Some of you may remember a Sunday morning when we considered the subject of hard-to understand things that Jesus sometimes said. The setting then was this: Jesus had just said to a crowd: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” The disciples, in a masterful piece of understatement, responded, “this teaching . . . is difficult.” But they also went on to say, as Jesus asked if it was so difficult that it would make them turn away, “But where else would we go? YOU are the Holy One of God.” The disciples, we went on to see, had a choice between staying with Jesus and trying to understand the teachings which seemed so difficult, or giving up on Jesus, preferring simplicity, someone else’s easy answers, to the Messiah. They had to decide which they were most dedicated to: simplicity, or Jesus Christ. And they chose Christ; they voted to stay and wrestle with the difficult teachings rather than insist that everything be easy. After all, no one ever promised, to them or us, that all the teachings of the Bible were going to be easy to understand. Sometimes we have to struggle a bit.
Now Jesus is at it again: “Do you think . . . that I have come to bring peace to the earth? NO. I tell you, but rather division. From now on five in one household will be 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 mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
This does not sound, does it, like the Jesus we usually hear about? What happened to the promise of Luke 2, at Jesus’ birth? “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace.” Or the Palm Sunday cry of the crowds as Jesus entered Jerusalem: “Blessed is the king who come in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven.” What happened to Isaiah’s description of the Messiah as the Prince of Peace? “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? NO, I tell you.” Is Jesus, after all is said and done, anti-peace?
Second difficulty: Just as political debates, especially in election years, sometimes bring up the subject of “family values,” so has the church often been the setting of talk about “family values.” The church, it has been said, should have as one of its priorities the nurture and strengthening of the family, should safeguard and protect . . . the traditional nuclear family. Yet here is Jesus saying his coming will produce divisions within the family, not strengthening. Father against son, mother against daughter, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law. Is Jesus anti-family?
Have we been mistaken about Jesus’ intentions all along? Does he want to impede the cause of peace rather than usher it in? Is the family unit not something which the church should be protecting, if it wishes to follow Jesus’ teachings? Have we misunderstood Jesus’ mission? A difficult teaching, indeed.
It is a teaching, I think, that we should not be too quick to draw conclusions about. This one involves a little investigation, a little wrestling, to discern Jesus’ intent. And I don’t think we should decide too quickly, from these phrases, that Jesus was necessarily anti-peace and anti-family.
To begin with, there’s the whole question of intentionality. Do Jesus’ words mean that he intended to bring division instead of peace, and to divide households? Was that his goal? His mission? The reason for his coming? Is that what he wanted to do?
Bible commentaries say, and I tend to agree with them, that this is not the case; that Jesus was describing what would happen as a result of his coming, as a result of his mission, but not necessarily what he wanted to happen or intended to happen.
There is a difference between a consequence, a side-effect of what we do, and a goal or a plan. And the consensus here seems to be that Jesus was warning his disciples about what one of the side-effects of his coming would be. One way to think of it would be in these terms: My coming will end up bringing about division, including divisions within families. That is one thing which, unfortunately, will end up happening.
When Moses went from the burning bush to Egypt to work for the liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery, his goal was to get them freed. It was not to get Pharaoh angry at him. I’m sure he would have been quite happy not to have Pharaoh angry at him. But it was an unavoidable side-effect of his mission to free the Hebrew people. One other thing that happened along the way was that Pharaoh got mad at him.
When Mary first brought the baby Jesus to the Temple, a holy man named Simeon blessed them and spoke of Jesus’ identity and destiny. “My eyes have seen your salvation, O God, a light of revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Then he said to Mary: “and a sword will pierce your own soul, too,” referring to her pain at Jesus’ death. And we know, as Simeon did, that Jesus did not come in order to cause Mary pain – that was not his goal, his intent – but it was an unavoidable side-effect given how the world would react to him. Unfortunately, Mary would have to be hurt.
As with Pharaoh’s anger and Mary’s pain, there will be side-effects to Jesus’ coming. He came in order to save us – to reveal who God really is to us, to teach us, to heal us, to make possible our eternal relationship with God. But along the way, some people won’t see that, and they’ll disagree with those who do, and there will be division and discord, anger and pain, even within families – an unfortunate unavoidable side-effect. Perhaps you have seen this in your own family, or can think of a family for whom it is true. Do you think that my coming will bring peace to the earth? NO, I tell you, but rather division.
