the one anointed by God, in other words God’s messiah. He fully understood that conflict was coming. In fact, he knew that this would lead to his own suffering and death, just as some of those ancient prophets had described.
But he also expected God to vindicate him by raising him to life again after three days. Jesus was willing to walk into the firestorm of Jerusalem even though it meant conflict and suffering was coming, because he understood that this was the inauguration of the Kingdom of God.
In anticipation of that coming conflict, Jesus said,
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!
It must have been horrible suspense all the way to Jerusalem; he wished it was over before it started.
Now we come to the part that is most difficult and yet the most needed by us today. Jesus said that his mission was going to have consequences for people, even down to the level of splitting families:
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.”
Division comes when some people side with one strategy and others with another. There would be people who would cast their lots in with the revolution and those who refused; it would split families. But you had to decide one way or the other – you either joined the Zealots and took up arms or you didn’t.
Jesus had been warning people that the revolt was not good, not God’s way, and would end in disaster. Some believed him and followed him; others did not.
This is why we need this text. From the start, Jesus has been serious about his mission and ministry, and demands to be taken seriously. The Kingdom of God that Jesus came to inaugurate is in diametric opposition to evil in all its destructive and dehumanizing forms; it is a deadly battle.
Somehow, during the 2,000 years since Jesus, he has been domesticated beyond recognition. He looks like he has hands that never saw a callous and hair that never felt the wind. He has a matching soft agenda – as mushy as mashed potatoes and just as interesting. It’s about being nice and polite, doing the occasional good deed, and going to heaven when you die.
That hideous distortion bears no resemblance to the Jesus that was willing to walk into a Roman death sentence without flinching. Neither does it bear any resemblance to his mission and teaching which were dead set in opposition to evil.
We need this text for two reasons: first, to understand what is at stake in taking Jesus seriously, and the second is to see what is happening around us in our day.
Taking Jesus Seriously
First, the seriousness issue. There are plenty of people who consider Jesus just anoptional religious object. We are not those people. We are people who understand that the Kingdom of God that Jesus inaugurated is here, now!
We are here to engage the battle against evil in all of its destructive and dehumanizing forms. We are here to be the vanguard of the Kingdom of God fighting back against structures of evil and oppression, habits of exclusion and discrimination, and the evil self-indulgent apathy that is so used to the evil in the status quo that it no longer even notices or cares.
If being the engaged people of the Kingdom of God makes other people uncomfortable with us, so be it; division on that basis may be unavoidable. Just like during the civil rights movement, we will do right and work against evil even if it scandalizes others. If there are those who are offended by the use of the word justice, so be it. We take Jesus seriously as he demands to be taken.
The second reason we need this text is its insistence that we read the times and act appropriately. Jesus actually requires us to track the coming storms:
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?
Change is Here
What is happening today and how are we to respond? The first most obvious fact, the elephant in every room is rapid, massive change. It is not at all a question of liking or not liking change; change is upon us, not asking for our permission. The world our children and grandchildren are growing up in is not the world we knew. Most jobs that our grandkids will be doing do not even exist today. We could list all the evidence of change but it would be boring – let’s cut to the chase.
What happens in periods of change? Reaction, of course. Fundamentalism, as we are witness to both in Christianity and in Islam are reactions to the uncertainties of change. People need security and so they desperately cling to past certainties. They describe the world in black and white, us and them terms, circle the wagons, and shut out the bad guys. It never works – the change happens anyway.
The Language we Speak
This is where we come in. We are the people of God, the church. We do not want to be the last generation of the church. If the church is going to live in the coming generation, we must communicate in the language that is being spoken, not the language that used to be spoken.
In the past, the church spoke the language of official pronouncements. That language is not spoken or understood outside our walls anymore. The only language understood now is the language of authenticity.
People out there are saying, “Don’t tell me you believe God loves the world, show me your authenticity: show me what you are doing about poverty and the Third World debt crisis. Show me what you are doing about domestic poverty, about the huge and widening gap between rich and poor here in America. You say Jesus loves the little children? Show me what you are doing about the kids in your own neighborhood who are falling behind in school and desperate for a decent tutoring program.” The only language being heard is the language of authenticity.
This is a huge subject that we can only begin to engage, but let it begin here: the coming storms of change require us to be people who take Jesus seriously – to the point of division. Taking Jesus seriously means being the people of the Kingdom of God in a world of evils that destroy and dehumanize the lives of people made in the image of God. Being people of the Kingdom means that we will speak with the language that people understand: the language of actively engaged authenticity.
The storms of change are upon us, like it or not: but we are the people of God, citizens of the Kingdom of God. We know our purpose: we are here to Love God, to Grow in Faith, and to Share Christ’s Love authentically. Let’s get on with it.