Peace and Division
Jesus says, in today’s Gospel, that he has come to bring division, not peace [Lk 12]. But he says elsewhere that he gives us his peace [Jn 15]. How should we understand this seeming contradiction?
Reading: Luke 12:49-53
The following homily was preached to the student brothers during compline. You can listen here or read below:
Whenever we read the Gospels, I think that there is a part of us that should feel some amount of discomfort; not because the Gospel is wrong, or because we are all terrible and depraved sinners, but because the Gospel is meant to challenge us… to challenge our presumptions and our vices. Indeed, our Lord Jesus calls us to be holy, to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. And I’m sure we would all agree that none of us are there yet; we all have our vices and shortcomings to overcome; we are not yet perfect. So it should come as no surprise that we should find what Jesus says in the Gospels challenging. In fact, if we don’t find the Gospels difficult from time to time, then I think that is a good indication that there is something wrong somewhere with how we are reading the Gospels. But today’s Gospel, I think, is especially challenging and disturbing, for a few reasons.
“Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” [Lk 12:51].
First, this passage comes right after Jesus’ warning that unfaithful servants will be beaten and punished. Now, he is talking about casting fire upon the earth. So it sounds as if Jesus is speaking about punishing the whole earth.
Second, we seem to have a contradiction. Jesus says in the Gospel of John [Jn 15:27]: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you; not as the world gives do I give to you”. But here he says that he has come to bring division, not peace. So which is it? Division or peace?
St. Augustine (in De Doctrina Christiana) helpfully points out that whenever we read the Scriptures, whether the Old Testament or the New Testament, we should always interpret what we read through the lens of the two-fold love of God and our neighbour. So let us attempt to apply St. Augustine’s advice here.
To begin, let us consider what Jesus means by ‘peace’. What is this ‘peace’ that Jesus promises the disciples? Well, clearly, it is peace with God and with our neighbours. It is the peace that comes about when we experience God’s great love for us and internalise it; and when we then love our neighbour with that same love which we have received from God. But if I am at peace with God and my neighbour, I am necessarily at war with Satan and the forces of evil. I cannot have it both ways – I cannot be at peace with both God and Satan! If I am at peace with Satan, then I am at war with God.
This is important, especially when we consider what is in our hearts. Because we are still imperfect, we have in our hearts sinful desires, vices, and our shortcomings in our attempts to imitate God’s love. Are we at peace with God and our desire for him? Or are we at peace with our sinful desires and failures to love? It can only be one or the other. For if we are to be at peace with God, we must try to cast out from our hearts anything that will get in the way of loving him and our neighbour. While it is not wrong to be patient with ourselves and our shortcomings – indeed, we SHOULD be patient with ourselves – we must never be content and satisfied with our failures to love. We must never be at peace with evil.
So how do we cast out these sinful things from our hearts? Only through love can our hearts be purified. This is where the image of fire comes into play. Our Lord hints at this when he mentions the baptism with which he needs to be baptised. This baptism refers to his suffering and death on the Cross. Why does he suffer on the Cross? Because he loves us… He shows us the very love that he wants us to imitate and show to others: A self-sacrificial love. The image of fire in this passage, then, does not represent the flames of punishment or of hellfire, but is meant to remind us of the flames of the Temple sacrifices in the Old Testament. This is how we are to purify our hearts: when our hearts are set ablaze by the flames of self-sacrificial love. This is why the Psalmist says:
“For you take no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” [Ps 51(50):16-17].
We are called to offer our hearts as a fragrant sacrifice to God. This passage is especially important for those of us who have made religious profession. By our vows, we offer ourselves as a sacrifice to God. Why do we do this? Out of fear of punishment, or to run away from the world? No! We do it because of love!… Because our hearts have been set ablaze by our love for God and for our neighbour.
But this call is not limited to just religious men and women. It applies to all baptised Christians! For by our baptism, we are called to holiness, to imitate Jesus and to be conformed to him. So, if Jesus is a Prophet, Priest, King, and Sacrifice, so too are we called to imitate him as prophets, priests, kings, and sacrifices. We are called to let our hearts be inflamed by that same love that Jesus showed us on the Cross.
So, let us ask the Holy Spirit to inflame our hearts, that we may in turn inflame the hearts of others.
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your spirit and they will be created. And you will renew the face of the earth. Amen.
Image: The Descent of the Spirit by Gustave Dore. In the public domain, courtesy of WikiArt