In last week’s Gospel Jesus gave us a parable describing the return of the master of a household. It will be a day of reckoning, he said, with reward or punishment for the servants according to their faithfulness and readiness for the master’s return. In this Sunday’s Gospel Jesus takes us a step further in his teaching.
“I have come to set the earth on fire…” he says. Jesus is anxious to see the fire of God’s love blaze across the globe. There is an echo here of John the Baptist noting the difference between his baptism and that of Jesus: ‘I baptize you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire’ (Luke 3:16). While fire may describe God’s passionate love for us, fire also has a purifying quality: it separates what is of value from what is worthless.
Jesus goes on to ask, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” At our Lord’s birth we read that the angels declared Peace on Earth and good will to men. But in this Gospel passage, Jesus clearly says that he didn’t come to bring peace but division. Being divisive is not something that sits comfortably with us when we think about the Reign of God. What’s going on? Can these two passages be reconciled?
When Christ came to earth and especially when he began his ministry of preaching he brought division; the multitude was split. It wasn’t so much Jesus himself but his words and teaching that divided. Many can tolerate a Jesus who just heals and loves and blesses. Introduce them to his expectations and they may very quickly change their attitude and demeanor. Some heard the words of Christ and fell at his feet while others heard those same words and wanted to have him killed.
Jesus is the Prince of Peace as Isaiah tells us. He is the One who brings us to peace with God now and will usher in a day when all mankind will be at peace. However, belief in him brings division. He isn’t the cause of division; an unbelieving heart is the culprit. Jesus is not the troublemaker but rather the one who rejects and mocks him is the troublemaker. The division comes when truth is presented and mankind rebels.
In this Gospel passage Jesus prepares us for trials by reminding us that to seek righteousness, to be a faithful servant, to fear God, will result in division between people. Jesus refuses to paint a glorious picture of uninterrupted bliss and pleasure for those who follow him. While they (we) can expect forgiveness of sins and the joy of obedience to him in this life, steadfast active faith in him may result in persecution. There will be inestimable joy and pleasure in heaven, but there will also be pain and persecution for his followers on earth.
Peace was Jesus’ desire, his gift to all his followers. “Peace I leave you: my peace I give you” (John 14:27). And though his message is peace, it is a hard won peace. Jesus knows that the radical purity of his message will cause people to waiver and doubt and oppose his message.
Jesus came to bring division, and we know what this means: following him will bring us into confrontation with others, even with our nearest and dearest. The radicality of his message may lead to division, between those who accept it and those who resist it and often these divisions run across families. Like the prophet Micah, to whom Luke refers in these later verses, when we experience division in family we are to put our trust in God alone (Micah 7:6-7).
We have chosen to follow someone who came to bring fire to earth, and who is passionate about kindling it. Living our faith passionately will certainly involve us in conflict, perhaps even at the deepest levels of our life and relationships. For us, this division is the fire that refines us. What will we do when our faith, our discipleship, comes between friends or even family? Am I willing to love Christ and stand for what he stood for even if the result is family division?
Jesus brought a refiner’s fire with him. Like a jeweler’s fire, it burns up the impurities and purifies the metal. For those who reject Christ, the fire is a fire of judgment. For those who love Christ it is a fire that refines. Our confidence should be like that of the apostle Paul, who saw the pain and trials of this life as nothing when compared to the joys of heaven (2 Corinthians 4:16-18). Jesus does not minimize the price of discipleship, because of the magnitude of the prize of discipleship.