Fire and Division

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"Do you think I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division." (Luke 12:51)

This quotation from Luke 12:51 (and the parallel passages in other Gospels) are more than puzzling. They are upsetting and worrying. We think of Jesus as a man of peace, a man who did nothing violent to save his own life, who in fact reproved the disciple for the violence he used against those who came to arrest Jesus (Lk 23:49-51). At Mass the priest in the name of Christ greets us with "The peace of the Lord be with you"; in supplication we pray to Christ, "Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us peace"; and we greet each other with a sign of Christ's peace.

So what are we doing, when we pray like this and when Christ himself says, Do you think I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division; for henceforth in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. Has Christianity got terribly confused, not knowing which should prevail, the image of the Lamb of God or the diabolical image of the roaring lion, going about seeking whom he might devour?

Once again we face the same old story of not taking verses on their own, but seeing them in their context. That is, of trying to understand why the Gospel writer has placed them in this particular spot in his Gospel. He must have had a reason.

Chapter 12 of Luke's Gospel is concerned with opposition. This happened at two times: it happened to Jesus when he was opposed by the Pharisees; and it was experienced later by the disciples at the time Luke was writing. In the Church of Luke's day there was also internal opposition to the message of Jesus from selfish Church officials (Luke 12:35-48). Luke uses words from Jesus to explain this opposition experienced by Jesus and his disciples.

The culmination of Jesus' mission is in his return at the time of judgment. He is already engaged in the task of lighting a fire on the earth. What is important in this chapter is that judgment is taking place as people decided for or against him. He speaks of fire, but remember that fire is also a symbol for the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:3-4). The fire of the Holy Spirit will be cast on the earth when everything "is finished", which is the reason for his journey to Jerusalem. Jesus talks about his "baptism", which is the plunge into this saving mission, a prospect that produces mixed emotions because of the suffering involved in it (Mark 10:38-39).

Jesus' message was to purify and to cause people to distinguish dross from the genuine product. Some of his teaching on forgiveness and peace may have given the impression that he was preaching a "soft" Gospel: perhaps John the Baptist was worried about that (Luke 7:18-23). Jesus assures his hearers that Christian discipleship is very costly, even causing division in the family, and seems to quote Micah 7:6. When Jesus spoke of this conflict within a family, he probably spoke from personal experience. We can see in the Gospel story that some members of his own family had no sympathy with his ministry (Mk 3:21; Jn 7:5).

When we read these verses in Luke 12, however, we should remember that when Jesus said that he had come to bring "not peace, but a sword", he meant that this would be the effect of his coming, not his purpose. His words came true in his own life, and in the life of the early Church. We should also remember Luke 2:34-35. Peace will not be obtained at any cost, certainly not at the cost of compromising the word of God. Yet even in the non-peaceful situations the Jesus of Luke's Gospel calls for forgiveness and reconciliation (Luke 9:51-56) and love of enemies (Luke 6:27-36).

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