Can Jesus be serious?
What does He mean when He tells us that He has come to bring division rather than peace? Is He not the Prince of Peace? What can He mean when He tells us that because of Him father will be against son and son against father? Did He not command us to honor our mother and father? Did He not teach us to love our neighbor? Why all this talk then of setting the earth on fire and creating conflict?
There are times in the gospels when Jesus, like the rabbis of His day, used exaggeration to get His point across. He does that, however, to show the crowds how important His teaching is. Therefore, when Jesus uses exaggeration, it does not mean that we take what He has to say less seriously but more seriously. When Jesus exaggerates, we must sit up and pay attention. This is certainly the case with today’s gospel passage.
In trying to discern Jesus’ message there are a few ideas we can rule out from the outset.
First of all, Jesus is not condoning the use of violence. We know this by looking both at His teaching and His life. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us to turn our other cheek rather than answer violence with more violence. He teaches us to love our enemies and those who persecute us. Also, when He was tortured and put to death, He refused to use force to defend Himself although He was innocent. He rebuked Peter when he used a sword to cut off a soldier’s ear. Throughout His life and teaching, Jesus renounces the use of violence.
Secondly, Jesus is not talking about ideologies. He is not preaching about the type of divisions that come about because of differing political philosophies or religious affiliations. Our Saviour did not come to give us more or better ideas. Rather, He came to give His life for us and teach us the way of love. The point is not about who is right and who is wrong. It is about the way of self-giving charity even in the face of hostility and persecution which we see in the cross.
When we look closely at today’s gospel, we notice that Jesus is talking primarily about relationships and, most especially, about family relationships. This gets to the heart of Jesus’ message. He came primarily to restore our relationship with our Heavenly Father. Through His blood and through the waters of baptism, we are now sons and daughters of God. We can rightly call Him “Father”, and we can rightly call Jesus “Brother”.
Because of this new relationship with God, all our other relationships must change - even our closest family bonds. Once we give our lives over to Jesus, He becomes our number one priority. This is how Pope Francis In his encyclical letter, “The Light of Faith”, describes this new relationship: “Christ’s work penetrates the depths of our being and transforms us radically, making us adopted children of God and sharers in the divine nature. It thus modifies all our relationships, our place in this world and in the universe...”
We know how often conflicts arise in families. Brothers and sisters often fight over who will inherit what piece of furniture. Parents argue with their children over their choice of friends or spouses. Unfortunately, religion can also be the cause of conflict in family life. When we decide to take our faith seriously, it can alienate, irritate and even infuriate our parents, siblings or cousins who may find themselves in relationships or lifestyles which are at odds with the Church’s teaching. They often waste no time letting us know what they think about the Church and can even call us hypocrites or accuse us of being judgmental.
All this can make family gatherings very awkward and can leave us at a loss as to how to respond. We may feel sadness that relationships we cherish so much are being put under strain by our decision to follow Jesus. We may even wonder whether the disagreements are our fault because of the way we are representing ourselves.
When we find ourselves in such a position, we must first remember that Jesus promised us that following Him would cause ruptures in our families. It is part of the cross which every disciple must carry. Secondly, we must remember to always respond gently and lovingly even when a family member is being dismissive or hostile. It is not often our arguments which convince our loved ones about the truth of the gospel message but our example of kindness and happiness. Thirdly, we must never doubt the power of prayer to soften hearts and open up minds. We may never sense a change in our loved ones, but if we are praying for them, we can be sure that God will be at work moving them to reconciliation with Him.
Jesus came to bring peace. However, it is a peace built on truth, justice and love. It involves some conflict, hostility and even persecution. Sadly, this will often come from the people we love the most - our own family. If we accept it and respond in love, we can trust that God will use us to help bring them to salvation along with us. Then a real, lasting peace can be established - a peace that no one can take from us because it is founded on the faithfulness and love of our Heavenly Father.