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18 August 2019
Luke 12:49 (Jesus said:) “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 baptised, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do 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.”
It has long been recognised that this passage is both disconcerting and difficult. The contrast with the usual picture of Jesus as messiah and bearer of peace most likely means that the sentiments go back, in some form, to Jesus himself. In any case, it was almost always the false prophets in the Bible who proffered peace. As the reading stands, it may also reflect the experience of the early church.
Kind of writing
It is a series of sayings or logia. The link with the preceding material probably comes from the verb “to come” (12:37-40, 43-44). The first two verses are in parallel, taking the thought forward. V. 51 opens a polemical dialogue, which unfolds in apocalyptic-type illustrations, continuing through to v. 59.
For our reading, v. 49 is unique to Luke but not Lucan in style. V. 50 seems to echo v. 49, but with a shift to the destiny of Jesus himself.
Old Testament background
Woe is me! For I have become like one who, after the summer fruit has been gathered, after the vintage has been gleaned, finds no cluster to eat; there is no first-ripe fig for which I hunger. The faithful have disappeared from the land, and there is no one left who is upright; they all lie in wait for blood, and they hunt each other with nets. Their hands are skilled to do evil; the official and the judge ask for a bribe, and the powerful dictate what they desire; thus they pervert justice. The best of them is like a brier, the most upright of them a thorn hedge. The day of their sentinels, of their punishment, has come; now their confusion is at hand. Put no trust in a friend, have no confidence in a loved one; guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your embrace; for the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; your enemies are members of your own household. But as for me, I will look to the Lord, I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me. (Micah 7:1–7)
New Testament foreground
Contrasts with Luke
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!” (Luke 2:14)
Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. (Luke 10:5–6)
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” (Luke 19:38)
Parallels with Luke
Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34–35)
Parallels with the other Synoptics
But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with?” (Mark 10:38) Note: Matthew omits this phrase, while Luke omits the entire episode.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. (Matthew 10:34–36)
Parallel with the Gospel of Thomas
Jesus said, “I have cast fire upon the world, and look, I’m guarding it until it blazes.” (GThom 10)
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master-builder I laid a foundation, but someone else builds on it. And each one must be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than what is being laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, each builder’s work will be plainly seen, for the Day will make it clear, because it will be revealed by fire. And the fire will test what kind of work each has done. If what someone has built survives, he will receive a reward. If someone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1Corinthians 3:10–15 NET)
Verse 49 “The coming one” is a messianic designation, associated with the end times. Fire coming down can be for judgment: see Gen 19:24 and 2 Kgs 1:10-24. There may even be an echo of Jesus’ mentor, John the Baptist: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:9) Luke does not neglect the seriousness of the final judgment (17:31-35; 18:7; 21:25-28).
Fire can also purify, and is is thus a symbol of the Holy Spirit. It all depends on the attitude of the listener. Although the sentence may well go back to Jesus, neither Mark nor Matthew makes use of it. The last phrase is a rare window into the intensity of the desire of the historical Jesus to fulfil his calling as Messiah.
Verse 50 In Mark’s version of this sentence, there is a double image, baptism and cup, perhaps hinting at later sacramental access to salvation. On Jesus’ lips, the phrase does not reflect on his own baptism by John or on the later Christian practice of baptism. The literal meaning of word is immersion and, in this context, it is a metaphor for test or trial, engulfing the whole person. In the context of Luke, placed against v. 49, the metaphor points to the ministry of Jesus, prophet and martyr, whose destiny brings about the end of time. Thus in v. 49 we hear the desire of Jesus and in v. 50 his apprehensions.
“What stress I am under”: the verb used—sunechō—is found commonly in Luke-Acts (Luke 4:38; 8:37, 45; 12:50; 19:43; 22:63; Acts 7:57; 18:5; 28:8). It’s basic meaning is to hold together, to grip, to press close.
The only exact parallel use is to be found in Nehemiah, in the Greek OT:
One day when I went into the house of Shemaiah son of Delaiah son of Mehetabel, who was confined (sunechōmenos) to his house... (Nehemiah 6:10)
It is probably too much to see here a reference to Gethsemane, much less to the cross. Fitzmyer suggests “how hard pressed I am.”
Verse 51 In general, Jesus draws back from the more lurid apocalyptic scenarios, so it is all the more interesting to see this direct engagement. Notice that Luke seems to have changed the wording, from sword to divisions. This fits better with what follows and underlines the aspect of personal choice and responsibility.
Verses 52-53 In Jewish apocalyptic imagination, the end times would be marked by many woes, including the collapse of familial and social relationships. The saying forms part of Jesus’ project of the restoration of Israel. The emerging Israel will no longer be based on blood or inherited privilege or social custom, but on faith. It is nothing less than a revolutionary vision, marking a break with my and our past. Naturally, such a revolution will trigger opposition, as Jesus sees with clear-sighted realism. Jesus himself left his family, he did not marry and have children and he was rejected by his own. As in vv. 49 and 50, the messiah does not demand anything that he himself had not experienced. Cf. Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:25–27)
The five pairs—literally a handful—hammer home the shock of choice and resultant division. “From now on” (Lucan redaction) means that such breakdown is a consequence of Jesus’ mission. It is not that Jesus demands division but rather that the proclamation leaves no one neutral. It is the lack of acceptance of the Good News, on account of evil hearts, which triggers disharmony.
Pointers for prayer
1. The commitment of Jesus to his mission is shown in his desire to undergo the baptism that awaits him. Have there been times when there was something you greatly hoped for, even though you knew there would be a baptism of fire along the way? What was it like for you to undergo such a baptism of fire and then arrive at what you desired?
2. Jesus recognised that the message he proclaimed would meet with a mixed reception. This did not hold him back from proclaiming the Reign of God. When have you seen this kind of courage in yourself, or in others?
3. Jesus challenged those listening to him to commit themselves to discipleship, despite opposition from those close to them, even family members. When have you found that being true to yourself and to your beliefs required such courage? What was it like for you when you were able to follow that courageous road?
To set the earth ablaze, O God, your Son submitted to a baptism unto death, and from his cup of suffering you call the Church to drink.
Keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and give us strength in time of trial to run the race that lies before us. Amen.
Thought for the day
The famous reflection of Teilhard de Chardin suggests itself: The day will come when, after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.
The uncertainties of today are evident, political, economic and environmental. What can we as people of faith contribute? Again in the words of Teilhard, “there is something wonderful afoot in the universe.” The eyes of faith see the deeper pattern.
God of the cosmos, you hold everything in being. God of love, you love the human race. God of our hearts, helps us to see your handiwork not only in the universe, but in the everyday events of our lives. Amen.