The Politics of Unity, Division, and Discernment—Luke 12:49-56 (Richard Davis)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

Jesus, against our expectations, comes to bring division in places where unity formerly existed. He calls us to be attentive to the way the winds of our age are blowing.

49 ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided:

father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’

54 He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

This is not a reading for Sunday School. It is not a reading that comforts. It is not a reading for polite society. It is a reading that is difficult even for mature Christians, with Jesus’s destructive fire, stress, division, and judgment. We are probably more comfortable with a Jesus that builds up, comforts, brings unity, and offers grace. But when it comes to Jesus we must take the whole package.

In this passage, Jesus, sometimes known as the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6), promises division and not peace. We might think that God is the author of ontological peace or a universal peace to come, but in Jesus’s ministry, his peace is not quite as all-embracing as we might expect.

Luke’s Jesus preaches peace (Acts 10:36), but it is not quite within the reach of all. In Luke 2:14 we read of angels proclaiming to Jesus’s father Joseph: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” Later, in Luke 19:42, Jesus laments that “the things that make for peace” are hidden from the eyes of Jerusalem.

We might conclude that in Luke, peace is God’s gift to those with eyes to see, or those God favors. Most other uses of the word ‘peace’ in Luke are consistent with this, with Jesus blessing favored households or individuals, with the words, “Go in peace.” Jesus, therefore, has not come to bring peace to the earth, if we take the earth to be everyone, everywhere.

Instead of peace, Jesus brings “division”. Sometimes this word reads ‘sword’ (cf. Matthew 10:34-36). But here we must stick to the Lukan text and not its parallel or a mistranslation.

However, as we know, the sword is a divider, such as when King Solomon threatened to divide the disputed baby in 1 Kings 3. A sword also has a metaphorical meaning, as in Hebrews 4:12, where the word of God is called a sword that “divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow”. Here in Luke, there is no message that Jesus brings war or violence, he is simply portrayed as the one who divides.

Jesus’ words about family division are an echo of Micah 7:6 in which one’s loved ones cannot be trusted completely. Instead one’s trust must be in the Lord. What is new here is that Jesus is the cause of family division.

One interpretation is that division between family members is something Christians may experience as a result of following Jesus to the cross. In Luke 14:26, however, followers of Christ do not passively suffer this division, but must even hate their family and even life itself in making discipleship of Christ paramount.

Commentators are sometimes too quick to point out that this division is not political and exists within families alone. But in the history of Christian political thought, the family is sometimes portrayed as the original political association, demonstrating our communal and political nature.

For others, how we live in families and household is political and how we treat one another in families has political consequences. In Plato’s Republic, for instance, the family features as a means to ensure peace and obedience in the polis, by using familial names for addressing others. Plato hopes that in calling each other brothers, citizens will treat each other like brothers (Republic, § 463c–d).

On the face of it, this reading of Jesus as the divider is in conflict with claims that it is actually the devil who is the great divider. Jacques Ellul thought that division was the politics of the devil—the one who not only tries to divide individuals from both the Creator and the creation, but also brother from brother, sister from sister, and nation from nation. For Ellul, the devil creates political divisions, such as nations, political parties, elections, and causes, whereby politics, as the realm of power causes division and war and violence (see Ellul’s Living Faith and Anarchy and Christianity). In the devil’s political realm there are only winners and losers, and never a win-win situation.

But in our text, Jesus is the sole cause of division. It is Christ and his message which causes divisions and conflict. The only division mentioned here are the divisions within the household, two against three. What causes this division? Is it the message of the gospel, which not all will accept?

The usual interpretation of this text is that one must choose the gospel or reject it. Some are in Kingdom and some are not. There is a time of decision and not all will be found ready. Division resulting from separation of the faithful from the profane is a part of the biblical tradition and this is not foreign to Christian tradition, with many Christians separating themselves from the profanity of politics. Sadly, religious divisions are also seen within the church today, which is divided along racial, political, class, and denominational lines.

The notion that religion divides people is at home in our modern world. In modernity it is a commonplace that religion divides and causes wars, while it is politics that unites us under the sovereignty of the state. A country has to be unified to move forward and political leaders prefer not to deal with disunity in their party or nation.

In the age of Empire, the model was many people under one ruler, under one God. Nationalistic and patriotic rituals were used to overcome the hyper-individualism of the nineteenth century. Today, propaganda and sports, such as the Olympics, are used to unify the polity.

