John Michael Gutiérrez, PhD
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke
49 ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on, five in one household will be 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 mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’ 54 He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; 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? 57 And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? 58 Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. 59 I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.”Luke 12:49-59
The Gospel of the Lord
In one sense, Jesus’ emphatic opening could be a proto-type for Cal Fire’s idea of controlled burning. For you see Jesus’ fire, furiously roiling through lives and comfort zones, is controlled, Spirit driven (cf. 4.18-19). Remember the Baptizer’s “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (3.16). Now isolated from Luke’s narrative, no argument, a lot of folk read these as harsh words. But as close readers, let’s take the wider Lucan narrative into account. When we do, then these statements are not about Jesus dividing people but about a society’s smoke that gets in your eyes. So let’s begin with this. Since ch. 9.51, Jesus has been speaking sometimes to disciples, sometimes to religious leaders and sometimes to the “stepping all over each other” crowd (cf. 12.1). Increasingly we realize some of the disciples and some in the crowd were listening. And some, such as the Pharisees, were listening suspiciously. But probably, the majority of the crowd was along for the ride: 1) because Jesus was becoming famous; 2) because he was feeding them and 3) because he was taking on the religious/political establishment. So I’m suggesting Luke’s aim in our lesson is this: Jesus starts to shrink the crowd by making discipleship more and more demanding.
In a big picture way, Jesus addresses everyone – their “across-the-board” inability to interpret “the present time” (v. 56), specifically, their national life. It’s a time of turmoil, division, and conflict. The Jewish people will soon pass painfully into a new age. They are not ready for the coming crisis. But they don’t get it. They can’t read the signs. But it’s not unique to Israel. Even to us Bob Dylan sings “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”.
But here’s something they really don’t understand. Jesus says ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! (vs.49). And then he pours water on the fire: “But I have a baptism to be baptized with” (vs. 50a). Again this is not Cal Fire hosing down a blaze. Fire/water are common images in Israel’s library concerning judgment not because they burn, flood and destroy but because they cleanse, purify, transform. For you see the Bible’s theology of judgment is not primarily about punishment but about setting things right. So the biblical point? In order to transform, sometimes something must be undone, either through burning or flooding. From that undoing, renewal emerges. Let me point you back to chapter 9.52-55. Remember James and John wanted to use pyro-theology on a Samaritan village. Luke tells us Jesus rebuked them. The point: fire without transformation, that is, fire used merely for punishment, is rejected in kingdom ministry. Taking the wider view in Luke’s Gospel, this fire/this baptism in vs. 49-50 refers to Jesus’ death. Since 9:51 Jesus has fixed his sights on Jerusalem – a covert reference to his crucifixion. Out of this fiery baptismal cleansing will emerge the most miraculous of transformations — resurrection. But I’m getting ahead of Luke here.
And here’s one of the values of paying close attention to Luke’s simplest statements. Luke briefly lifts the lid on Jesus’ inner life “what stress I am under until it is completed!” (vs.50b). In our scene, Jesus acknowledges he is on the road to the cross. But he discloses he is having a difficult time holding himself together as the cross draws near The finish line is on the horizon. The cross is crucial. I suspect his mouth is dry, his arms are heavy and his heart is pounding. (you can read more about this in the Hebrews Epistle). Without Jesus’ faithfulness to death there would be no future for Israel, no renewal of the covenant, no outpouring of the Spirit, no redemption for the Gentiles, no transformation of creation.
In the shadow of the cross, the purifying fire and water reveal how completely and unreservedly transformation needs to be. But not everyone grasps how urgent or how comprehensive. The topic of transformation now turns to statements exposing a disciple’s stress – the anxiety involved in personally committing to kingdom ministry, vs. 52ff. Allegiance will certainly generate divisions. Jesus goes right to the primary Jewish relationship: family. The commitment to family is prominently supported in Torah “Honor your father and your mother as YHWH your God has commanded you so that you may live long in the land YHWH your God is giving you” (Dt. 5:16). The family, along classic lines of inheritance and obligations, has been woven into this Gospel beginning in Galilee and especially during the journey to the cross. For starters, Jesus was rejected by his hometown and left his own family, even rejecting their later attempts to reel him in (4.28-30; 8.19-21). The 12, and we suppose the 70 plus many others, have also left their families and livelihoods. Various unnamed folk at the border of the Galilee and Samaria have been challenged to cut inheritance, parental obligations to follow him (ch. 9.57-62). So Jesus’ statements here are not new.
