In my sermon last Sunday on Luke 12:49-56--particularly verses 51-53, where Jesus says:
"Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
First, I mentioned When Religion Becomes Evil, by Charles Kimball--a really helpful and accessible book that lays out what the title says. One of the chapters speaks about blind submission and gives examples such as Jim Jones and David Koresh. Certainly these verses from Luke would prove helpful to such a charismatic religious leader who wishes to isolate his/her followers from their "non-believing" families. As I read Kimball's chapter again, I had to admit to being a little startled at how Jesus himself--as Luke pictures him--could be viewed as an apocalyptic leader of a sect who demands obedience from his followers.
As I stated Sunday, however, I believe the urgency behind the words of Luke's Jesus has more to do with his impending suffering and death. For Christians in our context, the demand for placing allegiance to God above all other claims on our lives remains a necessity but leaving our families is not a part of that allegiance. On the other hand, following Jesus may demand disagreement with and even conflict with our families if they do not share or understand our beliefs. Furthermore, I think Jesus demands a critical and open-minded faith that is open to debate, doubts and a variety of viewpoints. Such a faith means that we listen to the perspectives of those who know us best--including our families.
The second book I mentioned helps put Jesus' words in their first-century context. In Bruce Malina's book The Social World of Jesus and the Gospels, Malina describes how loyalty to one's family was paramount in a manner we in twenty-first century America can scarcely understand. Family determined a person's identity, and family was also a matter of survival. In an economy of limited goods, there is only so much to go around. If another family gets more, then that means your family gets less. Yet Jesus' declaration that his followers will face conflict with their families has much to do with the demand to "love your neighbor" transcends those familial constraints. Furthermore, in a world where honor and shame determined the satus and success of your family, becoming a Christian would most likely shame your family rather than bring it honor and prestige.
The question for us today is not about whether Jesus wants to break up our families, but rather whether we are willing to make God our greatest love and highest priority--above all of the other demands upon our lives. Inevitably, that will create tension and possibly conflict, but in return we are promised grace, joy and peace.
Grace and Peace,