Commentary on Luke 12:49-56
With all of the divisiveness present in society these days, it seems like the last thing we need is a gospel text that seemingly encourages more division.
On the face of it, Jesus calls for or predicts that very thing. Yet, as we dive into this text, there are certainly other interpretations available. Situated inside the entire section, there is ample evidence to suggest that Jesus is setting the stage for the eventual outcome of his ministry and what that means for those who follow him.
This particular section can be looked at as having three different parts. The first is a quick summary of his ministry and its eventual end; a fire of cleansing judgment that spreads the good news and the baptism of his death in order to conquer death. Following this is a discussion of the effects the gospel might have on anyone who follows him, and finally, a warning from Jesus about our willingness to hear and see only what we want to.
Nourishing fire of Good News
In the first part, Luke 12:49-50, we hear this language of fire and think judgement, and that may be what Christ wants us to think … for now. But, in reality, the fire of judgement is perhaps about our own (in)ability to save ourselves. The cleansing fire reveals that we need God.
Fire was meant to destroy the reigning religion and religiosity that people used was a way of “guaranteeing” their salvation, yet, which ironically actually distanced people from God. Could the same be said for our own religion today? For Jesus, fire will burn down our human need for security and by extension those institutions that provide human security instead of security in God. The fire is followed by the talk of baptism, which has promise inherent within it.
Baptism is not meant to be simply an easy, joyous occasion. On the one hand, baptism is promise for us, on the other hand, for Jesus, baptism leads to death on the cross so that we might have life. This death turns our baptism into joy and celebration. For many, baptism is the entry into the life of the church. Part of life as God’s chosen is vocation, God’s calling to us. This means that Christ’s baptism, and his ministry and death on the cross, prefigures our own baptism and provides a bridge to the next section about division. Our callings, varied and numerous, do not end the day we are baptized. What ends in baptism is the consequence for our failure to live out those vocations. So, while joy is a fundamental emotion for baptism, it is joy because of the grace that we have been given, not because we will never experience pain again.
We live in a broken, divided world
In the second part, verses 51-53, Jesus lets those gathered know that following him will not be easy, particularly because the gospel will not always bring peace. Families were being torn apart when the gospel spread because it changed everything. Given our contexts, this may not always happen, but there certainly could be some disagreement or strife in families as the nature of the call is worked out and understood. Whether it be to attend church, go to seminary, engage in social justice issues, etc. the gospel’s effects can create division. There is no doubt that many churches have experienced division at some time in their histories. The problem may not lie in the division itself, but in how we respond to the divisions that happen in our lives.
One possibility may be to see that God is at work in all realities, and that division is not the problem. Perhaps it is in our own naive expectation that we have more truth than others. Instead, could God be at work on both sides of an issue? There have been calls within the Christian church to become one church so that all might believe. Jesus’ talk about division may point to a broken reality for Christianity no matter how hard we work toward unity. Perhaps this is Jesus’ point: that human togetherness is not what the gospel is about. Rather, the gospel preached into the life of an individual person will do its work, and we are left to trust that it is God at work, and resist our attempts to control the outcome.
You’re the hypocrite, not me!
Our need for control may be the point of the final part of this selection, verses 54-56, where Jesus addresses our inability to realize what’s really happening. Why do we remain blind to all that is happening around us concerning Christ and God? The accusation of hypocrites is an interesting one here, since Jesus is talking about those who can read the signs, but can’t figure out the “present time.” This isn’t exactly hypocrisy, but sounds more like bad vision. The hypocrite label might make sense if the hypocrites believe that Jesus brings grace, yet who continue to work under the law to achieve their own righteousness. Or, we might be hypocrites when we believe that we have a monopoly of truth, about ourselves and our world. The hypocrite thinks they have everything figured out, but keeps using human actions to guarantee God’s presence and remain in control.
This accusation of hypocrisy is an important one to consider seriously as we live out life in the church. Do we allow ourselves to hear God’s call again and again, or do we rest comfortably in our perfect church attendance or other human work? Another way to put this is: Why do we insist on pretending to ignore the injustices (racial and otherwise) around us? Most likely the answer is that we don’t want to see what’s really happening or our role in the injustices of the world. There is clearly an opportunity to talk about the “elephant in the room” for many contexts. Simply naming an issue might be gospel for many, and may be that kairotic event that changes everything. It may lead to division, but, we have to trust that God is at work in all situations, and remember that God has claimed us in our baptisms, not because we’ve been perfect Christians.