“Do you think I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division…” After this particular e gospel reading, are you sort of wishing you had stayed home and watched the Olympics with the rest of the world? I mean who wants to hear that Jesus brings division – especially to families. They are divided enough aren’t they? Most of us have known the bewildering struggle of mothers against daughters, sons against fathers, siblings disagreeing with one another, and bad mother-in-law jokes.
Middle- Eastern culture in which Jesus’ was raised stressed that family loyalty was of utmost importance. It was an `honour and shame’ system where everything you did reflected back on your family – if you did well in school or business, you honoured your family. If you made poor choices, especially poor moral choices, you brought shame to your family. You couldn’t sing out with Frank Sinatra ‘I did it my way.’ There was very little room for individualism.
So for Jesus, steeped in the Jewish tradition of the Torah, founded on the 10 commandments, – remember the one that says `honour your father and mother’ – for Jesus to say that he came to bring division and turmoil rather than peace to the world, and to families in particular, would be well… as awful as it sounds.
So, I hope you’re curious about what’s going on! A little biblical commentary is helpful here. It’s important to remind ourselves that the gospels were written down long after Jesus earthly ministry. The gospel of Luke was compiled about 50 years after Jesus’ death. By then there have been some big changes in his society. The most disruptive would have been the Roman invasion of Jerusalem in the year 70, including a massive massacre of its citizens. By then the early Christian community has been growing, but not without conflict of its own. There are Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, and there are disagreements in the congregations – we wouldn’t have most of the books in the New Testament if there hadn’t been. And there are faithful Jews whose city and religion and very lives are under threat.
So, if we only see Jesus’ words in the context of the culture of the day, the honour /shame system, then choosing to follow Jesus over loyalty to your own family, would feel very confrontational.
Reading Jesus’ words as the early church, already experiencing division because of their loyalty to Jesus, would make these disturbing words a little more comforting, sort of like, “See, he tried to warn us this would happen.”
According to the commentary on Luke, the first few verses, 49 to 53, are spoken to the disciples, not the crowds in general. They are spoken by the one who has set his face to Jerusalem aware of what his words will cost him. Remember also that John the Baptist said, I baptize you with water, but the one to come baptizes with fire and Spirit and that Holy Spirit will judge, cleanse & inspire.
If we look further back in Luke, we’ll realize we’ve been given some warning that Jesus is not all about sweetness and light, but demands courage and compassion for the kingdom of God. Way back at the beginning of the story when the infant Jesus was being brought to the temple to be dedicated to God, old Simeon prophesied, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel.”(Luke 2:34)
The Jesus’ bandwagon is not for the faint of heart, and back in chapter 9, Jesus speaks bluntly about the cost of discipleship. The decision to follow Jesus can disrupt even family obligations… (Luke 9:57-62) these are some of the responses he gives to `would be’ disciples…
I have nowhere to lay my head… Let the dead bury the dead,…if you look back you are not fit for the kingdom. With these dissuading words it’s a wonder any of us are here trying to be Jesus’s disciples today.
As well as the shame/honour system of the Middle- east which Jesus grew up in, he was also planted in the middle of the world power that was the Roman Empire. The official slogan of the Roman Empire was `Peace through Victory.’ In other words, `Do what we say or we will kill you. If Jesus had a slogan it would be `peace through justice.’
And that, my friends, is where the rub is. We will soon be singing the hauntingly beautiful hymn by Sylvia Dunstan called Christus Paradox, or, You Lord are both Lamb and shepherd and the first verse lays it out for us:
“You Lord are both Lamb and shepherd,
you Lord are both prince and slave,
You peace-maker and sword-bringer, of the way you took and gave.
You, the everlasting instant; you, whom we both scorn and crave.”
We want Jesus to be the peacemaker – we attribute to him the title `Prince of Peace.’ But it’s not peace through victory or by putting his head in the sand. It’s peace through justice and that means it has a cost to it – it always involves giving up some privilege or sense of entitlement, for the sake of making the world fairer for the most vulnerable, for those who have not been the `winners’ in history. And none of us like to give up privilege or entitlement.
David Lose, President of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia writes, “Those invested in the present order; those lured by the temptations of wealth, status, and power; and those who rule now will resist this coming kingdom for it spells an end to what they know and love (or at least have grown accustomed to). Hence Jesus — though coming to establish a rule of peace — brings division, even to the most intimate and honored of relationships, that among family.”
We might not think of ourselves as `those invested in the present order’ though most of us have done pretty well living in this part of the world – and really, where else would you rather live? But still we have to make choices everyday about what kind of kingdom we serve.
I chose the bulletin cover today, (the separation wall in Bethlehem) because of the ache it causes in my heart. We read from Isaiah words that condemn the mistreatment of those who are powerless, and I found out this week that the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, passed a law recently giving itself the power to impeach members for racism, incitement to violence, or supporting armed resistance against the state. That may sound fair, but it was Netanyahu’s response to Arab parliamentarians who met with the families of Palestinians who have been killed in recent conflicts with Israelis.
The law passed with a 62-47 vote, and is being interpreted as the latest attempt by Netanyahu and Israel’s right-wing government to legally roll back free speech. Debbie Gilad-Hayo, of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, said, “This is one of the most serious legislative proposals in recent years and it harms the very building blocks of democracy — the right to freedom of expression, the right to vote and to be elected, and the right to representation.” Has anyone heard of this before now? Will I be considered anti-Semitic for letting you know about it?
If you are willing to share – I ask, where in your own life have you made a decision based on your understanding of the gospel, or your understanding of justice and found conflict with family or neighbours because of it? Or, where have you avoided making particular statements to avoid conflict with family or neighbours? … (opportunity for conversation)
This spring as we worked our way through the 12 step program we said a part of Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer: God grant the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
There is another line in this prayer that I think we need to keep in mind as we try to walk the gospel path. It goes on to say,… Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,…
If conflict must happen, may it be as a result of the courage to seek peace through justice and compassion for all peoples.