Harsh Words

Harsh Words

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)  |  Fr Bruno Clifton reflects on the difficult teachings of Christ that challenge us to re-think and transform our ideas about who God is. 

Jesus has some harsh words for us today: he has not come to bring peace, but rather division.

This statement—along with others such as ‘you always have the poor with you’ (Matt 26:11; Mark 14:7; John 12:8)—goes into the category of things we do not expect Jesus to say. But the disciples to whom he speaks must deal with his real words. To do otherwise would be to take as normative our own idea of who we would like Jesus to be. It is important that we do not put words in Jesus’s mouth, but let him say what he will say and try to understand the God who speaks.

Jesus’s claim to be the cause of schism must be put in the context of his entire teaching. But for all that it is not less difficult to hear. The teaching this week (Lk 12:49-53) seems to follow on from last week and Jesus’s warning that discipleship demands a great deal.

From everyone to whom much has been given much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded (Lk 12:48).

Jesus has had more harsh words to say about following him. Earlier in Luke’s gospel, he tells one potential disciple whose father has died: ‘let the dead bury their own dead’ (9:60) and another who wishes only to say goodbye to his family, ‘no one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God’ (9:62). And later in the gospel, Jesus underlines the same point that following him requires total commitment.

 Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple (14:26).

The following of Christ is demanding and divisive.

But, while Jesus’s words about peace remain tough, they are in keeping with his teaching in Luke’s gospel about being a disciple. Following Jesus does cause upset. As master of novices I have seen concrete cases when a man’s recognition that discipleship means entering the Dominicans has caused sorrow and division for others.

But is this the limit to our interpretation of our Lord’s words; that it simply speaks of the manifest discord Christianity has brought to the world? We should expect that there is a deeper point being made.

Notice that in all these sayings of Jesus, where the ‘rubber hits the road’ for discipleship is family: a dead father abandoned, a household ignored and division between generations. It is family that one should ‘hate’ to be Jesus’s friend.

The family or household is the core of what it means to be secure, to be loved, to know who you are. Loss of this loyalty speaks of a true disintegration of society. Such a collapse is used by the prophet Micah to illustrate Israel’s desolation.

Put no trust in a friend,

have no confidence in a loved one;

guard the doors of your mouth

from her who lies in your embrace;

for the son treats the father with contempt,

the daughter rises up against her mother,

the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;

your enemies are members of your own household. (Micah 7:5-6)

If family or household is the primary source of identity and meaning in a person’s life, then the breakdown of these relationships—‘three against two and two against three’ (Lk 12:52)—would signify a complete disruption in how life’s meaning and purpose is grasped and fulfilled. Jesus refers to Micah to show that the division he brings is a total upheaval in how we understand ourselves; a cataclysmic shift in where family loyalty lies.

When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and coheirs with Christ (Rom 8:15-17).

The incarnation has brought this shift in family: we know that God is our Father, but this means that we are all brothers and sisters: the poor, the objectionable, the outcast are our family.

This is the division that Jesus brings: into our closed networks of preferences and petty partiality; into our bonds of sin that keep us from salvation.

And it is not peaceful: but brings turmoil and pain because our very idea of who God is and who we are must be challenged, re-thought and transformed.

When we hear these words of Jesus, we should trust in the God he reveals to us as family, always remembering the prophecy he quotes.

But as for me, I will look to the Lord, I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me (Micah 7:7)

Readings: Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10  |  Heb 12:1-4  |  Luke 12:49-53

Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP.

fr Bruno is Vice-Regent of Blackfriars Hall and Studium, Oxford, where he teaches Biblical Studies.