I would guess that today’s Gospel reading is not most people’s favorite. It seems a little gloomy with Jesus talking about bringing division. And it seems a little contradictory to other parts of Scripture which talk about the Lord bringing peace, swords being beat into plowshares, and so on. And then there’s the repetitiveness of different family members pitted against each other: son against father, mother against daughter, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law, and so on. It doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of Jesus’ message. And doesn’t the word “Gospel” mean “good news”? This doesn’t exactly sound like good news. But like all of Scripture, it needs to be heard and understood in context with the rest of Scripture. The family divisions that Jesus talks about recall the prophecies of the prophet Micah: “For the son belittles his father, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and your enemies are members of your household.” (Mic. 7:6) But this is not where his prophecies end: Micah then goes on to describe the reunification and restoration of the tribes of Israel.
The divisions described in our Gospel reading are not caused by God but rather by the sin which has entered into the world. And since God gave us free will, we are of course free to accept as well as reject Him. So when Jesus talks about bringing division, he is referring to the division that occurs when people freely choose to reject Him, when they freely choose to reject Truth. When people reject the Truth, the One who has given them life, division is a natural and inevitable consequence.
And we see division all the time: it’s of course all over the news; that’s what most of the news is about. Nations rise up against nations; and divisions emerge within nations: liberal vs. conservative, Democrat vs. Republican, the haves vs. the have-nots, the elite vs. everyone else, men vs. women, not to mention racial and ethnic divisions. There are divisions in our workplaces, our parishes, and especially our families. Jesus Christ did not come to create these divisions, but he acknowledges that He can be the reason for them.
And I think that many people are familiar with family divisions which are at least somewhat related to matters of religion. Let’s say a person who comes from a non-religious or even nominally religious family has a profound conversion experience and decides to follow the Lord whole-heartedly and changes his way of life. He leaves behind his bad habits; maybe he severs ties with friends who are sources of temptation for him. It’s not uncommon that he encounters indifference or even opposition from family members, who have not experienced this kind of profound conversion, and who refuse to see him as anything but the person he always used to be. “Who does he think he is? He thinks he’s better than us, etc.” And, often the most difficult people to share our faith with is our own family.
Our first reading from Jeremiah has a similar theme to our Gospel: various princes denounce the prophet Jeremiah to the king, because as they say, he is “demoralizing the people”. Jeremiah is known for always prophesying doom and gloom, and for that he was very unpopular with the people, especially the people in power. Never mind that what he was speaking was the truth and was ultimately for the good of the people; he wasn’t telling them what they wanted to hear. And who likes to hear bad news? But prophets and preachers and teachers are not called to be popular but truthful.
The princes were able to influence the king and got Jeremiah cast into a cistern where he would have starved to death, but fortunately one of the court officials advocated for him and rescued him. Jesus, of course, knew that he was not going to be rescued. He knew that there was “a baptism with which he must be baptized” – He knew in other words that he was on his way to the cross where he was going to suffer and die. He, who is the Truth itself, knew that he was going to be rejected by his own people. And He knew that he was going to be rejected by people throughout history, down to the present time and even to the end of the world. But the Crucifixion was not the end, and likewise the sin and division in the world do not have the final say. Just as Jesus triumphed over death in his resurrection, so too will he triumph over the sin and division in the world when He comes again.
And the fire with which Jesus wanted to set the world ablaze is a part of the cleansing of the divisions in the world. The fire that Jesus refers to start is the Holy Spirit, whom He would send upon his disciples at Pentecost. And this same Spirit continues to set people’s hearts ablaze with the fire of God’s love. This fire is both destructive and purifying: destructive in that it destroys the evil that has taken root in our hearts, and purifying in that removes all our imperfections.
Sin and division, as prevalent as they may be in our world today, will not triumph in the end. The Holy Spirit is even now at work in the world, and let us pray that it is at work in our hearts. In the end, Jesus will truly triumph, and all divisions will cease.
We have a role to play in all this; we are called to work to heal division. We don’t do this by pretending there are no differences, by reducing everything to the least common denominator, by trying to be as politically correct as possible in the hopes that no one anywhere will ever feel offended by anything, by trying to make everything as beige as possible. These things don’t work. They don’t really heal any divisions. To tackle division in the world around us, we first have to tackle the division caused by the sin in our own hearts. If you want peace in your home, your family, your workplace, your nation, your world, seek to be as Christlike as possible. Seek to give others the benefit of the doubt as much as possible; don’t immediately assume the worst intentions of others; and show love to everyone, even if you don’t necessarily like everyone. Also know that sin and division will be an unfortunate part of this life, until Christ comes again. But always live in the hope that in the end, Jesus Christ will triumph.