(Artwork: “The Word Brings Division” by Ian M. Welch)
I invite you to travel with me into a prayerful and contemplative struggle.
“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.” (Luke 12:51-53)
From today’s Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary (Sunday, August 18, 2019), these are words of Jesus that many teachers and preachers of Scripture would prefer to ignore. It is far easer to focus on the Jesus who speaks of loving our neighbors and enemies, welcoming the children, embracing the “least of these,” and turning the other cheek. What do we do with a Jesus who says that his presence brings division and family fracture, especially in a world where families, friends, and churches are already bitterly divided over politics, decisions about human sexuality and race, and a variety of important social issues that have become polarizing?
Is Jesus suggesting that such division is what he desires?
I believe that coming to this conclusion would be a dangerous misreading of the Scripture. Jesus is not promoting broken relationships when he tells us that his presence brings division, nor is he communicating a desire for fractured families. Rather, he is illuminating what we have already come to understand from experience—that advocating for the priorities that Jesus champions and walking in the Way that he incarnated will often inspire even our friends and family members to stand against us. Jesus is neither celebrating this reality nor glorifying it. He is simply warning us that aligning ourselves with him and with his worldview might inspire opposition and even rejection from those for whom such an alignment represents foolishness or betrayal, or both.
But here is where things become really tricky. Do people oppose us for the right reasons as Christ-followers these days? Are we opposed for standing against hypocrisy (Luke 12:1) and resisting the manipulations of religious and political leaders (Luke 12:2-3)? Are we stood against because of our steadfast devotion to Jesus and his commitment to valuing the marginalized and the lost (Luke 12:8-12)? Are we noticed and questioned for refusing to hoard our riches and possessions (Luke 12:13-21), for laying aside a spirit of crippling fear (or fear mongering) and worry (Luke 12:22-31), and for daring to live with a relentless spiritual attentiveness and moral watchfulness (Luke 12:35-40)? Are we criticized because of our passion for cultivating a God-honoring stewardship over the matters that have been entrusted to our care (Luke 12:41-48)?
These are the issues that occupy Jesus’ mind in the verses leading up to his teaching about his presence in the world causing division, which leads me to back to this question: Are Christ-followers in 2019 being opposed for the right reasons? Are we being opposed because of our refusal to align ourselves with the hypocrisy, the manipulation, the greed, the fear, and the spiritual and moral inattentiveness against which Jesus himself speaks out?
Or, do we too often participate in (and thereby perpetuate) less consequential divisions and fractures that consume our best energies, diminish our deeper unity, and compromise our shared witness concerning the things that matter most?
If I am making that sound like a rhetorical question, please forgive me. I do not mean it to be rhetorical. I am voicing an authentic struggle that emerges from a heart that desperately wants to get it right. If Jesus’ coming brings division, then I long for the division to be over the right things and not over the misplaced and overemphasized battle lines crafted by an alternative narrative that is sometimes confused with the Way of Jesus.