This morning we are going to consider the “Prince of Division.”
In the sixth verse of his ninth chapter Isaiah tells us Jesus will be “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. But our Gospel reading quotes Jesus as saying, “I came to bring fire to the earth…. Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Answering Jesus’ question, we might say, “Well, yes. When we read in Isaiah, ‘For a child has been born for us,…and he is named …Prince of Peace,’ we did “kinda” think you came to bring peace. When we read as part of Luke’s account of your birth, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors,” we did think you came to bring peace.”
Were we foolish? Were we wrong? If we take literally the apparent meaning of the words presented to us in our Bibles, it would seem we were terribly wrong. Those words do not simply qualify or even modify our expectation that Jesus is a peacemaker, they repudiate it. “No,” he says, not peace “but rather division.” In the corresponding text from Matthew, Jesus does not even ask the question; he provides the answer. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
He then proceeds to illustrate the kind of dissention that will result from what he brings. Dissention that is not only distressing, but is antithetical to our understanding of who Christ is and what Christ is about. Jesus not only takes responsibility for dissention among family members, he describes it as though it were an objective. Jesus says “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” Jesus defines himself as a deliberate home-wrecker!
The idea of a household divided is clearly inconsistent with our understanding of God’s intention for the family. Families are supposed to be examples of unity, of shared love. Jesus, himself, said, “if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. God said we are to honor our fathers and our mothers.
I can find but one possible explanation: Somewhere between the actual utterances of Jesus and the scriptures we read today, ideas have been polarized and expressed in ways that are clearly contradictory. I do not know exactly what Jesus said. Given the differences in the accounts, it is probable that neither is entirely correct. Jesus undoubtedly used words that would emphasize his points. But it is extremely likely that his utterances were distorted in the process of transcription, interpretation, and translation.
I can say with confidence that where these words and teachings of Jesus appear to suggest otherwise, Jesus is the Prince of Peace. Jesus does want us to be at peace with each other, not in a state of conflict or disharmony. To suggest otherwise would be to ignore many other scriptures and everything we know that defines the nature of the Christ!
For a few examples, look at –
- His direction to the disciples that they should love each other as he loved them.
- His words in Mark, “Be at peace with one another.”
- His many promises of peace, e.g.“Peace I leave with you….” Notwithstanding today’s Gospel, Jesus is not repudiating peace or his efforts to engender peace. He is making a different, but important point. Obedience of the commandments and of the teachings of Jesus, is more important than anything else, even peace.Jesus is saying, “I will teach you about God and what you need to do.” When some of you accept my teaching and act as God would want you to, it will anger others, even family members. Your obedience is more important than the disruption it causes.The teachings of Jesus, during his time on earth, were intended to change not only the behavior of individuals, but the entire social order. Then, as now, there was much that needed changing. One commentator focused on three areas in particular. Women and children were completely disenfranchised and were treated pretty much as property of men. There was virtually no socio-economic mobility. One’s status — one’s privileges, rights, and opportunities — were generally determined at birth. Only first born sons inherited. These were among the injustices that Jesus sought to change.The message of the Gospel today is that listening to Jesus will radically change our behavior in controversial ways. As a result, many will become alienated from us. Thus, Jesus’ predictions of strife and hostility will be vindicated. When confronted with the choice, we must follow Jesus even if it provokes hostility among those closest to us. This means standing up for Jesus in whatever ways we can, whenever we can, wherever we can. At the polls, as advocates in our communities, in our correspondence with our elected officials, on the street, in the workplace, wherever….Christ loves us, and he wants us to be at peace. However, our obedience of God and his commandments is more important than peace. Let us follow Christ and work and pray for reconciliation and peace with our family, friends, and all with whom we have personal relationships.
- May it be so.
- Perhaps we understand Jesus admonitions better by looking at an actual, present day instance of what he predicted. Jesus tells us we must forgive without exception, and he demonstrated this on the cross. “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” A woman was murdered by a criminal. Her widowed husband managed to forgive the perpetrator. The couple’s children responded with hostility toward the father, exactly as the scriptures predict.
- The teachings of Jesus were also intended to change our behavior and the social order today. The status of women and children, though far from ideal, has improved in this country. Around the word, it is still deplorable, as demonstrated by the shooting of a 16 year old girl for wanting an education. Human trafficking of women and children it still a major criminal activity, even in the USA. Socio-economic mobility, long a source of pride in this country, is diminishing, though many other parts of the world are worse. Ethnic, racial, and religious oppression are still of great significance throughout this nation and the world. Poverty continues to be pervasive, even in the richest countries of the world. We are rapidly approaching two societies – one of incredible wealth and opulence and one that believes it cannot afford to feed, house, and educate its children.
- The scripture in Matthew that corresponds to our Gospel lesson in Luke, provides some clarification. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me…,” This makes the point that love among family members must be subordinate to our relationship with him. Jesus is saying, you must love me more than those whom you may antagonize by following me. Not that you must be against each other! It is not Jesus’ purpose to disrupt. It is his purpose to change our behavior. He knows when that happens, the failure of others to accept his direction will lead to disruption.
- Although the words say otherwise, especially Matthew’s version, Jesus’ efforts are not for the purpose of creating division. Jesus is not advocating dissention. Jesus is not saying that he or the Father want dissention. Jesus is telling us that when some people follow him and his commandments and teaching, there will be dissention. This is not an objective; it is a prediction! There is a huge difference!
- Could these possibly be the words of one who denies that he comes to bring peace? And let us not forget the highly reassuring words of Paul, ”And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”