Luke 12: 49-53
In this passage Jesus speaks of the meaning of his life. To fulfill his God-given destiny, he has resolutely set his face toward Jerusalem. There, refusing to be diverted from his mission of love, he will be rejected, suffer greatly and meet a violent death. He says that he is filled with great anguish until the mission he has been given is completed. Sensing a growing hostility, he tells his disciples that his intention is not to establish peace, but rather division—dividing even households and families.
At first glance one would not recognize the sayings of Jesus in this gospel passage as good news—there is the allusion to his own suffering and death, as well as his statement about bringing division, not peace. People in bondage to any kind of slavery or oppression, however, would have no trouble understanding exactly what Jesus is talking about. They would know that what they were hearing was good news. When someone like Martin Luther King appears in a situation where people are hopelessly caught in oppression, the immediate consequence is not peace, but division—even in households and families.
An oppressive system does not fix itself of its own accord. It takes a strong person of compassion not merely to lament injustice, but to risk life itself to proclaim liberation from oppression and hope of a new way of living. The very presence of such a person provokes a crisis whereby everyone involved in the system must choose either actively to hope for the new reality or to resist its coming.
Jesus understood that he had been sent to a fallen world in bondage—a humanity hopelessly mired in false value-systems of covetousness, violence, and idolatry. This was not merely some local situation of economic oppression imposed by a selfish landowner. Jesus was engaged in a cosmic struggle against the realm of Satan in order to restore God’s kingdom to people long held in slavery to demonic powers. Paul, particularly in his Letter to the Romans, speaks of the universality of the bondage. All humanity lives under the power of sin. And even with the most well-intentioned effort, those in slavery—Jews and Gentiles alike—are not able to live according to God’s will.
Jesus symbolically shows that he has entered the realm of Satan with God’s power to liberate humanity from bondage by casting out demons. He shows that people will be able to use their freedom to live in a new way by curing people paralyzed to inaction by illness. Jesus in his own life shows what it means to be completely free from the false value-systems of Satan’s reign, and to live in submission to God’s reign—not as to a powerful king, but to a loving father.
As we hear the words of Jesus about the meaning of his life at our Eucharistic liturgy, we realize that they are living words spoken to us. Jesus means to provoke a crisis of decision in us even though it might disturb the peace and cause division. If we hear his words in faith, we will take a close look at the system of values whereby in practice we live our own lives. Though professing membership in the Church, am I still in bondage to the false value-systems of a fallen world? How do I define the meaning of my life? How do I define the meaning of success?
Jesus, now Risen Lord, is present among us not only to provoke a crisis of decision, but to enable us to actualize the reality of God’s reign in ourselves. In that reality, although it may cost us something, we too can enter situations of oppression with the compassion and healing power of Jesus. With God’s grace, we too can sometimes be instruments of liberation and hope for people who are held in bondage.
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.