Thomas J Parlette
“A Difficult Saying”
Luke 12: 49-56
As you might surmise from the sermon title, this passage for today is one of those that has been referred to as one of Jesus’ difficult sayings. Jesus said a great many things that were heard to swallow – just think of the Sermon on the mount…
“Blessed are the poor in spirit
Blessed are those who mourn
Blessed are the meek
Blessed are you who are persecuted”
Really? It’s hard to feel blessed when people are persecuting you.
In addition, Jesus said, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery…
If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off…
If someone strikes you on the right cheek, offer the left as well…
If anyone takes your coat, give them your cloak too…
If someone forces you to walk a mile – go two.
All difficult sayings because they go against our human nature.
Or, how about the time Jesus’ mother and brothers tried to get in to see him and he turned them away saying “those who do the will of God are my brothers and sisters.” Difficult – how could Jesus say something like that?
Or, earlier in Luke, we hear a would-be follower tell Jesus he first needed to bury his father, and Jesus seems pretty heartless when he implies the man should leave his family obligations behind. Not exactly the family-values Jesus we might expect.
And remember, in Matthew’s version of this story, Jesus says “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.” Just a tad bit more graphic in Matthew’s telling. A difficult saying to be sure.
Preaching professor Eugene Lowry used to say that a preacher should approach a text “looking for trouble.”(1) If that’s true, there’s certainly quite a bit of trouble to choose from here.
By and large, we don’t really want to hear Jesus talk about bringing fire and dividing families. We would probably prefer to think of “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild…” as Charles Wesley wrote in one of his well-known Christmas hymns.
It reminds me of a scene from a decidedly non-religious movie, but one in which there is actually quite a bit of prayer. Perhaps you’ve run across Will Ferrel’s movie “Talledaga Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.”
Ricky Boby is a stock car driver on the NASCAR circuit. He is at the peak of his career when he is involved in an accident that affects his confidence, and he struggles to find his way back into racing. It’s a silly, tongue-in-cheek parody of NASCAR and racing movies in general.
In one scene pretty early in the movie, Ricky Bobby is sitting down to dinner with his family. Every imaginable kind of fast-food is spread all over the table, and Ricky Bobby begins to say grace…
“Dear Lord Baby Jesus, thanks so much for this bountiful harvest of Domino’s, KFC and the always delicious Taco Bell (because those are the sponsors for his race car, so that’s all the family eats).”
After going on for awhile, his wife stops him and says, “Ricky Bobby, why do you always pray to the Baby Jesus? He grew up, you know – he had a beard!”
“Look, I like Christmas Jesus best, and I’m sayin grace. When you say grace, you can say it to Grown-Up Jesus or Teenage Jesus or Bearded Jesus or whoever you want.”
His wife rolls her eyes and Ricky Bobby goes on…
“Dear Tiny Jesus, in your golden fleece diapers with your tiny, little balled up baby fists, Thank You, for all your power and your grace.
Dear Baby God, Amen.”
The scene goes downhill from there, but I think that scene captures something true. Most Christians like the Baby Jesus of Christmas time the best. Christmas Jesus is manageable. Baby Jesus is sweet and safe, meek and mild. But then Jesus grows up. And he grows into his call, and he is known for saying some pretty difficult and challenging things.
Tony Campolo, a well-known Christian speaker and author, once wrote a blog on the site Red Letter Christians called “Why Christians don’t like Jesus.” He wrote:
“Many Christians believe in retribution. They want a God who tells them that there should be an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and they become furious when anyone suggests another kind of God who asks them to be merciful and forgiving…
“The God revealed in Jesus Christ is far too generous. He gives his all in love for others, and expects us to do the same. Such a God is too demanding for most Christians. They want a God who only requires a tithe. They sing about total giving, but in the end they would like to sing, “One-tenth to Jesus I surrender, one-tenth to him I gladly give – I surrender one-tenth. I surrender one-tenth.” Ultimately, they want a God who declares as an abomination all those who offend their social mores.” Who don’t think like they do.
