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Divided We Fall

Luke 12:49-56

The Rev. Jon Roberts

14 August


Calvary Episcopal Church

Indian Rocks Beach, FL

49 “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished! 51 Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division; 52 for henceforth in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” 54 He also said to the multitudes, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming’; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky; but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?


Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard by Marten van Valckenborch 1580-1590

United we stand, divided we fall.

To say that this phrase is ancient and widely used is an understatement. Many of us today would say that the phrase is a motto on our currency, a placard above many federal and state buildings as we see as the motto for Kentucky and Missouri. Some would ascribe that it was credited to Abraham Lincoln in his famous, “House divided” speech. This was right before he lost to the Democrat candidate, in the notorious, Lincoln-Douglas debates for the Illinois senate race. Some may go back to Patrick Henry, as he gave his own speech in Virginia, two weeks before his death when he said, “Let us trust God. United we stand and divided we fall.” To the historians, the English Bishop of Lincoln recall Robert Grosseteste, who in the year 1253 gave a rebuke to King Henry III who wanted to separate the authority of the church from the monarchy, saying, “It is written, united we stand and divided we fall.” To the biblical narrative the sayings of Jesus come to mind, specifically in Luke’s eleventh chapter when he said, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls.”[1] “What is the actual moral, the application of this story,” we must ask ourselves.

A storyteller, long ago in Greece whose name was Aesop wrote marvelous fables that were passed down for hundreds of years. There was one, titled “The Four Oxen and the Lion” that is accredited to our saying today and went like this: "A Lion used to prowl about a field in which Four Oxen used to dwell. Many a time he tried to attack them; but whenever he came near, they turned their tails to one another, so that whichever way he approached them he was met by the horns of one of them. At last, however, they fell a-quarrelling among themselves, [divided] and each went off to pasture alone in a separate corner of the field. Then the Lion attacked them one by one and soon made an end of all four.”[2] The moral of the story is, “United we stand, divided we fall.”

Let us now turn to scripture to understand what is morally relative and applicable to our own lives today. Look at the reading from the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament. Instead of the illustration of oxen being devoured by a lion, he refers to a vineyard, once beautiful, sprawling, yielding great fruit, which is now being pillaged, devoured and destroyed. Once, there was unity and balance. It was a fertile vineyard where the master sang a love song for its beauty. He planted a good and true vine to yield sumptuous grapes. He protected it with a wall and a hedge. He even put a watchtower in the middle for good measure. But, upon his return, instead of good grapes being found, wild ones came forth. What was sweet and lovely turned sour and spoiled. The story is a sad one and has deep meaning.

The prophet Isaiah writes this song to the “beloved”, calling them back, once again to the intended order God commanded them to follow.[3] He had a plan and the people screwed it up. How did this take place? Over time. Over time, they squandered the inheritance, fought with one another and sold out their people. The wild boar that came through the hedge devoured the vines and all the low hanging fruit. The people of different nations, who had different ideologies came over the wall and plucked the rest. The fruitful vine refers to the blessing of the wife’s fertility and the sanctimony of the marriage kept with true fidelity. The family was at the core and the procreative development from this union would ensure succession rights. All that was left was the wild, unwanted grape. The wild grape is a sour harvest. It has no value. Why did the guard in the watchtower not take aim to thwart the invaders? They did not because they fell asleep or simply decided to look the other way. Isaiah is referring to the Priests and the Temple as the Watchtower that failed to do its part, to speak out against moral and theological trampling and theft of the imperative to be faithful to each other and to God. People became selfish, looking only after their interests and no longer protected each other’s flank. They became vulnerable and exposed.

This continues to be an ancient moral yet relative today. “United we stand, divided we fall.” This brings us to Jesus and the scandal of his saying in Luke’s twelfth chapter when he says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” We know Jesus is the Lion, but is he the kind in the fable that intends to devour us? Why does he want us to divide and no longer be united. We thought the one to devour us is the Devil, not the Lord. The depiction depends on what is inside the encampment of the vineyard. If we are a city on a hill, a watchtower that awaits the coming of the Lord, patiently, reverently, disciplined, then we are united as one body and no one, not even the wiles of the devil, can cross our hedge or scale our wall. But within, we may fall into spiritual apathy, disrespect, dishonoring God and each other. We may have gotten fat over our riches and the abundance of grapes, drunken if you will. Therefore, Jesus says, [there will be] “father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”[4] The value system is being compromised.

When our values change, our unity is threatened. Every fall of every human community begins within. The Lord who holds us accountable and the Devil who wants to destroy us, both know the weaknesses of man. Jesus knew the moral corruption inside of Jerusalem but called them to repent. He knew the Temple, the watchtower succumbed to the temptation of riches and selling out to the occupiers, but he called them to obey the One, true God. They did business with those who wanted all the Hebrew people, a true vine once planted, subject to their authority and enslaved. They became easy prey. They may have given the outward appearance of authoritative and powerful, but only because they took advantage of the lowly and meek. Jesus intended to reunite them as they were now a wild fruit. They would be united after they would be divided because they let the vineyard go into disrepair, and God’s judgement followed. The result would be the destruction of Jerusalem, after his death and resurrection as he foretold. One vineyard, that ancient vineyard of Israel was laid to ruin, but Jesus found a new vine to be extracted and planted it all around the world. The new and true vine became evident in his disciples and would bear much fruit, all the way to this present day. Wherever God’s children live and plant roots that are grown out of the morals and commands He has laid out, there is unity for a time.

How much time does the vineyard, the human society flourish? It all depends on how well they seek nourishment from God and remain disciplined in His ways. When the nation no longer sees itself as One, under God; in faithful loyalty and submission to God’s commands, it perishes. Do we have such a nation today? Where is the role of the human family? Does it not prosper when it pledges fidelity to one another, in the procreation of children and raising them in the manner of God’s commands? Do they attend church and place their children in a place of instruction? Where is the role of the church? Is it not the watchtower, to blow the trumpet when invaders come near and threaten to impose their will and ideals that compromise the vineyard? Does it not still prophesy, lay out instruction and give godly wisdom?

These are the three measures: For God, country, and family, Jesus tells us how we can flourish indefinitely and be protected. He also gives the warning of division when we fail to keep His law. Today, we should ask, how are we doing? How are we relating to God? How are we relating to Country? How are we relating to Family? Maybe we need to repair what has been broken. Maybe we need to clear out the stones, the weeds, the dead branches and prepare the way for new life and vitality. Could the Church be the very place to where we find a new country, a new song, a new place to grow and flourish? Absolutely, but it is going to take prayer, study, devotion and worship, where we can truly learn how to tend the vine. It is going to take time and patience, and most importantly we need to heed God’s call so that we can learn to work together because, “United we stand but divided we will fall.”

[1] Luke 11:17
[2] Aesop’s Fables, “The Four Oxen and the Lion”, c.4th BCE.
[3] Isaiah 5:1-7
[4] Luke 12:49-56

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