READINGS: Hebrews 12:18-29 Luke 12:49-56
This passage from Luke in which Jesus asks, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” certainly is a hard passage – not often remembered – often avoided. It instantly raises an objection. Isn’t it also in Luke that the angels sing at Christ’s nativity about “Peace on earth”? What’s going on?
Of course, it may be foolish to assume that the two references to peace present an irreconcilable contradiction. When Jesus answers his own rhetorical question by saying, “No, I tell you, but rather division!” he may be pointing out nothing more contradictory than the fact that some conflict must arise before there can be genuine peace. Or perhaps he is speaking of social peace, whereas the angels were singing about “spiritual” peace.
For my part, however, I actually prefer to take this passage as a deliberate contradiction of the “Peace on earth” anthem, and indeed, Jesus seems to invite us to. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” he challenges, as if we may have good reason to think that he has, as if we may have heard somewhere about what the angels were supposed to have sung above Bethlehem. Jesus seems to be defying his own reputation—that is, our definitions of his role. He leaves them empty in the grasp of our expectation, like Joseph’s clothes in the clutches of Potiphar’s wife. Yes, he has come to fulfil the law, but he will still heal on the Sabbath. Yes, he has come to teach nonviolence, but he will cleanse the temple precincts with a whip. Yes, his soul will be sorrowful “even unto death,” but he will rise from death.
Which brings us to another difficult question raised by this Sunday’s Gospel: What happens when the stumbling block to our faith turns out to be, well, Mum? Granted that Jesus is refusing to be straitjacketed in anyone’s narrow expectation; granted that he’s showing us the liberating power of the gospel and all of that—we’re still left with a rather dismal prediction here. Jesus is talking about something much more radical than the understandable struggle between people of faith and the “powers and principalities.” “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 . . .” If this is “good news,” where is the good in it?
Perhaps in another equally “intolerable” verse, also found in the Gospel of Luke. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you.” We have read that verse, some of us, and thought: “Woe is me.” We have read the verse about divisions in the household and thought the same thing. But reading the two together brings about a wonderful realisation. Our enemies are not usually the bloodthirsty motorcycle marauders of our imaginations, but people much closer to home. They include the husband who grows resentful because of all the time you’re spending at church, the child who grows resentful because you will not let him go to the party, the parent who grows resentful because you’ve decided to join the church!
This is an old insight, of course. But for many Christians it may amount to a new insight: Charity begins at home precisely because the fire that Jesus came to kindle on earth often begins there as well. And it begins there, in part, because the people we wed or gave birth to while angels sang “Peace on earth” above are free to grow beyond their roles and beyond our expectations. Just as Jesus did, in other words.
But that is only half the insight. I am commanded to love these domestic enemies. That is indeed good news. It says that I need not be afraid of my inability to “love my enemies,” because often I love them already; and I need not fear if my enemies are those I’d prefer to love, because love is God’s preference—and commandment—also.