Can you explain the meaning of Luke 12:49-53?
Luke 12:49-53 says: Jesus said to his disciples: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”
This passage was recently proclaimed at Sunday Masses (for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time on August 14). Recalling my own homily for that day I will repeat some of the points I made then; but I also want to advise that my words are only one way of reflecting upon the meaning of this passage – as multiple layers of meaning are often present in the Scriptures that we read. On this particular day, my homily focused upon the reality of Jesus as the Truth – and that His coming to establish “division” was to be understood as a consequence of His being the Truth, and not because He was looking to deliberately cause division among families. Remember that Jesus’ end goal is our salvation – and therefore, in this context of unity versus division, we should keep in mind His seeking to establish the eternal union of all of His people in the fullness of the life of the Trinity in the Kingdom of Heaven. However, wherever the truth is lived and spoken in our fallen world, unfortunately it often leads to division, even within families. While we might have difficulty accepting Jesus as a cause of division, it is likely clear to each of us how truth frequently leads to tension or all out division in relationships.
As an example of such division, I used the all too common reality of division in family when one member of the family accepts a religious vocation (either to priesthood or consecrated life) and how in some instances such a strong commitment of that one family member to their faith in Christ leads to division in families – even if the other members are also believers. I referred to examples of “many saints” that had experienced the disapproval of their parents when they announced their desire to enter into a life of consecration to Christ. In many of these cases the parents of these saints were believers; however, for their own selfish reasons (especially in times of pre-arranged marriages) some of these parents inflicted punishment on their own child as a means to prevent them from responding to the call to priesthood or religious life. Such is an example a real division that exists in families over Christ. Another image of division found frequently in our own times is when one family member (in a charitable way) points out the sin of another, thus causing division – as once more the truth, even in charity, can cause division.
What is important with this passage (and others like it where Jesus’s words are shocking) is to remember the end goal is eternal life in Heaven, and it is not an “earthly” goal. That Jesus is a cause of division in the world is therefore more easily understood – as the world has been given over to evil which cannot accept the Truth who is Christ. Similarly, what the world defines and values as “unity” is not the same as the perfect unity of Heaven: for earthly unity at times is nothing more than “people being nice to each other and not fighting,” where true unity is in being one with God Himself, who is perfect unity, truth, and love.
Minding again that my words are only one perspective on this passage, I encourage you to look for more explanations of this passage in places like Bishop Robert Barron’s website, www.wordonfire.org, under the “Resources” tab where there is a link to his homilies; or there are other notable Catholic voices on the internet where one can look (Msgr. Charles Pope is another that comes to mind) as these voices will give other perspectives on this very surprising Gospel, along with many more passages of the Scripture.