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Lectionary Living

Families divided

Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19  •  Jeremiah 23:23-29 and Psalm 82  •  Hebrews 11:29-12:2  •  Luke 12:49-56


    This week's reading from Luke, if nothing else, is an inspiring example of brevity as the soul of wit. In a short seven verses, Jesus describes his challenges as redeemer of the cosmos, the conflictual nature of family relationships, and the stunning ability of human beings to attend to changes in the weather while failing to anticipate our own demise. Irony alert: this was 2000 years before climate change became a thing.


    Jesus begins, like the best of teachers, with a question: Did you think my purpose was to bring peace? Well, to be honest, yes, right? Peace is a good thing, and disagreements are a bad thing. Since kindergarten we've all been taught to get along. How could it be that Jesus, king of peace, could have come to bring division?


     To begin, peace itself can mean a lot of different things. A cozy togetherness is a harmony we may long for, but it can be a fleeting thing. Sometimes it is based in a real joy, but sometimes it is a fake calm, built on the ability of individuals to rein in their own thoughts and feelings. When people start to sacrifice their own selves for a sense of peace in the group, the peace is not lasting. To the extent that persons in a family can be themselves with each other, without fear of judgement or outright ostracism, with freedom to disagree and define oneself differently and respectfully while staying connected with each other, a family has found its way to a true peace.


    In the meantime, though, divisions in families are the norm. Coalitions form – three against two, two against three. Parents are pitted against children, and in-laws get a special mention on Jesus' list. The trouble is that these groupings have been going on for a long time. If a mother-in-law was hated by her mother-in-law, the new daughter-in-law may find herself despised (or its opposite, intensely adored) for no apparent reason. If a son was abandoned by his father during the depression, he may have trouble getting along with his own son. And so it goes, until one person decides to go a different direction.  


    Anyone in a family can decide to begin connecting more authentically with others. It is not easy work. Some families avoid contact altogether. Many families are accustomed to an arms-length armistice, more or less, with an uneasy truce and little or no factual information from the past. Others spend a great deal of time together, involving elaborate efforts to please others, coalition formations, identification of today's outsiders and little attention to one's inner self. There are endless variations. The person in a family who begins to work towards defining a self while connecting with other family members is on a road with many twists and turns, and untold divisions. The road also leads to a larger perspective, and with that, one can begin to understand the larger truth of one's family story.


    With truth also comes freedom and true peace. Still, it is not a simple peace. Family members can disagree profoundly. In Dietrich Bonhoeffer's family, for example, was at least one member who was pro-Nazi, and who refused to attend the wedding of Dietrich's twin sister to a man of Jewish heritage. Dietrich's grandmother, on the other hand, was 90 years old in 1932 when, disregarding Hitler's mandate to refrain from shopping at stores owned by Jews, she put on her best clothes and headed out to her favorite department store. The Nazi guards let her through. The divisions within her family and community did not keep her from doing what she thought best. Her example may have inspired her grandson and other family members to be brave in difficult times. Facing division while remaining oneself – and respecting the dignity of every human being – is hard work. And it begins with one's own next-of-kin.


For reflection

Morning: Who in my family do I have trouble being myself with? Who am I interested in knowing better? Where is a place I could start today?

Evening: Who did I get to know better today? What surprised me? How was my perspective broadened?

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