Jesus Brings Division (Luke 12:49-56)
For further context read Jeremiah 23:23-29
God chooses His words carefully, and we must remember that He chose Jesus to be His word from the beginning. Today’s Gospel is quite a challenge to grapple with and requires some context: How can the Prince of Peace come to divide us, and with fire no less?
God operates on an infinite timescale with infinite wisdom, and sometimes it’s hard for humans to understand Him. We must recognise that this is not a new revelation delivered by Jesus; it’s the inevitable consequences of human failing that God has sought to warn us about from long ago; Jesus’ words here are an invitation to join God in a new infinite age.
And that segues us into today’s first reading from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s writings are depressing, and they are hard to get through, but there is the odd nugget of joy. The Hebraic pronunciation of Jeremiah is Ramaiyah, which comes from the words meaning raised by God, Rama and Yah. It has a clever twofold meaning: we can choose to be raised up by God, or to be raised to the ground by God.
You may recall that the word of God comes to Jeremiah very early on in Jeremiah’s life; it’s his writings that give a scriptural basis, and a deep reassurance that God is not only with us before our life begins, but His timeless quality means He will be with us as we move beyond it. Jeremiah 1:5 ‘before I formed you in the womb, I knew you’,
There are parallels with the life of Jeremiah and Jesus: the word of God was with Jeremiah from an early age, Jesus is the word of God from the beginning of time, according to John’s prologue. Jeremiah clashed with the authorities in Jerusalem as did Jesus. Jeremiah’s words were so unpopular with the priestly class they conspired to kill him: same as Jesus. They were separated by some 600 years, but they both spoke the same message.
In Jeremiah God asks what has straw got to do with wheat? Well, the answer is that they come from the same plant. But it must be divided, wheat is nourishing and useful, straw, in that time, useless and normally burned away on the threshing room floor. God says: “is my word not like fire?” The very medium which is used to divide.
Jesus picks up the same metaphor in the parable of the weeds in Matthew 13:24. He tells a crowd the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a good man who sows some wheat, but an enemy comes in the night and plants weeds in the same field. When he is asked what should be done about the weeds, he says, let them grow up together, so the good seed is not damaged, only at the harvest time will the weeds and the wheat be divided and burnt alongside the straw.
The disciples are so puzzled by the parable that they come to Jesus afterwards and ask him to explain it further. Jesus rarely explained his parables but this one is deemed so important, he takes them through it and explicitly tells them:
“The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father."
This is what’s known as eschatology, from the Greek word εσχατός, which is things relating to the last days. The very serious part of the Christian faith, and that which the word of God has told us about, from His first revelation to the Jews.
But here’s the thing, the words spoken by Jesus in today’s gospel are kind words. Yet they sound harsh because the message is so stark. Sometimes the truth hurts. Anyone who speaks the truth is likely to divide; this is not reserved for only this culture and time, although it certainly seems more prominent, Jeremiah was doing it in the 7th century.
Even with his parable teachings, Jesus had a way of cutting to the very heart of an issue. The verses used in the gospel today come from a part of Luke’s Gospel called the Gospel for the Outcast, and it expresses how difficult it is to be a follower of Jesus. The words are almost in exasperation as Jesus had been telling the people the truth for so long, and they had just not been hearing him; so, he puts it out there plainly. The Kingdom of God will be a time of peace, but first there will be strife. Peace is a product of war, and war is the product of man.
Jesus chooses his words carefully. Whenever Jesus says something odd, it’s worth investigating further! The very specific divisions he talks about is a repetition of a prophecy from one of the eighth century: these are the words of Micah. Chapter 7 verse 6 to be precise.
The book of Micah is a deeply eschatological book. Micah’s prophecy not only predicted the coming of the Messiah, but also the second coming of the Messiah- what the Greeks called the παρουσια, meaning very specifically, the arrival or presence of a victorious Royal person. In another interesting parallel between the lives of Jesus and Jeremiah: it is also the prophecy of Micah which saves Jeremiah’s life; when his persecutors realise that he too was only speaking the truth of God, despite it sounding harsh, he is not put to death or raised to the ground.
So, what can we learn from all this?
Every major religion recognises the flaws in human society. Our desires tend toward self-indulgence, which causes all sorts of problems in this world. The words which are sometimes hard to hear are often meant to keep us all safe and turn our desires away from ‘the self’. In Christianity, these words offer us the chance to be reconciled with God, to do more than fulfil our own desires and look to something outsides ourselves: God’s will.
By following the words, we can be selected like the Wheat for the storehouse and not burnt like the weeds and the straw.
The Kingdom of God, heaven, the age to come, the thing that is beyond us, but for us, as God wills, comes with terms and conditions. But luckily for us it’s not like the complicated terms and conditions that you barely read before ticking the wee box and then moving on.
God has been telling us from the very beginning that there are certain things he wants from us. And that is how Jesus will divide us: there are some who will accept and follow these words and there are others who will not. No one is being tricked, but we each have a choice to make.