“The Bible says that God created us in his own image. Unfortunately, George Bernard Shaw was correct when he said, “We have decided to return the favor.” There is no doubt that most Christians want a God in their own image, but that’s not the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. God is not an American who would carry within his psyche all the traits of judgment and prejudices so evident among those who want nothing to do with the God who breaks loose in the Sermon on the Mount.”(2)
It is not Jesus’ purpose or intent to bring division and discord. But Jesus knows that the message he brings, and must deliver, will cause division. This passage is descriptive and predictive, but it is not a prescription or a recommendation.
That is to say, it is not Jesus purpose to set children against their parents, or parents against their children, but this sort of rupture can be the result of the changes brought on by Christ’s work.
For example, consider the story of Ron Luce. Luce’s parents divorced when he was a child. When he was 15, he moved in with his father. But his father was not someone you would give a “World’s Greatest Dad” mug to. Ron’s Dad actually him to smoke pot and party. For a while Ron thought he’d found the perfect life. But then, a friend invited Ron to church. This little church was alive with joy, and the pastor’s message connected with Ron, and he chose to become a follower of Jesus Christ. The joy he discovered changed his life. He stopped smoking and partying and began sharing his faith with all his friends. The result of that was that not long afterwards, his father and stepmother kicked him out of the house. They said they didn’t want a “Jesus Freak” as they called him, living with them.
So at 16 years old, Ron was temporarily homeless and living out of his car. Ron’s pastor eventually took him in, and as Ron would later write, “Being a part of my pastor’s family was the most incredible experience of my Christian growth.”(3)
With the support of his new family, Ron Luce graduated from high school and college and went into the ministry. Today, he is the co-founder and President of Teen Mania Ministries, where he devotes himself to spreading the message of God’s hope and love to teenagers.
“Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? Said Jesus. “No, I tell you, but division.”
As always, context is crucial. Keep in mind who Jesus is talking to when he talks about peace and division. He was speaking to his disciples – not a large group of people who were listening to him for the first time, but his inner circle of people who had been travelling with him for some time now. His purpose seems to be to correct any misconceptions they held about what following him entailed. When he asked them, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth?”, he was challenging their assumption that he was going to establish the messianic reign Israel had long looked for, where they would be an independent people again, secure in the borders of a land flowing with milk and honey.
Commentator Stephen Wright says, “the most powerful thrust of Jesus’ words is surely against the comfortable assumption that the promised time of peace would involve perpetuation of the standard segregation of the world into the nation of Israel, and “the nations” or the Gentiles; the assumption that “peace” would involve victory of the former over the latter.”(4)
That, as we now know, was not where Jesus was headed. He was already feeling the shadow of the cross, and, if the disciples were going to stay with him, they needed to know that the way ahead would force them to not only leave behind their expectations of messianic peace, but also to make hard choices about who had a claim on them.
Jesus is not divisive personally, but his call is divisive. The message Jesus brings about how to live in God’s Kingdom divides those who would be ruled by self-interest from those who would be ruled by God-interest.
Jesus reminds his disciples, then and now, that he is not bringing peace in terms of a victory over an enemy. He is bringing a different kind of peace. As Frederick Buechner says, “For Jesus, peace seems to have meant not the absence of struggle, but the presence of love.”(5)
And that is a difficult saying in every day and age. The peace that Jesus brings does not mean the absence of struggle or division or conflict. The peace that Jesus brings means the presence of love in how we live.
May that be the kind of peace in which we live – living with the presence of love.
May God be praised. Amen.
1. David J. Schlafer, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p359.
2. Homileticsonline, retrieved July 17th, 2019.
3. Dynamic Preaching, Vol.XXXV, No 3, p35.
4. Homileticsonline, retrieved July 17th, 2019.