At first glance the extract from St Luke’s Gospel set before us today is probably seen by many as rather distressing and difficult. Quite naturally we want our families to be united and we also believe that Jesus wants the same thing for us. And so to hear him saying that he has not come to bring peace on earth but rather division and that from now on families will be divided three against two, two against three, we find quite difficult and contradictory.
Surely Jesus has come to unite the human race under the fatherhood of God. He wants all to be saved and all to be one. And this is certainly so. You can open the Gospels at any page you like and you will find reference after reference to precisely this aim.
So, what is all this talk about division really about? It is certainly in God’s overall plan for the world to draw all humanity together and so to establish a new world —the Kingdom— in which the values of unity, peace and justice are paramount. However, this is not to be established by force but only by consent.
Entry into the Kingdom of God will only be through our own free will. No one can be forced to accept the Gospel message and indeed there are many in the world today who do not accept it and many who if they do not openly reject the Gospel are certainly quite indifferent to the message it contains.
There are all kinds of reasons why people choose to reject the Gospel. Some have concluded that belief in God and an afterlife is just ‘pie in the sky when you die’. They think that the reason we Christians believe in God is because we are self-deluded and afraid to think that with our death everything will simply be over for us. They think that we spend all our energies trying to accumulate heavenly brownie points in the hope of some unspecified reward in the afterlife.
Others have never really heard or properly understood the Gospel message. Quite a few are simply stumped by the problem of evil; they cannot believe in a God who allows innocent people to suffer unnecessarily. This question is always a difficult one. How is it that a supposedly good God can allow evil in the world?
It certainly is a very complicated question and one has to begin by distinguishing between two evils. The evil caused by us human beings and the evil effects of bad things happening in the world through natural processes such as earthquakes on the one hand and illnesses such as cancer on the other.
God can hardly be considered responsible for the bad things done by a Josef Stalin or a Pol-Pot and their henchmen or even for the smaller misdeeds carried out by the likes of you and me. The only way he can be assigned any responsibility in this regard is because he gave us free will and many of us have abused it. Yet despite all the suffering that it has caused no one in their right mind would want to live a life without a free will.
As far as natural disasters and illnesses go, the world has its natural processes and these very things are what make it on the whole such a congenial place for humanity. Without the wind and the snows and the periodic droughts and earthquakes the world simply would not be the place it is. Change these and you change the very nature of the world and you could well end up making it a more hostile place than it is already.
And if we are to exclude illness from the bargain then are we to live forever? Every organism eventually comes to an end one way or the other—deterioration is the reverse side of the growth that brings us into being and enables us to thrive in the first place.
The bottom line in all this is, of course, suffering. We simply do not like to experience pain ourselves and, while we can at times consider that it might be justified as a punishment, we don’t like to experience it when we are innocent of blame. And especially we don’t understand how the very young or elderly have to suffer when we regard them as guiltless.
The assumption behind all this is that suffering has no meaning. And that is the sticking point for many who find it hard to believe in God. However, the only thing that can make any sense of suffering is that it does actually have a meaning. This is one of the most important truths of the Gospel—suffering is redemptive.
It is through the suffering of Christ on the Cross that we are saved from our transgressions. Christ gave his life so that we might return to a right relationship with God, so that we might be enabled to live a new kind of life with him. He made this sacrifice for us this out of love.
The God we believe in is not a callous and aloof kind of God, one who is indifferent to our sufferings. No, the God we believe in is a suffering God; a God who loves us deeply and who experiences the pains this brings.
As we have seen, not everybody understands this. Not everybody appreciates the full message of the Gospel. Not everybody has achieved this insight about the true nature of God.
And the meaning of today’s Gospel text is not that Christ deliberately wants to bring division and disunity to our families. It is not that he wants to set one against the other. Indeed, he wants the very opposite of this. But unfortunately, not everyone will accept the Gospel and without a doubt some will reject it entirely and perhaps even violently.
The paradox is that the greatest message of peace and unity ever known can frequently cause conflict and disunity. These things are of course very hard to deal with in the family. It is distressing when there are great ideological differences and fundamental disagreements about what is really important in life.
But faith is not a requirement for family living. And faith must never be used in a coercive way otherwise it becomes a complete contradiction of itself. What must be paramount in family living is not acceptance of this or that set of dogmas but the values upon which those doctrines are based. And the most important of these is charity.
Our families may be utterly divided on grounds of religion or more commonly between belief in God and disbelief in God, but they should not be divided in charity and love for one another. When faith comes before love then the only word to describe the result is bigotry.
Even as he speaks about these divisions, Christ’s zeal for the Kingdom is not diminished. He knows that the only thing which will bring lasting peace is the sacrifice he must make on the Cross and he is eager for it to happen. He knows it will mean extreme pain and suffering but he knows too that it will be entirely worth the sacrifice.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket