In Luke 12:51-53, Jesus tells his disciples:
“Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”
What do the family dynamics within this divided household look like? For starters, exactly how many people are we talking about? St. Ambrose (337-397 AD) clarifies this point:
“Though the connection would seem to be of six persons, father and son, mother and daughter, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, yet are they five, for the mother and the mother-in-law may be taken as the same, since she who is the mother of the son, is the mother-in-law of his wife.”
Jesus describes these five persons as divided into two factions, “three against two and two against three.” We learn from his further details that the father opposes his son, while the mother opposes the other two females. Depending on whether this father and mother are allied or not, their household could be divided in two possible patterns.
Figure 1 shows the family split generationally, with the parents set against the children. In Figure 2, the fractures cut between the couples. (Jesus not mentioning marital strife suggests the first interpretation and this is the favored reading of St. Bede,1 yet the ambiguity of these passages may well be intentional.2) In any case, Jesus is the occasion for this household’s divisions. One side (either the blue or the orange) rejects him while the other acknowledges him as Lord. Sometimes one’s allegiance to Christ leads to interpersonal conflict, even within families.
This prompts St. Ambrose to ask:
“Are we to believe that [our Lord] has commanded discord within families? How is he our peace, who has made both one? How does he himself say, ‘My peace I give you, my peace I leave you,’ if he has come to separate fathers from sons and sons from fathers by the division of households? How is he cursed who dishonors his father and devout who forsakes him?”
St. Ambrose unknots the seeming paradox in this way:
“It is necessary that we should esteem the human less than the divine. If honor is to be paid to parents, how much more to your parents’ Creator, to whom you owe gratitude for your parents! … He does not say children should reject a father but that God is to be set before all. … You are not forbidden to love your parents, but you are forbidden to prefer them to God.”
People sometimes hesitate to commit to Christian lifestyle changes, pursue their God-given vocations, or enter Christ’s Catholic Church because they fear the reactions of family, friends, or others. But even if following Jesus Christ entails sacrifices, these persons should not be afraid to place God first. Notice how the Lord does not say “five will be divided, four against one and one against four.” When three unbelievers pit themselves against two faithful ones, the pair are blessed with each other’s support. Should your family disown you, the Lord will summon faithful friends to your side. Even if your friends should leave you, the Lord provides you with the household of believers in his Church. Even if your parish community should fail to welcome or support you, the Lord will not make you stand alone — for Jesus Christ is always at your side and will never abandon you.
1. St. Bede (672-735 AD) assumes Figure 1 for his allegorical interpretation of the Divided Household:
“By three are signified those who have faith in the Trinity, by two the unbelievers who depart from the unity of the faith. But the father is the devil, whose children we were by following him, but when that heavenly fire came down, it separated us from one another, and showed us another Father who is in heaven. The mother is the Synagogue, the daughter is the Primitive Church, who had to bear the persecution of that same synagogue, from whom she derived her birth, and whom she did herself in the truth of the faith contradict. The mother-in-law is the Synagogue, the daughter-in-law the Gentile Church, for Christ the husband of the Church is the son of the Synagogue, according to the flesh. The Synagogue then was divided both against its daughter-in-law, and its daughter, persecuting believers of each people. But they also were divided against their mother-in-law and mother, because they wished to abolish the circumcision of the flesh.”
2. Perhaps our Lord (in preaching these words) and the Holy Spirit (in inspiring these Lucan passages) fully-intended this ambiguity. By providentially allowing for both readings (i.e., Figures 1 & 2) this teaching can reflect more varieties of interfamily conflict: spousal, sibling, in-law, parental and filial.