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The Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C

Jesus Came to Cast Fire on the Earth


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...so that’s what’s going on, that’s what swirling around behind these otherwise cryptic words of Jesus.

And then the third thing he says is, “Do you think I’ve come to give peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather, division.” And the Greek word there for division means division, divided; diamerismos, to kind of cut things into portions or to divide into parts. And in this case, he focuses on divisions within families, within a household. So he says, “I tell you, rather division. In one house there will be five divided: three against two, two against three.” And then he goes and lists all the different relationships. Now, you don’t have to know anything about Judaism or about the Old Testament to know that what he’s saying here is “I’m going to pit family members against one another.” And even just through a reading of the gospel you can see how this might play out. In an earlier video we saw Jesus tell a young man, “Leave the dead to buy their dead” when he asked if he could go back and bury his father. I mean, talk about a division. If he had left his family and followed Jesus and failed to attend his own father’s funeral (failed to bury his own father), what do you think the effect of that action would be with his brothers, his sister, his mother? How would they feel about the cost of that man’s discipleship and how it affected their family? Well obviously, that would be a serious point of division between the young man that Jesus was calling to discipleship and his family. So, even if you just know about the way Jesus calls people to come and follow him and the kind of effect that might have on their families, you can pick up on the meaning here of what Jesus means. In other words, “my mission is not going to bring a state of earthly peace to the households of everyone who becomes my disciple. In fact, because some people are going to refuse the call and others will accept, I’m actually going to bring division into this world.”

So I think that’s kind of a plain sense of the text. I think most people can just pick up on that and infer that from reading it. However, as always is the case with Jesus, there’s always something more going on here. Whenever Jesus says something strange or weird, like “I’m going to set father against son, son against father, mother against daughter, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law”, when he says something that seems odd, oftentimes he’ll be alluding to an Old Testament text. And of course, in this case, that’s exactly what he’s doing. In fact, he’s not just alluding, he’s actually quoting from a prophecy of the book of Micah. Now it would have been really cool if this prophecy were the 1st reading for today’s mass because then you’d actually be able to see it more clearly, but it’s not. There’s a different reading for today. And I’m in sales, I’m not in management, so I don’t get to decide which passages go in the lectionary for the day. But I will take you back, nevertheless, to the book of Micah 7. So that’s where this passage comes from that Jesus is quoting. Micah 7 is a prophecy of the coming age of salvation, and I as I explored in my dissertation, it’s a picture of the fact that over and over again, the prophets would say, before the age of salvation began, there would be a time of tribulation, there would be a time of trial. There would be a time of testing and division within the people of Israel.

The Greek word they’ll use for this time of testing and tribulation is actually often peirasmos. We actually saw that in an earlier video looking at the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into peirasmos (temptation, testing, trial)”. That Greek word can be used to refer to the final tribulation that would take place before the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment. So this theme of tribulation before salvation, division before restoration, is a standard expectation in the prophets. And here Jesus is quoting Micah’s prophecy of tribulation and division that precedes the age of salvation. So this is what Micah the prophet says. This is Micah 7:6-7 and then I’ll skip down to v. 12 and 15. Micah says this:

for the son treats the father with contempt,
the daughter rises up against her mother,
the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
a man’s enemies are the men of his own house.
But as for me, I will look to the Lord,
I will wait for the God of my salvation;
my God will hear me.

So pause there. What Micah’s doing is he’s describing this time of tribulation and strife within Israel, in which Israel will be so divided that it will cut through even down to the family itself, and that a person’s enemies are going to be the members of his own household. But the prophet says, “I’m still going to wait on the Lord for God to bring his salvation”, and if you keep reading, that is what’s described next. In v. 12 it actually says:

In that day they will come to you,
from Assyria to Egypt,
and from Egypt to the River…

As in the days when you came out of the land of Egypt
I will show them marvelous things.

I’ve talked about this before in other videos, but remember the hope for the ingathering of the exiles and the lost ten tribes of Israel? How the Jews were waiting for the ten lost tribes that had been scattered among the nations to come back together, to be reunited and to come back to the Promised Land in a new exodus that would be inaugurated by the Messiah? Remember that? We’ve talked about it elsewhere. You can see it in Isaiah 11, or Jeremiah 23, or Ezekiel 36 and 37. It’s all over the prophets. What Micah’s describing here is that he’s saying that before the new exodus takes place, before the ingathering of the twelve tribes of Israel and the coming of the kingdom, before that happens, there’s going to be a time of division. There’s going to be a time of tribulation. There’s going to be a time of strife and a time of judgment. And a prophet is called to endure through that time of tribulation and make it to the day of salvation. And the image he gives for the tribulation is “father against son, daughter against mother, and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law.” In other words, members of a household. So what does Jesus do? He says, don’t think that I’ve come to bring peace. I didn’t come to bring peace. I came to bring division. For a man’s enemies are going to be members of his own household. Father’s going to be set against son, mother against daughter, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law. In other words, “I’m going to fulfill the prophecy of Micah. I’m going to unleash the tribulation and the time of division that will precede the coming of the kingdom of God.” In other words, what Jesus is saying is, “There’s not going to be any salvation without tribulation first. There’s not going to be any kingdom of peace without a time of division first. I have to cast a fire of judgment upon the world and go through the waters of the cross before we can reach the resurrection.” Does that make sense? There’s no resurrection without a cross. There’s no kingdom without tribulation. There’s no restoration without division. He’s correcting an overly optimistic eschatology, or expectation that his disciple might be thinking. They might be thinking, “Hey, one day the kingdom’s just going to come down from heaven, all is going to be peace, all will be well, it’s just going to be peace, and love, and brotherhood of men, and fatherhood of God that’s going to spread throughout the world.” And Jesus is saying, “That’s not how it happens. I’ve got to go through the baptism of the cross first, and I’m anxious for it to be accomplished.” Because what Jesus is effectively doing in the cross is taking that tribulation upon himself, and through his suffering he’s going to unleash the power and the glory of the kingdom of God...

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