In Luke’s gospel, chapter 12, Jesus made some startling statements: “I have come to set the earth on fire….Do you think I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division….a father will be divided against his son…a mother against her daughter.”
Then a couple of chapters later, Jesus said this: “If any one comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters…he cannot be my disciple.”
Whoa, what’s up with that? I thought Jesus was all about love and mercy. I thought families that love and care for each other are the foundation of a strong and healthy society. Does Jesus really mean that people should hate their family members, and that if they’re not sure whether they dislike their loved ones or not, Jesus Himself will jump in and cause painful divisions within a household?
How does that make any sense at all?
Well, we have to interpret Jesus’ words in light of the entirety of Scripture, plus 2,000 years of Church teachings and tradition. There’s no doubt that Jesus is all about love and mercy. The basic Gospel message is indeed the “good news.” To summarize: God created us to be in a loving relationship with Him, but we rebelled and decided we could handle things on our own (this is called sin). However, instead of leaving us to wallow in sin and death and eternal separation from God (this is called Hell), the Father sent His only Son to offer us a way out of our predicament. Jesus paid the price for our sins when He sacrificed His life on the cross, and then He conquered death once and for all when He rose from the tomb. Best of all, He promised that if we simply put our faith and trust in Him, our souls too can enter into a glorious loving relationship with God for all eternity. It doesn’t get any better than that.
In the seemingly harsh verses from Luke’s gospel, Jesus was offering a warning. He was saying, in effect, that although the Gospel message is good, not everyone is going to accept it as true, and when that happens there is going to be a lot of bitterness and division, much of which occurs within families.
Many of us know of nonreligious families where one member suddenly gets fired up about faith and begins sharing his or her religious views with everyone else. There’s an old expression: It’s not polite to talk about religion or politics. (Apparently, Facebook was invented to put this expression to the test, as it seems half of all posts are political or religious in nature, causing many people to conclude, “I didn’t know him very well in high school, but based on his daily Facebook rants, I’m sure glad we now live in different states!”)
Religion and politics have been known to stir up hard feelings within families. But here’s the thing: if you truly believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ is true, you simply HAVE to talk about it. It’s the difference between life or death; eternal joy or eternal torment. Jesus’ message is bound to set people against one another because people really can’t remain neutral about it. A person will either embrace it with joy, or reject it as foolishness.
Sadly, there have been, and continue to be, bitter divisions within families over the question of whether the Gospel is true, so much so that loved ones never speak to each other again. This is the “division” and “hatred” Jesus referred to.
When the stakes are high, such as in politics, differences of opinion can produce a lot of outrage. When the stakes are as high as they can possibly get—either eternal joy or eternal torment—differences of opinion can produce the greatest outrage of all: divisions within a family.
When Jesus made those statements in Luke’s gospel, He certainly was not gloating about it; He spoke with a heavy heart. Despite the risk of causing division, even among loved ones, we are called to follow the truth. We are called to follow Christ.