Why Does Jesus Say He Came to Divide?

Question: In Luke 12:51 Jesus says “Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. “They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”What does this mean? It would seem that he would come here to unite?

Upon first reading, Jesus’ statement here does seem shocking, as does the prediction by the aged Simeon when Jesus was an infant that Jesus was “destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed…” (Luke 2:34) It appears in stark contrast to other promises that the Savior would bring peace. However, if we read this passage in the context of the prophetic tradition — which Luke draws on throughout his gospel — we realize that Jesus is challenging his listeners just like the prophets of old did before him. He denounces all manners of injustice and wrongdoing, calling for repentance and conversion. By calling his listeners to consciously and explicitly choose to walk in God’s ways and turn from injustice, he points out the human reality that the peace will be disturbed because there are others who will not repent of their evil doings. When prophets issue challenges, they always disturb the peace. The division is not created by the prophets or by Jesus, it is a natural outcome of listeners making different decisions about whether to follow Jesus or not. Just so, Jesus declared “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Luke 11:23).

Ann Naffziger

Ann Naffziger

Ann Naffziger is a scripture instructor and spiritual director in the San Francisco Bay area. She has has written articles on spirituality and theology for various national magazines and edited several books on the Hebrew Scriptures.


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