Summary: A look at Jesus’ statements about coming to bring not peace, but division.
With this speech, Jesus certainly grabs our attention. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.”
It’s not exactly what most of us come to church on Sunday morning hoping to hear.
To a large extent our families are what make us who we are, where we learn the difference between right and wrong, where we develop the basic framework of the outlook on life that we will carry with us always. For many of us, our families are where we first learned about Christ and his church. Good, bad, or indifferent, family ties are some of the most significant relationships in our lives. We read about family conflict in the newspaper, watch it on TV, and struggle with it in our own homes. The Bible too? Since when is Jesus a proponent of family discord?
Jesus is the Prince of Peace, the Bread of Life, the Living Water.
In this passage, shouldn’t Jesus be saying, “Do you think I have come to bring peace on earth? Yes! I have come to comfort families. I have come to bridge the chasms of silence that separate fathers and sons. I have come to heal the wounds of regret that drive apart mothers and daughters.”
It would make sense for the passage to say this. Luke’s Gospel has all sorts of miracle stories about Jesus healing individuals and restoring family relationships.
Perhaps that’s what the passage should say. Perhaps that’s what many of us would like the passage to say. But it doesn’t. Like it or not, this passage talks about division, not reconciliation.
In this passage, Jesus is not talking about the small and large rifts in the fabric of the family that happen as a result of the natural wear and tear or the unexpected trauma and tragedy of life—situations where his reconciling love and grace and forgiveness have been known to work miracles.
No, in this passage, Jesus is talking specifically about the division that happens as a direct result of a decision to follow him.
It’s still a hard word to hear. It sure doesn’t sound like good news. Especially since Jesus doesn’t simply imply that division can occur as a result of him, but he emphatically states that division will occur because of him.
With this speech, Jesus certainly grabs our attention. But is it a new word? Has Jesus suddenly turned up the intensity of the message?
If Jesus’ mother were in the crowd that day, I don’t think she would have been surprised by his words. She knew from the beginning that he would be controversial. Before Jesus was even born, Mary knew that he was the key to God’s plan to bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly, to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty. (Luke 2:52-53)
And there was that day in the temple, when Jesus was just a little baby. Old man Simeon had held the infant Messiah in his arms, relishing the moment that he had waited for so long. Then he had looked Mary in the eye and said, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35)
And Mary had heard all about his first sermon, confirming her fear—her expectation—that her son would have a turbulent ministry. Luke’s account of Jesus’ ministry begins in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah that day, and the congregation was so comforted by his peaceful words that they drove him out of town and tried to throw him over a cliff. (Luke 4:16-30) The preaching and teaching of Jesus, Prince of Peace, routinely brought about division.
No, Mary would not have been surprised at Jesus’ dramatic words or his apparent lack of regard for family loyalties. He had already denied her, his own mother, in public on at least one occasion. You remember the time Mary and Jesus’ brothers came to see him. The press of the crowds around him prevented them from reaching him. When he was told that they were waiting to see him, he responded, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the God’s and put it into practice.” (Luke 8:19-21) Already Jesus was redefining family. Already Jesus was demonstrating, in his own life, the primacy of the call to discipleship over any other relationships—even family relationships.
Jesus came to bring fire to the earth! To make all things new! Friction is inevitable when the New Creation encounters and confronts the same old world.
Dallas Willard writes that the world “thinks of justice, peace, and prosperity in negative terms. Justice means that no one’s rights are infringed. Peace means no war or turmoil. Prosperity means no one is in material need.” (Willard, Dallas, The Spirit of the Disciplines, Harper Collins, 1988.)