Dear parish family,
Have you ever found yourself stunned by something in the Bible that just didn’t seem to make any sense to you? Have you ever heard something that might sound outrageous from the Word of God and wondered, “How am I to make sense of this?” Sometimes, if we’re really honest, we might even say, “I wish this weren’t true!”
I experience something like that when reading the Gospel passage for this Sunday. Even though I am quite familiar with the story, it still shocked me a bit to hear Jesus saying: “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” (Luke 12:51). My initial reaction was: Wait a minute! Am I not supposed to believe that Jesus is the Prince of Peace? After all, at his birth, the angels celebrated “peace on earth” (Luke 2:14). The New Testament repeatedly explains how Jesus came to bring peace. So, how could I make sense of Jesus’ stunning statement above? Isn’t it an oxymoron? a contradiction? How can I respond to these unsettling words of the Lord?
Fortunately, as they say, context is everything. It is important to point out that here Jesus is not making some broad statement about his ultimate purpose. Rather, he is pointing to a very real consequence of his kingdom proclamation. The kingdom of God, which calls for absolute allegiance, often can split communities, friendships, and even families. Not everyone will readily accept truth. Not everyone will be ready to understand. Thus, even though the kingdom of God ultimately does establish peace on earth, we often find that when we are ready to trust Christ and leave all behind to follow him, not everyone else will. Many will be hurt; many will be angry; many will be confused.
This unhappy truth does not, of course, imply that followers of Jesus are to seek conflict or to try to split up families. In fact, Jesus makes it clear that we are to be peacemakers and “to live in peace with each other” (Matthew 5:9; Mark 9:50). St. Paul adds: “Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18). But making peace is not the same as making nice. Sometimes, our efforts to bring genuine peace to a situation or a relationship will, in fact, lead to conflict. Yet, we seek to be faithful to God and His values in such circumstances, knowing that, in the end, His genuine, lasting peace will prevail.
To be honest, my first reaction to this Sunday’s Gospel was not a happy one. I like the idea of a straightforward type of peace on earth. I like singing about it, preaching about it, and writing about it. The reality is that the truth of this Sunday’s Gospel passage is a hard pill for even a priest to swallow, but I must acknowledge it. There are times when loyalty to Christ divides families. I’ve seen it in my own ministry. I have lived through it in my own fatherland, where being a Christian could be a political offense. I am experiencing it right here in our city, in our country, where standing up for Christian values and speaking about certain Catholic beliefs can bring about unprovoked harassment, rejection, and even violence.
Someone recently told me: “These days, we Americans are united at least on one thing: we are sick and tired of being so divided.” I think I can agree with that assessment. Indeed, it seems that just about everybody is unhappy about the condition or direction of the country. At times it seems impossible to have a civil discussion without someone getting offended or angry. Divisiveness is perhaps one of the biggest problems we are facing as a nation. Like most of you, I don’t know to what I should attribute this problem. We can speculate, but more importantly, as a disciple of Christ, I must ask myself: “What can we possibly do about it?” Often, we hear that Christians shouldn’t be part of any kind of conflict. We should be like Jesus and treat everyone with love to bring them to unity. At times, I do find myself torn in the face of an important issue that demands a clear and unequivocal position, “If I speak out on this issue or if I take this stand, then I’m going to be in conflict or I’m going to create division.” The words of Jesus in this Sunday’s Gospel make me realize an important truth, namely, division is already there if we choose to follow Jesus. Sometimes people will take issue with what we believe to be right, just as they did in Jesus’ time.
I believe that Jesus desires us to be reconciled and at peace with everyone, and especially with those in our family, but we cannot be so by sacrificing our God-given principles or what we consider to be true of human value. This is the fire Jesus is referring to in the Gospel – that of authentic truth and justice. We must have the courage to stand out and to stand up. And many times, we will simply have to “agree to disagree” while expressing our disagreement with a Christ-like love that embodies both compassion and long-suffering patience, which are necessary to the Christian way.
Offering you these thoughts for further reflection this week, I pray that you may be kept safe and close to the heart of Christ always.
Msgr. Cuong M. Pham