But something fundamental is taking shape in Jesus’ teaching. Family is often given unquestioning allegiance around needs, status and wealth. But the family’s claims are restructured in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus challenges this formidable social-cultural structure because it can cloud one’s discipleship allegiance. In other words, that learning setting may subvert disciple teaching by Jesus. So Jesus encourages the potential disciple to “interpret the present time”, to step out of the family and place learning and allegiance into his family.
Again the wider view from many statements already in Luke, we also know Jesus did come to bring peace (1:79, 2:14, 7:50, 8:48, 10:5). So let’s digress for a moment and consider in this narrative disciples are exposed to the dynamic of peace: peace is not peace unless it cleanses, transforms. Jesus didn’t shy away from talking about or getting involved in life’s mess. But he is trying to burn/flood culture’s anger, frustration and anxiety out of a disciple’s life. And not merely to burn/flood but to purify in order to bring peace.
Jesus gathers the disciples with the crowd into a huddle. He softens the fire/water imagery to rain clouds and wind driven heat (vs. 54-55). But they’re still obvious signs of trouble. Then Jesus steps into his prophetic role confronting the close in crowd with the word “hypocrite” “actor”. I suggest this was intended to snap the entire crowd, especially disciples out of their thoughts.
Here’s how I understand Jesus’ closing remarks in this scene specifically for disciples (vs. 56-59). The disciples have let ministry be sidetracked by the distractions of the “present time”, the spirit of the age. No doubt sometimes being faithful and following Jesus means you may just get caught in a storm. Sometimes disciples are to close the hatches, turning faces into the wind. Jesus never promised perfect weather. So this scene calls disciples to be realistic about the world. Bad things happen. Crises occur. People act violently and hurt others. The ruling powers can be unjust. Religious leaders can be corrupt. In times of stress, people can turn on each other, even family members. Realistically, Jesus does call disciples to embrace a faith and peace that can turn divisive. However, Biblical faith is transformational, changing ourselves and the community around us. So it seems to me, hypocrisy in this scene is subverting the Lord’s ethical and moral revelation with a culture’s spirit of the age. So you see Jesus pushes disciples and would be disciples in the crowd to read the signs of “this present time” intently. Again Bob Dylan sings “let us stop talking falsely now. The hour’s getting late”.
In a violent and suffering world, the ministry of the disciple is to practice kingdom behavior and peace now not later (4.18-19; 9.1-6; 10.1-20). Just like Jesus, the 12 and the 70 did. And here’s where we can further situate what seem to be abrupt statements in vs. 56-59. Jesus is underscoring the sense of ministry urgency. Disciples must live uncomplicated, straightforward lives that are not entangled in the spirit of the age. Live lives free to devote oneself to the Lord. Acts of healing, compassion and reconciliation in a world of trouble and violence mend torn and tattered lives. Jesus definitely came into this world with a message calling disciples to get into relationships: real, messy, involved relationships. And the sometimes unpleasant but ultimately beneficial reality is that that kind of ministry is disruptive. Why? Because it’s breaking what isn’t really working and creating new relationships ordered around Spirit transforming holiness.
Jesus is walking into a fiery baptism wanting to take others with him. We as disciples must reckon with the cost of this kind of discipleship. At a personal level, discipleship requires a clear-eyed walking into Jesus’ fiery waters of purification. As disciples we will make the world feel awkward when we live the way Jesus lived His life. It’s a different message than we’re used to hearing. But it is an important one. What needs to be broken in this world? What needs to be changed in this world? Defy political and cultural categories. Burn it, Flood it with the Spirit- transforming power of the crucifixion/resurrection/ascension! May I say this clearly: There’s fire and smoke on the water! certainly for me, maybe for some of you. May the Lord richly bless you my beloved.