Living in these divided times, I found myself struggling with the words of Jesus in our Gospel reading for Sunday (Luke 12:49-53): “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”
Personally, I feel called to help bring people together, not push them apart. Is Jesus really asking me and all of us to promote the divisions that exist between peoples? In light of what we read in the Gospels; I would say the answer is no.
What I do believe Jesus is saying is that His message is not to be diluted for the sake of “not rocking the boat,” or “not stirring things up.” He encountered opposition from almost the very beginning of His public ministry. Much like the prophet Jeremiah (See our first reading: Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10), there were people, mostly people in power, who didn’t like what He had to say, and eventually these people plotted to kill Him, just as their ancestors looked to do with Jeremiah. Jesus did not come to establish comfortability or complacency or “peace” with what is.
For many early Christians, their decision to follow Jesus not only put their lives in danger, but put them in conflict with members of their own families, as Jesus says when He talks about fathers against sons and mothers against daughters, etc.
To follow Jesus is to take a stand, which can lead to conflict and the cross. But when we look at how Jesus dealt with and related to the Samaritan woman at the well, or the Syro-Phoenician woman begging for help for her daughter, or the synagogue official, or the Roman centurion with the servant who was ill, we can see that Jesus was not looking for us to be so divided that we lose sight of the humanity or the sacredness, in God’s eyes, of the “other.” That is what I fear our divisions have brought us to: questioning even the humanity of the “other.” It is this kind of mentality that has led to slavery and injustice and human trafficking and attempts at genocide. We are not called to promote this kind of division, no matter how righteous we think we are.
Instead, as it says in our second reading from Hebrews (12:1-4): “let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us [Doesn’t prejudice and violence seem to cling to us?] and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.” I suppose that the “joy that lay before him” refers to the Resurrection. But I also wonder if that joy has to do with our salvation. He endured the cross for the sake of the joy of saving us all, not just some.
Jesus says, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” May we be set on fire for love of the world, even love for those we consider “other.”
Fr. Phil Paxton, C.P., is the local superior of the Passionist Community in Birmingham, Alabama.