Commentary on Luke 12:49-56
This passage offers a test for preachers — really for any Bible readers. What will we do with it?
The test is: to what other passages will we turn to make sense of Jesus’ words? Many will experience these verses as uncharacteristic, but that is simply because other texts and other portraits of Jesus have been more influential to them in defining what is characteristic. In other words, passages like this one test our hermeneutics.
If such passages test our hermeneutics, then they test our theology. If we do our jobs well, hermeneutical tests should lead us to talk boldly about how we — as individuals and ecclesial/theological communities — answer questions such as: Who exactly was Jesus? What was his message? How worried should we be?
Do not run quickly past or away from this passage as if it doesn’t belong in Luke. But tend carefully to what other passages you will turn to, even if only in your own preparations to preach. Pay attention to where you look and which wells you draw from in your efforts to announce good news and also to explain the serious business that Jesus is talking about here.
When Jesus speaks of bringing “fire to the earth,” I suggest you avoid connecting it to images of destruction or cataclysm (as in 2 Peter 3:10, 12) and images of hellfire or retribution (as in Mark 9:48; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8). Luke has already told us, through John the Baptist, that Jesus is coming with a fire of purification and refinement (Luke 3:16-17; also Malachi 3:1-3). Fire also connotes God’s presence (Exodus 14:24; 19:18; Isaiah 30:27), and therefore it represents the power of God to effect change in the face of formidable resistance (Jeremiah 23:29) as well as the power to overwhelm God’s enemies (2 Kings 1:2-14). No wonder fire becomes symbolic also of judgment, because judgment is another way of speaking about how unrighteousness, idolatry, and injustice cannot exist in God’s presence.
The fire Jesus wants to kindle is a fire of change, the fire of God’s active presence in the world. No wonder he is so eager to strike the match.
We do well to hear Luke 12:49 in connection to Mary’s and Zechariah’s canticles in Luke 1. And in connection to John’s preaching in 3:3-14. Jesus yearns for “the kingdom of God” to break forth into the world in all its fullness. The transformations and justice that the saints of Luke 1-3 envisioned are the things that he wants, too. That means that oppression has to go. Greed has to go. Idolatry has to go. Same with exploitation, dehumanization, narcissism, and any other evils you can name that prevent the flourishing of all people and all creation. Those contagions are rendered powerless in the presence of God (see Jesus’ words about his determination to overpower Satan, the “strong man” in Luke 11:21-22).
Bad popular theology has done so much to train congregations to hear Luke 12:49 as a description of a God with an itchy trigger finger who just can’t wait to smoke some sinners. As a result, people duck their heads and wait until Jesus calms down and a nicer passage comes along. Isn’t the Parable of the Prodigal Son coming soon?
Instead, help your congregation see that Jesus reveals some of his intense desire here — desire for the world’s well-being. If any of us can’t appreciate that desire, even with the harsh image of a consuming fire, then it’s likely we need help in perceiving the world from the perspective of the suffering, the powerless, and the sinned-against. They pray “thy kingdom come” with a different kind of longing.
Division and baptism
Of course, the world’s well-being doesn’t just spring into existence because everyone wants it. First, the truth must be told. Fire is, after all, about refining. And refining hurts, especially for those of us who have a lot of impurities sticking to us.
Because we mistake those impurities for purity, and because we lie to ourselves that self-protection is a form of justice, we resist Jesus. Therefore he also speaks of the division his message brings (12:50-53).
He isn’t against peace (see, for example, Luke 1:79; 2:14, 29; 7:50; 8:48; 10:5; 24:36). Rather, he points out that his message of release and transformation (e.g., Luke 4:18-19) is bound to be divisive. His words about fractured families may have spoken poignantly to Luke’s original audiences who themselves might have included members who were estranged from kin because of their commitment to Jesus Christ.
Jesus experiences repudiation throughout Luke, and especially when he gets to Jerusalem. There we see the ultimate division occur, when he experiences his final “baptism,” which in this case refers to his rejection, suffering, and death.
What time is it?
In Luke 12:54-56, Jesus himself says there really is a hermeneutical test going on: do you know how to interpret the present time? What does it indicate, the time of his ministry, the time of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God?
It’s not a difficult test, he says. You already know enough to observe the weather and predict accurately what’s coming next. With those kinds of basic powers of observation you should be able to tell, from the things that Jesus has been saying and doing, what’s going on and what you need to do. So, what is it?
Time’s up. Pencils down.
Jesus doesn’t tell us the answer. Preachers get to do that. But preachers can look ahead a little in Luke to figure it out.1 In Luke 13:1-9 Jesus teaches about repentance and the urgent circumstances in which humanity currently finds ourselves, as we stand at the thresholds of our own mortality and the promised arrival of God’s kingdom. Right now is a time of repentance, because God is coming and our days are frightfully few.2 Because Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) has to come to full flower. Because basic aspects of this corrupted world system have to change, God willing.
Jesus in Luke speaks of repentance as a changed mind. It is what happens when we look at ourselves and our world from God’s perspective — according to God’s commitment to justice, God’s multifaceted shalom, and God’s pledge to meet us in the love and solidarity we share with our neighbor. The more we do that now, while we still can, perhaps the less hot the fire will feel when we encounter God face-to-face and become made new by the truth.
Luke enjoys using language of sight — perspective and perception — to indicate our ability to grasp Jesus and what he is all about. When we repent and perceive “the present time” for what it is, as an available but diminishing opportunity to align ourselves with God’s priorities, then we ourselves will join others in pursuing “the things that make for peace” (see Luke 19:42). Of course, in the current time we do that work in the midst of divisions created by a sharply conflicted society, but at least we’re following someone who knows the way.
- I’m grateful to Rev. Dr. Jon Walton for showing me the need to read Luke 13:1-9 in connection to what precedes it in chapter 12.
- For more on what I think about Luke 13:1-9 and how it imagines repentance, see what I’ve written on that passage: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=530