“I have come to set the earth on fire … I came, not to bring peace, but rather division.” Strange words to hear coming from Jesus! We wouldn’t expect him to use fire and the sword (division). Nor did he. When James and John wanted him to call down fire and brimstone on a Samaritan village, he told them they didn’t know what they were talking about. And when Peter drew his sword in the garden, Jesus told him to put it away.
Jesus did not come to cause trouble or to break-up families. But sometimes this happened. In the early days of the Church conversion to Christianity was likely to lead to rejection by the family, and therefore the convert had to make a choice between Christ and the family.
It’s clear that when Jesus talks about bringing fire and division his words are not meant to be taken literally. Yet those words stand for something real in him. Jesus was gentle. But this doesn’t mean that he was weak. When the occasion demanded it he could be very assertive – as when he drove the traders out of the Temple.
These words also stand for something very strong in his teaching. His teaching caused division. He taught that the Kingdom of God was open to everyone – saints and sinners, Jews and Gentiles. This brought him into conflict with the religious establishment of his day. He called the Scribes and Pharisees hypocrites and blind guides. They called him a troublemaker and a man possessed.
If Jesus had flattered people and said only “nice” things to them, he could have made himself popular. But he chose to disturb people, because they needed to be disturbed. His words shocked some and infuriated others. The words he spoke to the poor were different from those he spoke to the rich. The words he spoke to sinners were different from those he spoke to the Pharisees. We betray the Gospel if we reduce it to a bland message to all, which ignores the differences between rich and poor, between the privileged and the dispossessed. Such an insipid Gospel would not be a leaven in the world.
There is a tendency to domesticate the Gospel, to reduce it to pretty words and feel-good experiences. When that happens, the fire has gone out, the leaven has lost its power, the salt has lost its taste, the light has grown dim.
Christians should not be surprised if the Gospel should divide people. Jesus’ sense of justice brought him into conflict with those who exploited the weak and the poor. His integrity brought him into conflict with the dishonest. His tolerance brought him into conflict with the narrow-minded and the bigoted. The brighter the light, the darker the shadows it casts.
Jesus says he came to kindle a fire upon the earth. It’s only an image, a metaphor. But it’s a powerful one. It’s a symbol of judgment and purification. Fire burns up what is useless, and refines what is impure.
The Gospel message is a fire that purifies; it is the leaven of society and the world. A fire needs not only to be kindled but also tended. We, the followers of Jesus, are the tenders of the fire.