Commentary on Luke 12:49-56
History is written backwards; sermons are written forward.
Luke’s history of Jesus’ mission and ministry is no exception. Luke reworks traditions he has inherited as well as he draws upon his own sources to produce a story of Jesus that makes sense of his community’s present experience. The realities and concerns that occupy his community — issues of wealth and poverty, the delay of Jesus’ return, concerns about the orderly transition of apostolic authority, and more — therefore influence how Luke thinks about and writes the history of Jesus. History — all history, including gospel history — is written backwards, shaped by the concrete circumstances and realities of the historian and his or her community.
Sermons, however, are written forward. As interesting as the historical context and background of the biblical text may be, the more pressing question is not the past of the text but its future. What, that is, might this text say to us about our life in faith and in the world? How will this passage shape our view of God, ourselves, and our neighbor? How will this passage affect us? What will it do to us? History is written backwards; sermons forward.
I raise these hermeneutical considerations because of the complexity of the passage before us. Given the repeated shifts in audience between the disciples and the crowds throughout this section of Luke’s narrative (in today’s pericope the disciples are addressed in verses 49-53, the crowds in verses 54-6) it is likely we have multiple distinct recollections of Jesus’ ministry spliced together. Their relation to each other is, therefore, sometimes hard to detect and may at times feel a bit forced. Similarly, Jesus’ comments seem to slide between references to his immediate mission and fate and a more distant eschatological reality. Further, his message about bringing division rather than peace will strike most listeners — and this probably includes the preacher — as at least counter-intuitive, if not downright contradictory to much of his preaching. Finally, the lectionary, while generally following Luke’s account, skips around the narrative, selecting various slices of the story for our attention while leaving out others, all of which makes tracking the consistent narrative more difficult for our hearers.
In order both to detect the theological confession (or confessions) rooted in Luke’s narrative and to anticipate what effects they may produce in the congregation, I suggest that we give first attention to Jesus’ description of his mission. It unfolds through three related purpose statements or activities. Jesus came to bring fire, to be baptized, and to bring division.
Fire, Baptism, Division — Oh, My!
Fire is a multivalent biblical image. It can represent the presence of God — think pillar fire in Exodus (13:17-22) and the tongues of flame at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). It can also represent eschatological judgment — in Revelation, Satan and his army are consumed by fire (20:7-10). Fire also represents purification — Zachariah (13:9) and Malachi (3:2-3) each refer to God’s intention to purify Israel like a refiner purifies silver by fire. We need not necessarily divide sharply between these possibilities to appreciate Jesus’ use of this image. Jesus, as Simeon foresaw, not only represents God’s prepared salvation (2:30-31), but also “is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inward thoughts of many will be revealed” (2:34-35). He embodies the presence of God which simultaneously judges and purifies.
Baptism also is used in the New Testament to represent both judgment and purification and was connected with fire by John (3:16-17). Jesus refers, however, not to the baptism he brings but to the one he receives. In this context, the baptism of which Jesus speaks seems clearly to be an allusion to his cross, an event that dominates every moment of his mission. Strikingly, the One who embodies the presence of God is not simply meting out the fire of judgment and purification, but bears it also himself.
The division of which Jesus speaks is a result of the purifying fire he bears. The kingdom of God he proclaims represents a new order governed not by might but by forgiveness (hence the import of forgiveness in the Lord’s prayer, 11:4), not by fear but by courage (“be not afraid” in 1:13, 30, 2:10, 5:11, 8:50, 12:4, 7, 32,), and not by power but by humility (see Mary’s song, 1:46-55). Yet those invested in the present order; those lured by the temptations of wealth, status, and power; and those who rule now will resist this coming kingdom for it spells an end to what they know and love (or at least have grown accustomed to). Hence Jesus — though coming to establish a rule of peace — brings division, even to the most intimate and honored of relationships, that among family.
Weather Forecasts, Then and Now
The second half of this week’s lection portrays Jesus chastising the crowds for not recognizing the signs he bears. Like dark clouds or a dry wind, the teaching and acts of mercy he performs indicate what will come. Jesus is born for one thing: to herald the coming kingdom of God, and to establish this kingdom he will raise neither banner nor sword but instead hang on the cross, the vulnerable insignia of God’s new reign. Those who recognize the signs and choose to follow him will not only need to forsake the trappings of power that adorn the lords of the present kingdom, but can also expect resistance, even opposition.
But if Jesus’ call to a new way of relating to each other — via forgiveness, courage, and humility — stirred up division during his time and that of the early church, what does it bring today? While Christians in some parts of the world — one thinks of India, China, and parts of Africa — continue to face opposition, Christians in the western world are asked to give up very little for the sake of their faith. How, then, do we hear Jesus’ pronouncement that he brings fire and division rather than peace?
To answer this question, the preacher and congregation must engage in their own weather forecasting by discerning the signs of the times: what elements of our lives hinder our service to the God of the lowly and powerless? In earlier passages from Luke, wealth, a lack of faith, fear, and a desire to put oneself first all presented themselves as potential distractions from the way of Christ. Whether it is these things or others, one suspects that they also will be consumed by the fire Jesus brings.
Yet if we fear undergoing this baptism by fire, we might take comfort in the simple yet stark fact the Lord who comes to baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit first embraced his own baptism — experiencing harm that we might know healing, undergoing judgment that we might know pardon, suffering death that we might know life, both now and in the world to come. Thus, looking backward to Jesus and his baptism, we find the courage to look forward to discern the signs and challenges of our own times, joining our hopes and fears to those of Christians throughout the centuries by praying, “Come, Lord Jesus.”