A few weeks ago, I attended a birthday party for a two-year-old; there was much rejoicing. Most of the rejoicing took the form of gleeful shrieks from the birthday boy’s similarly-aged guests. As the afternoon wore on, the gleeful shrieks turned into whines, whimpers, and temper tantrums. I remarked to one of the parents that her home must be a place of high drama; she responded in the affirmative and added that, for that very reason, she worked fulltime.
The gaggle of young children at the birthday party, as they grew increasingly fatigued, began to cry and complain; this was to be expected. In part, it was the result of exhaustion but it was also behavior calculated to elicit a particular response from the parents. Typically, when parents see their children in such distress, they tend to comfort the children by assuring them that things will get better soon enough; Scriptural texts like today’s Gospel reading serve the same purpose.
Today’s Gospel reading contains a few apocalyptic sayings by Jesus. He asks rhetorically, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?” (Lk. 12:51), and continues, “No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three.” (Lk. 12:51-52) No family wants to experience conflict between parents and children, yet Jesus says that he will instigate such conflict. In order to understand this saying by Jesus, it is necessary to grasp the nature of Biblical apocalyptic. As I mentioned above, the purpose of Biblical apocalyptic is to assure us that things will get better soon enough.
The many examples of apocalyptic in the Scriptures were written to congregations experiencing persecution and injustice. Biblical apocalyptic looks forward, using fantastical imagery, to the conclusion of history when God will renew creation and put an end to sin and death. Like toddlers crying for their parents’ attention, biblical apocalyptic intends to elicit a particular response from readers; the particular response that apocalyptic and all other Scriptural texts intend to elicit is a choice for trust and personal freedom.
The divisions that Jesus predicts will result from his preaching are the sorts of responses that the fearful react against but the free accept as unavoidable.
A friend of mine loves to read newspaper editorials about local and national politics; he loves to read them because the editorials wind him up emotionally and impel him to rant about all the people and things he doesn’t like. He often asks me if I’ve read a particular editorial that really set him off. My response is always the same; I always tell him that I don’t read editorials because I already have plenty of opinions of my own and don’t need any new ones.
There are lots of things and events in the world that can get a person very upset. There are lots of people in the world who thrive on the experience of being upset by what goes on around them; honestly, it’s probably an addictive behavior.
There is a divinely-inspired alternative to being tossed about like a tiny boat on a stormy sea. The divinely-inspired alternative to addiction to emotional storms is to cultivate personal freedom and to trust in God. One of the inarguable lessons of apocalyptic is that, whatever it is that bothers you the most, it will all be over soon enough. Life is short, the world changes daily, and often our perceptions are inadequate and incomplete; the sufferings we endure, whether great or small, last only a while.
The apocalyptic sayings in today’s Gospel intend to assure us that the evil we endure is finite; it will pass away. If we can be honest with ourselves, the source of suffering and injustice is the grim fact that goodness in this world is limited. We can take comfort, however, in the corollary to this fact, namely, that the evil in this world is also limited.
The good and evil that enter and exit our lives are, for the most part, entirely beyond our control. Lacking control over what we love and what we hate, we are faced with a choice between freedom and fear. Jesus addresses this unavoidable choice in today’s Gospel reading. Some people reacted to his preaching by believing; others rejected him. Inevitably, divisions and conflicts arose because of the differing responses to Jesus.
Jesus never intended to drive anyone away or to drive individuals apart; such divisions, however, are the unavoidable consequence of hearing God’s Word. The fearful will always struggle against the truth and the free will always find consolation. Jesus intends to elicit a response of trust and freedom from those who hear his words. He says about his message, “how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!” (Lk. 12:50) Like us, Jesus anticipates that day when evil will end.
Despite the vagaries of life in this universe, we can take comfort in the knowledge that evil passes away soon enough. When we are afflicted by suffering and injustice, our distress elicits a response from God who comforts and assures us. God, in turn, waits for a response from us, namely, that we grow in freedom and trust.