No doubt Luke knows that his readers would be startled by today’s reading: ‘Do you suppose I bring peace. No, I tell you, but rather division’. But he sees these statements of Jesus as important for the Church community of his time, that was facing great difficulties: not only from persecution on the part of outsiders, but also from internal disputes and divisions that sometimes ended up in the civil court, disputes that divided the Christian community itself and even the families that belonged to it. Such a situation calls for stern measures.
The whole story of the Scriptures leaves us in no doubt that evil, or ‘sin’, is real. God’s designs for the human family have been continually frustrated by selfishness and destructiveness – sometimes motivated by the evil in human hearts; sometimes more an expression of ignorance and foolishness, but destructive nonetheless. Jesus did not come to provoke dissention; but the decision to live by the ways of God, that was essential to the message he preached, inevitably led to disagreements. If selfishness and destructiveness are to have their way unchallenged, the peace Christ came to bring - as a foretaste of the final ‘kingdom’- will never become a reality.
It is important - in a moment of history marked by an increase of violence that is often motivated by religious differences – to understand the paradox involved in these startling words of Jesus. Luke has already made it clear that Jesus came to bring peace – rebuking the brothers who called down vengeance on the unfriendly Samaritans (9:55); proclaiming the demands of his New Commandment: ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you’ and you will be true children of the Father who ‘is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked’ (6:27-35). The very words Luke quotes invite us to understand the paradoxical truth of what he is saying. The ‘fire’ he brings can symbolise destruction or purification. When we recall Luke’s account of the message preached by John the Baptiser, that the one who came after him would ‘baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire’ (3:16), and we link this with reference to the ordeal that awaits him in Jerusalem as a ‘baptism’, we can conclude that his is a purifying fire. His standing up to the forces of violence and destructiveness in opposition to him are to be a healing and reconciliation for a world unable to overcome its divisions and antagonisms. The true disciples of Jesus have understood the paradox: ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor 5:19); ‘For he is the peace between us’ (Eph 2:14); ‘a peace the world cannot give, that is my gift to you’ (Jn 14:27).
When we know the challenge to having to oppose the forces of destructiveness, we have the example of the Saviour’s courage, as he pressed on to Jerusalem, and ‘endured the cross, for the sake of the joy which was still in the future.
John Thornhill sm