Ultimately, Jesus is the Prince of Peace. The book of Ephesians contains what may be the best statement of his intent: “He is our peace; in his flesh he has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” – reconciling us to God, making peace there where there was once division due to our sin; and reconciling us to one another, making peace there where there was once hostility between Jew and Gentile. Ultimately, Jesus brings peace.
But before the day of peace comes, there will be arguments, for some will accept him and some will not. And even those who do accept him will quarrel amongst themselves, over the implications of discipleship, what they should be doing as followers of Jesus – Reformations, schisms, dysfunctional congregations. That is the division which unfortunately is unavoidable first.
For notice that Jesus, as Prince of Peace, does not understand peace as brushing every important but potentially divisive issue under the rug so we can continue to be polite with each other. There are times when questions arise that are more important than making nice-nice with each other. The cleansing of the Temple; the conflicts with scribes and Pharisees. In our time, confronting racism, or sexism, or injustice. And some of those questions involve whether and how we will follow Jesus. Some issues must be addressed, even if they do have the potential to start an argument.
The comments on family also have a context we need to consider. The section on father against son, mother against daughter, and so on is a quotation by Jesus: he is quoting the Old Testament, as he so often did – this time the prophet Micah. Micah wrote of a time to come which would be an awful time, when friends couldn’t trust friends, and people couldn’t have confidence even in their own family members, when son would turn against father, and daughter against mother, and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.
Many of Jesus’ listeners would know that quote, and know that by referring to it, Jesus was saying that that time was still coming, and that his coming would be part of ushering it in – the awful time, the time of distrust, the time of discord. His reference to specific family members isn’t so much a disregard for the family as it is a way of saying, in terms familiar to his audience: that promised awful time you’ve heard about is still coming. It was, in effect, a figure of speech, as when we refer to a situation as “another Vietnam” or describe a set of attitudes by saying “the sixties” or “the Depression.” Jesus was not advocating arguments between family members, but telling his listeners that his coming was part of God’s already-established plan, a plan moving toward a time of trial.
Having said that Jesus was not necessarily anti-family, however, I do need to mention one other thing: Jesus, in his ministry, seems to have been more concerned about the family of God, the family of all believers, than our notion of the traditional nuclear family, mom, pop, and kids. When he was told one time, as he taught inside a house, “your mother and brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you,” his reply was “who are my mother and brothers? Here are my mother and my brothers, and sisters. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus was not a big defender of the biological family as much as he was the family of God, all God’s children, whatever their family of origin or nationality or church.
So today’s difficult teaching, I believe, is not an anti-peace statement, or anti-family, or quite as troubling as it first appears. Jesus ultimately will bring peace – peace between us and God and peace between people – but only after a time when there are quarrels between those who believe in him and those who don’t. The choice he forces will inevitably produce some conflict.
And Jesus does believe in family, the family of God, but the commitment he calls for can, unfortunately, force even family members to take sides one against the other. Jesus did not want division, but he knows that it will happen, an unfortunate unavoidable side-effect of his revealing to us who God is and what God wants, and our reluctance to accept it.
Jeremiah knew this. The prophet Jeremiah, who is featured in our Old Testament Lectionary readings from August to October this year, experienced the unfortunate unavoidable side-effects of being a prophet of God. He did not want to be mocked and hated and punished; that was not his intention or goal. But he had to speak what God had spoken to him: “Within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones. I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” So Jeremiah continued to speak: Thus saith the Lord. And Jeremiah was denounced and imprisoned and hated and at least once left to die. For him there was no peace.
But look at how Jeremiah’s passage ends today! Once again it is the Old Testament which speaks the message of hope and promise, where our gospel lesson ended in discouragement: “O Lord of hosts, you test the righteous; you see the heart and the mind . . . to you I have committed my cause.” Then a pause, then: “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For God has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.”
The time of persecution, the time of discord, the time of division, Jeremiah learned, ultimately gives way to God’s victory, to vindication, and to peace. Jeremiah spoke of it; Jesus lived it, in the resurrection. There will be a period of division, of no peace, even within families, as people decide how to respond to Jesus Christ. But it will give way to the ultimate reconciliation of God with humanity, and all members of the family of God with one another. The end of the story is in God’s hands, and is about peace, shalom – health, wholeness, harmony.
Let’s pray: God, we have confidence in your ways, and the future you have planned. In the meantime, we pray for those whose commitment to you results, for now, in persecution, or family quarrels. Be with them and give them hope, that they may sing with Jeremiah, “Praise the Lord, who bring deliverance.” Amen.