On the other hand, politics divides people, even families. Family division today is not only caused by religion, it is also caused by politics. In 2016, families in the UK have been divided over Brexit, with some being ‘leavers’ and some ‘remainers’. In the wake of Brexit, the Labour Party, is perhaps fatally divided. And as a result of Brexit the European family is also divided. In the USA, it is no surprise that families and communities are divided between Democrats and Republicans, but surprisingly each party is also deeply divided against itself.

Important as they may be, these divisions are somewhat temporary and superficial. Some argue that politics itself is about division in its very essence. As Carl Schmitt famously said, politics is about distinguishing between friend and enemy (The Concept of the Political). It is about division of us and them. Knowing who the enemy is, within or without, is necessary in order to govern, and is the very basis of the political. Which vision, unity or division is predominant in politics? Politics, we might say, lives in the dialectic of unity and division.

A dialectic between unity and division also exists within Christianity. While Christ talks here of the division he brings, one may observe that Christ came into a world of divided Jewish sects and sought to unify people in his coming Kingdom. In the previous chapter of Luke, we read Jesus say: “Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert, and house falls on house” (Luke 11:17).

This is a comment about his not being of the devil—for why would the devil cast out the devil’s own demons? No, Jesus was casting out demons on the basis of his divinity, divided against the devil. And in Luke 12:14 Jesus refuses to act as arbitrator in a family dispute asking “who made me a judge or a divider over you?” (KJV).

Jesus’s one baptism into one church was seen by Paul as a source of unity in Christ. He asks the church at Corinth: “Has Christ been divided?” (1 Corinthians 1:13). Such divisions would be scandalous. But while in summary we might say that Christianity offers the prospect of unity, this reality cannot be forced upon a free people. As a result there will inevitably be division in churches and even families.

Finally, Jesus calls his hearers hypocrites for interpreting the weather but not the “present time”. It is important to recognize here that you cannot have time without place. Jesus demands attention to one’s time and place. For this reason, there is something deeply incarnational and worldly about Jesus’ expectation of his listeners. This is not looking to the sky for God, but analyzing the here and now.

Why are the people called hypocrites here? One reason could be that these verses are a continuation of Jesus’s criticism of people storing up wealth on earth and worrying about food will come from (Luke 12:16ff.). His rural audience would have analyzed the weather patterns, like all farmers do, in order to maximize their yield and avoid weather-related crop losses. Are they focussing too much on what doesn’t really matter?

Another point here is that the farmers interpret the weather for themselves. They do not rely on the weather forecasters to tell them what they can figure out for themselves. As Bob Dylan sang in his influential song, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ (1965), “You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”.

This line is notorious for inspiring the name of the Weathermen, who broke with the Students for a Democratic Society to form a radical terrorist organization. But in his song Dylan was summarizing the anti-authoritarian zeitgeist of 1960s America. His message to society was, look around, think for yourself, and do not let untrustworthy authorities tell you want is going on.

Jesus was perhaps saying a similar thing to his audience. If we can see for ourselves which way the wind is blowing, then we should apply the same independent reason to interpreting the here and now. The farmers of Jesus time had no weather forecasters, but they may have had “the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities” interpreting the times for them. But, as Christ indicates, that these authorities may not have had the interests of the poor at heart (Luke 12:11).

What can help us interpret the “present time” or our kairos moment? There is no help to answer this question from our passage, just the imperative that it must be done. It is obvious that the “present time” is different for each generation. But our age being different does not necessarily mean that we need different ways of analyzing the times from former generations, or that we do things better with all our technology. In fact, our modern technological means of analysis might be an obstacle to wise discernment of the present time.

Perhaps Jesus would call us hypocrites for the disconnect between our technologies and our wisdom. We can measure and predict so many more phenomena today than 2000 years ago, but we still fail to make sense of the here and now. Our political forecasting is advanced, with political polls measuring public opinions, and pundits publishing scores of blog posts and op eds. But the more we can measure things, the less discernment we seem able to have and the deep realities of life. Perhaps if we focused more on the coming Kingdom of God rather than any earthly kingdom we might made progress in doing so.


Dr. Richard A. Davis is Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at the Pacific Theological College in Suva, Fiji Islands. He tweets on @rad_1968.

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