Disagreeing with people is a tough business. It’s much more comforting to just go along, equivocate, and lock away one’s opinions without stirring up conflict. So when my loud and loquacious priest spoke about a divisive chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel at mass today, I expected a wave a discomfort to sweep across the pews.
The passage was Lk 12: 49-53, which concerns Jesus’ message of bringing division to earth. To start, the priest centered upon the initial image of fire in verse 49, already a bit unsettling:
“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”
Fire obviously carries much symbolic weight in the Bible from the burning bush of Exodus 3 to the Pentecostal flame of Acts 2. In this case, it is a fire of discomfort, one lit beneath us to cause division. The line that really hit home for me, though, was verse 51:
“Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”
I mean, Jesus is the Prince of Peace, right? But as the pastor continued his homily, I realized that the division that Jesus was talking about wasn’t of the malicious, war-mongering kind. Instead, this was a division inspired by righteousness. The division that divides father against son and mother against daughter is neither an absolute separation nor an extreme departure from the loving relationship between these people. They are not divided in the heart. Instead, the division is embodied in the courage to stand up for what one’s beliefs. It is a temporary division, a challenge to someone, perhaps a father or son or mother or daughter, whose actions run counter to Christ’s message. This division is the compassion directed at someone who has strayed from the path. You divide yourself from the lost lamb’s views, address the harmful behavior, and attempt to bring the departed back to the proper road. Disagreement and conflict arise from this division only to redirect someone on a path toward God.
The priest offered this fantastically appropriate example to illustrate the division about which Christ speaks. While sitting in a coffee shop, he overheard two college students talking about their weekend. One expatiated upon all of the drunken ecstasy she had enjoyed while indulging in alcohol. The other listened and then said that she thought the way they were spending their weekends wasn’t right and that they should focus more on studying. The other suddenly got defensive (the division), and so the two exited the shop in somewhat of a high dudgeon.
But as the priest explained, the two will need to reconsider their friendship and views after this moment of division. They are not necessarily set against each other as enemies. Instead, division leads both of them towards righteousness by forcing them to reevaluate and reflect upon their different views with the ultimate hope of coming together in a common love for God. This is what Jesus is saying about his message right here: disagree and open up dialogues to direct others toward faith. Christ tells us not to sit by passively; rather, he enlists us to go out and spread the Gospel through compassionate dialogue, which will cleave some from their views. Just like dividing 35,576 by 42, this stuff can be hard, but in the case of the latter, doing so is necessary to promote goodness for oneself and for others, too.
Thanks for reading.