At first what Jesus says sounds harsh, I mean, did the Son of God really come to break families apart? But division is a part of the life of a family. A child really can't learn to ride their bicycle until dad or mom lets go of the back of it. Like the ice skating cliché: If you never fall, you'll never learn how to pick yourself up.
Plus, let's remember that Luke the Evangelist is writing for the Christians from pagan areas, something like 50 years after the Ascension. Those who read this Gospel certainly would have known through personal experience that Christianity causes division within families and friendships. In other words: what sounds radical to us probably wasn't so radical to the original readers.
But is it really so radical to us? I can't tell you the number of times I've heard the lament of older parishioners about their children don't go to Mass (except for Christmas and Easter). More than a few times I've had the funeral Mass of a man or woman in the 80's, and looking out in the pews is like looking at the layers of an archaeological dig:
- The deceased (let's call her Mary, for example) in the casket, front and center: 88 years old, and a daily Mass/at least monthly Confession goer.
- Mary's children in the front pew: in their high 60's in age, come to Mass every Saturday afternoon (Sunday if they had a wedding/graduation/birthday party to go to the night before). They know when to sit and stand at Mass, and the right responses.
- Mary's grandchildren in pew #2: in their 40s. Went through CCD, got Confirmed and never came back. They come to Mass on Christmas Eve at 4:15 (Mass started at 4) and if there's a wedding, baptism, or funeral. The postures and responses are familiar, but they're out of practice, so they just watch what the rows ahead of them are doing.
- Mary's great-grandchildren in row 4: Teenagers. Went to CCD, but not to Mass. Don't know what to respond, or when to stand or sit. But they really don't care (and worse, they don't care that they don't care). One has her iPod earphones in; the other is playing with his Playstation. They still come up to receive Communion. Can't wait for the funeral to be over because they texted their friends to meet them for lunch.
Sounds like a divided family, no? But the truth is that there's not a lot of division there. The division that is there shows itself between the family and the Church.
- The division was there when the great-grandchildren were told in CCD that missing Mass on Sunday was an offense to God and a sin, and the parents called the CCD office to complain about what the kids were being told. What with soccer and football and cheering and hockey and apple picking and garage sales, there's just no time for church.
- The division happened in the grandchildren when they got mad at Father, because he told them that he needs to see them at Sunday Mass for a few weeks before he allows them to serve as Sponsors for their niece or nephew's Confirmation. "This is why people leave the Church!", we're told just before they hang up. [No, this is what people who have already left the Church use as the excuse they've been hunting for.]
Let me conclude with a story a friend of mine tells. He was invited to the home of parishioners for a get-together, where he gets the line from someone who was angry after being told he couldn't have things the way he wanted for his child's wedding: "Gone are the days when the Priest was always available and willing to go out of his way to help people." He responded (with just as much sarcasm in his voice), "No, gone are the days when the Priest told you 'no', and you listened to him!"