One of the central differences between the culture of the Middle East and the culture of the Western World is the place of the individual within those societies. In the West and particularly in the United States of America, the individual person and his rights are inviolable. We champion the rugged individual; such men and women are considered heroes in our literature and in our collective memories. The man or woman who bucks the opinion of the crowd is the ideal to which we all aspire.
For the Middle East, the individual is not nearly as important as the group. Here I refer to family, clan, and community. One finds his or her meaning by looking at his or her position in the group. Perhaps nothing is more important in that thinking than one's family. Family is the ark in which one finds his or her history, present reality and future. One's history is written by one's ancestors. One's present reality is shaped by the other members of the family. One's future is determined in large part by the wealth and the honor that one will inherit from one's elders.
So when Jesus speaks of the dissension that will be caused between father and son, mother and daughter, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, we would be well advised to pay attention to his words. What he is suggesting is so radical that in would have shocked the ears of his listeners. Their first and immediate response would have been to reject the notion that they would do anything to cause such dissension. Yet Jesus suggests that not only will discipleship cause such dissension, he is actually saying that he wishes that this fire would already be ablaze.
We are already aware of the fact that Jesus surrounded himself with twelve special disciples whom we call apostles. More often, the Gospels simply refer to them as The Twelve. We are also aware of the fact that every once in a while, Jesus' family members are mentioned in the Gospel. Jesus invariably chooses to focus on those who hear his message and follow his words rather than upon his family members. The Twelve, in fact, stand as what Scripture scholars call a "fictive" family, a new family, a group which has in fact replaced his natural family of "brothers and sisters." What Jesus is saying in the Gospel passage for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time is simply that the "family" of those who follow Jesus must become our priority, must supersede the concerns we may have about our natural family. Jesus must be, at all times and for all intents and purposes, our priority even when it means (and we hope that it will not) that we must distance ourselves from those we love.
It is inevitable, however, that dissension will occur in some families. If we remember that the Gospels were written at least a generation after Jesus walked this earth, we will readily understand that it is probable that the evangelists have already experienced that kind of dissension. By placing these words in the mouth of Jesus, the evangelists offer the Christian community a way to understand their situation. This Gospel passage will certainly ring true for many parents who have raised their children to be practicing Catholics and who are plagued with doubts when those children seem to forsake the practice of their faith.
To be sure, today's Gospel is the "other edge" of that storied two-edged sword. The Gospel is about challenge as well as comfort. Today we let the "great cloud of witnesses" from the Letter to the Hebrews remind us that it has been so for the past 2,000 years. Choosing to follow Jesus will inevitably upset some apple-carts.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator