23Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off? 24Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the Lord. 25I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!” 26How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back—those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart? 27They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal. 28Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? says the Lord. 29 Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?
49“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do 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.”
54He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
Matthew 10:34 Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.
We live in a sound bite world. For example politicians do not speak in paragraphs, or even in sentences, but in slogans. Or something which has been uttered by a “celebrity” (whatever that means), or a school teacher, or a military leader, or a county commissioner gets ripped out of context, and then quoted. It is then subjected to all manner of specious analysis so that we can be informed that what was said was either “good, or “bad”, either black or white. There is no room for ambiguity in the sound bite word; nor any possibility of grey areas.
The teaching of Jesus does not lend itself to sound bite understanding. What he says is often oblique, difficult to understand, and ambiguous.
“I have come to bring fire”, he says.
He asserts that he has not come to bring peace, but division.
Matthew’s version of this saying is even more troubling “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword”.
First the fire: In the reading from Jeremiah the Lord says “is not my word like fire”. (Jer 23-29). So the fire that Jesus brings is the Word of God. In Luke he says that he will bring fire to the earth. This could be a reference to the baked earth ovens which would be nearby to every home. Fire had to be brought to that earth to bake the daily bread. “To bring fire to the earth” is perhaps a metaphor for “getting something new started”. The Word of God is spoken not only to comfort us, but also to challenge us, and to get something new started in our manner of life.
Second the sword: “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” says Jesus. Maybe these are the most misunderstood of all his words. What is the sword? Ephesians 6:17 says that “the sword of the Spirit is the Word of God”. Hebrews 4:12 puts it this way “the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two edged sword”. In Revelation whenever the glorified Lord Jesus is portrayed as bearing a sword – that sword is in his mouth. He is not brandishing it as a weapon, but uttering it forth as a word. The sword is the Word of God. Just as a sword can divide things into two, so also the sword of the Word of God brings division.
Third, about division: The examples which Jesus gives are classic to family life. The biggest divisions in families are frequently between father and son; or between mother and daughter. The third example “mother-in-law against daughter in law” should probably be translated “mother-in-law against the bride”, (and vice-versa). There’s classic division for you!
To sum up so far: The Word if God is like fire in the oven – it starts something new. The new thing it starts is division, a division which sometimes strikes right at the heart of family life. Jesus apparently places a low value on those “family values” which insist on peace at all costs.
I add two caveats which are from my own opinion. First: division does not in and of itself imply hostility. Second: oft times in families and churches healthy division is better than papering over disagreements to enable peace at any price.
But why is there division at all? It is because Jesus’ teaching is so darn difficult. Think of some of that teaching we have heard this summer.
There was the “who is my neighbour?” story – the one we call “The Good Samaritan”. The hero of that story, the one who understood what it meant to be a neighbour was a most unlikely character – a Samaritan. If we retold the story today the hero would have to be someone like an undocumented immigrant.
There was the tale of dinner at the home of Mary and Martha in which Jesus teaches that hear his word is more important than frenzied activity. That’s a word for we who think that the only good Christian is a busy Christian;or for we who expect our Rectors to be at our beck and call, rather than on their knees in prayer.
How about that farmer whose land had produced a bumper crop? He decided to eat, drink and be merry. He had forgotten that the purpose of wealth is to enable generosity. Jesus taught that an abundance of possessions leads to an impoverished soul. That’s not a popular message in our wealth obsessed society.
Then, just last week, Jesus told us to sell our possessions and give alms. Jesus opposes the view which says “what’s mine is my own to do with as I please”.
To put it bluntly, Jesus teaching directly contradicts everything we have been taught about the meaning and purpose of life.
Jesus is in favour of giving, not getting.6 Jesus tells us that people from a group which we despise are likely to be better neighbours than we.
Should we dare to practice what Jesus taught we will indeed face division. Our family members are likely to believe that we are crazy; and mainstream America will write us off as being utterly misguided.
It’s not that we will seek division. It is that division will be forced upon us. And we will do well to remember that we have been warned. Warned by the Word of God which is a fire and a sword.