Commentary on Luke 12:49-56
During a season of aching division in church and society, this passage seems to affirm precisely the wrong tendencies in human communities. It also seems off-point for a gospel that begins with an angelic promise of “peace” on earth (Luke 2:14). But the specter of division has always been present in Luke, even in those early nativity texts. Mary’s Magnificat delineates the powerful from the lowly (Luke 1:46-56), pointing to God’s just sorting of power and privilege as a manifestation of faithfulness. Simeon describes Jesus as a sign that will be “spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35).
The child is a sign that will pierce even Mary’s soul. Raymond Brown argues that, in Luke, this piercing does not refer to the pain of her son’s death. It points to the judgment that Mary will undergo in struggling to respond faithfully to God’s Word. Jesus will be a sign that divides one’s motives and inclinations like a sword, requiring a piercing spiritual discernment.1 When Mary and Jesus’ brothers are rebuffed by Jesus’ redefinition of family as “those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:19-21), the cost of this discernment becomes plain. Even the hallowed category of “family” is rearranged in light of God’s larger covenantal priorities.
So Luke 12, for all its provocative explicitness, should not come as a shock. Jesus’ own family has been pierced by the division and reordering of God’s annunciation. And certainly Luke’s readers, living in a time of persecution and oppression, would have recognized that there is a cost to following Christ. The Prince of Peace places them at odds with the Pax Romana—which divides them from family members who would prefer to “keep the peace” with the powers that be. Within both the context of the text and the context of the text’s reception, peace has always meant more than getting along.
The challenge, of course, is the pastoral application of a passage that could be used for all manner of self-justification. Fiery baptisms have been invoked to sanctify war and cruelty. Jesus’ description of family division has been co-opted to rationalize denominational schisms and excommunications that deny the labor of love. There is division that serves the gospel of peace, and there is division born of stubborn pride. How does one discern the difference?
Jesus’ call to “interpret the present time” (verse 56) is critical. How does the fire of Jesus’ teaching and the piercing of his word reveal the hearts of one’s congregation? Has “unity” become a synonym for complacency and avoidance? Or has “division” been co-opted for the same ends? Some congregations avoid the difficult work of justice by ignoring that divisions exist. Others avoid the same work by cutting off from one another. Neither approach is consistent with the baptism that Jesus connects to his fiery witness. The baptism to which he alludes resonates with the rumblings of the cross. He speaks of a baptism that is yet to come, not a baptism that has happened already. He leaves much of this “baptism” opaque in this passage, but one thing is clear. It is a baptism that places him in solidarity with a world on fire—not standing over against it. What does that reveal about the function of Jesus’ fiery division? And what does it reveal about who and what we are being called to fight for?
Fire is an ambivalent image in scripture. There are burning bushes of revelation (Exodus 3:2) and fiery conflagrations of sin (Genesis 19:24). It is ambivalent in the present day, as well. Catastrophic wildfires, exacerbated by rising temperatures and drought, bring devastation. But wildfires can also lead to new life, creating the conditions for habitat diversity and helping plants adapt to novel climates.2 The fire Jesus describes is costly, but it serves the purpose of life and love.
It does not, however, serve the purposes of comfort. Jesus’ fire is not like the fire of a hearth, safely controlled and tightly bound for the somnolent pleasures of a single household. In the words of Mary Oliver’s “What I Have Learned So Far,” this is not light that leads to “indolence.” It is light that leads to “action.”3 This fire of love burns away our obsession with self-preservation, our idolization of kinship, and our false sense of control. It is a fire that, like Simeon’s piercing prophecy to Mary, tests the heart—revealing the thoughts of many and calling for a baptism of commitment. Oliver minces no words: “Be ignited, or be gone.”4
- Raymond Brown connects the image to the ominous sword described in Ezekiel 14:17, Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1979), 463.
- Juli G. Pausas and Jon E. Kelley, “Wildfires as an ecosystem service,” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, May 6, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.2044.
- Mary Oliver, “What I Have Learned So Far,” in New and Selected Poems (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2005), II:57.