Skip to main content

Last Word - November 2013

A Gospel that divides

Jesus sometimes says comforting things. Other times, He says things that are hard to understand. And finally, there are times when He says things that we can fully understand but don’t like.

“I have come to set the earth on fire … Do you think I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, but rather division.” He goes on to tell us that His coming will divide families. We know it is true, of course. We have all experienced it. There is hardly a family where faith has not become a sticking point, a place of friction, misunderstanding, and discomfort. Religion can become one of those things we don’t talk about if we want to remain on good terms with our own family members.

Let me tell you a story about St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day we have recently celebrated. In his early years, he was the life of the party of the other late teens and 20s young people of the town. He was the leader of those enjoying life, taking nothing seriously, living high, laughing and singing through the streets of the town at all hours and getting into his share of mischief. Then a voice told him, “Sell all that you have and give it to the poor.” So he did. His father took exception because some of what he gave away belonged to the family business. So Francis got up in the public square and in the presence of a large crowd, including the local bishop, he stripped himself of all his clothes — which came from his father — and declared, “No longer is Pietro Bernardone my father. From now on, my father is in heaven.” Imagine how that sounded to his father. In this case, it is the son who had been grasped by faith. Jesus sets son against father. Sometimes, obviously, it is the other way around.

There is an expression: God has no grandchildren. Each generation, each individual, must make his or her own decision to become or not become a child of God, a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth. You cannot inherit faith. Your parents, your grandparents cannot give it to you. Your faith must be yours or not. Christianity divides families.

It also separates us from the society, the world in which we live. Christianity is always counter-cultural. No political party truly embodies the values of Christianity, however much one party or another at one time or another tries to co-opt the churches. “Religions,” as Father David Tracy once pointed out, “are exercises in resistance.” Or as Stephen Carter, a Yale professor of law, put it, “The very aspect of religions that many of their critics most fear — that religiously devout, in the name of their faith, take positions that differ from approved state policy — is one of their strengths…. Taking an independent path … is part of what religions are for.”

Christianity surely can and does bring people together. We like that part of the Gospel message. But the preaching of Jesus also warns us that following Him will sometimes set us apart from others: from our culture, from the state, even from members of our own families. Discipleship demands from us choices that we would sometimes rather not make. But we must choose.