Gospel: Luke 12:49-53

A Family Divided

What happens when parents divorce and a family breaks up? How can such a terrible experience seem like the end of the world?

Divorce and the break up of a family can be devastating. Personal relationships change with indifference or end in acrimony. Children are left wondering if they were to blame. The economics of separation ruin futures. On a macro level, the divorce rate is another blip on the social screen. On the micro level, it can seem like the end of existence.

The turmoil of a family breaking up became an appropriate parable for the end of the world.

Popular Translation

Jesus said to his followers:

49 I came to throw the fireball of God's judgment on the world. What do I want? I want it burning now! 50 But, I must be dunked in a baptism of suffering. How I wish it were already finished!

51 Do you really think I came to spread peace in the world? NO! I came to break things up! 52 From now on, a family of five will divide. Three will face off against two. And two will oppose three. 53 Fathers will hate their sons, and sons will despise their fathers! Mothers will yell at their daughters and daughters will spit at their mothers! Mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law will detest the sight of each other!

In Luke's gospel, Jesus saw himself as an apocalyptic agent of change. In a world that prized a static culture built around the extended family, such an image was truly threatening. Even to the family itself.

Literal Translation

Jesus said to his disciples:

49 The fire (of judgment) I came to cast on the earth. What do I want? If it were already burning! 50 But (in) a baptism I have to be immersed. How I anguish (with impatience) until (the time) it might be finished! 51 Do you suppose (that) peace I came to give on the earth? NO! I tell you, rather (complete) division. 52 For, from now on, (there will be) five in one house, having been (completely) divided, three against two, and two against three. 53 They will be completely divided:

father against son, and son against father;
mother against daughter, and daughter against mother;
mother-in-law against daughter-in-law,
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.

12:49-50 "fire (of judgement) . . . in a baptism" These two words are placed at the beginning of their sentences. This makes their emphasis emphatic and creates parallels between the two verses.

Jesus yearned for the fiery judgment of God so much, he prayed it was fully realized. Yet, he must suffer " in a baptism (he has) to be baptized" (literal translation) to have the judgment realized. Facing the baptism caused him great distress. In other words, his suffering (i.e., his baptism) would lead to the judgment on the Day of Yahweh. There was a parallel in events ("fire . . . baptism") and in emotions ("want . . . anguish"). (Please note, "anguish" can be translated as "being impatient.")

The fire of judgment echoed Elijah's call of fire on the earth against the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18:36-40) and against the soldiers of King Ahaziah (2 Kings 1:10-14). That image became the popular portrait of the Final Judgment in the minds of Jesus' contemporaries.

12:49, 51 "earth" can refer to the land of Palestine or the entire known world at the time of Jesus. In the former sense, the judgment and suffering came directly from his earthly ministry. In the later sense, the judgment stemmed from God activity in the end times.

12:52-53 "three against two, and two against three" How can Luke get these pairings from two sets of three people each ("father, mother, mother-in-law" and "son, daughter, and daughter-in-law")? In the first setting (three against two), the daughter and daughter-in-law were the same person. The father, mother, and the son's mother-in-law stood against the son and his wife. In the second setting (two against three), the mother and mother-in-law were the same person; so, only the father and mother faced off against their son, his wife, and their daughter.

The math could get confusing, since the pairings could be switched. But Luke communicated his idea clearly enough. The extended family, the cornerstone of ancient society, would be torn apart along generational lines. When fathers hated their sons, and sons hated their fathers, tradition would fall, families would break up, and everyone would live as a stranger in a strange land. In a society where personal identity was tied to a place in the extended family, such a thought of estrangement was catastrophic! It would lead to utter personal and social destruction. (Think of a metaphorical atomic bomb in the heart of culture.)

These few verses lie toward the end of Luke 12, a chapter of various sayings and parables about the end times. Jesus preached readiness and trust, focus and priority. Now he desired the stress of the end times were upon the land. For the Tribulation would lead to the Kingdom.

The tension between the events of the fiery judgment and Jesus' own suffering was palpable. As the note above stated, the emotions of Jesus paralleled the events. He desired the fire from heaven. He anguished with impatience for his own suffering. Why? His death and resurrection would usher in the end times and the dawn of the Kingdom. In this sense, he was God's agent of change.

The scene Jesus painted stood in stark contrast to the popular notion of the heavenly Kingdom. God's reign, his contemporaries believed, would be a time of Shalom, a deep, abiding peace. A sense that all creation was right with the Lord. Yet, the end time would be an era of justice. For, Shalom was rooted in justice. God's peace was not merely an absence of violence, or an attitude of "live and let live." No, God's peace could only reign when all creation had its due. Even if obtaining that due turned violent and destroyed human cultural institutions.

The thought of family turmoil based on hatred must have shocked those who heard Jesus or read Luke. When parents stood against their children or children defied their elders, family loyalty ceased to exist. Families disintegrated into shameful bickering at best, and feuds, at worst. Such division weakened neighborhoods, hamlets, even regions. If the family were important enough, such division could threaten a nation and divide a people. In the eyes of Jesus' contemporaries, such a tearing of the family could only be the work of Satan.

Yet, Luke consistently saw the reaction of those encountered the power of God. They did not gain Shalom. Fear and trembling overtook those who saw God at work (see the reactions in 1:79, 2:14, 29, for example). Such fear caused talk. And talk caused gossip. Which caused ill-will and hatred. Which caused prejudice. And persecution. The power Jesus revealed (ultimately on the cross) produced a chain reaction that would split families, unbelievers against believers. In an effort to maintain social order, officials would begin to persecute the fledgling Nazarene movement. But prejudice, jail, and even death would not stop the power of God!

Catechism Theme:  The Christian Marriage and Family as a Signs of the Kingdom (CCC 1660-61)

Faith can divide families, just as Jesus stated. But the opposite is also true. Faith can unify families. Faith can even make the family a sign of the Kingdom. The power of such faith is rooted in the relationship that the married couple has with God. A relationship that turns marriage into a sacrament, a sign of Christ and his Church.

As the marriage of a couple in the Church, the sacrament of Matrimony is more than a legal contract that forms a marital union. The sacrament of matrimony forms a lifelong relationship between God and the couple. The marriage partners represent Christ to each other and love each other with the same type of self-giving love that Christ has for his Church. The fruit of that love and union is children, who are to be brought up as Christians by their parents. (1660, 1661)

The Christian couple produces a Christian family, the domestic Church. The Christian family is called the domestic Church because the parents are signs of Christ to each other and to their children. In the home, parents pray with their children, serve them with love, and raise them with Christian values.

What examples of the Christian family have you seen? How do they differ from other families?

Jesus was the lightening rod of God. For, he was the power and presence of God on earth. His death and resurrection opened the door to the Kingdom. Faith in him gives us entrance to God's reign.

But, faith in him could divide families and, so, bring down nations. But faith can unite families and build up the national social fabric. So, faith asks us as families and as cultures, "Are we on the same page? Or, are we to oppose each other to our own demise?" Those questions challenge us today as much as they challenged the audience of Jesus two millennia ago.

All of us have been affected by the pain of divided families directly or indirectly. Divorce is one cause. A rift between generations or siblings is another. As a Christian, how can you help heal the division of a family (even a little) this week?