A Provocation: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Luke 12:49-56

12:49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!

12:50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!

12:51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!

12:52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three;

12:53 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.”

A Question:

  • What is it with religious people and their love of fire and division?
  • Even Jesus loves it?

Some Longer Reflections:

I do not like this scene.  It does not fit with Luke’s story, which goes out of its way to find and welcome faithful Jews in the oddest of places.  John the Baptist finds them along the banks of the Jordan, even among soldiers who come out to see him.  Jesus finds faithful people even among lepers, one of whom is a Samaritan.  Jesus finds faithful people among the sick and disabled, in the person of a tax gatherer, and among people who come uninvited to a banquet.  Jesus even finds a faithful Jew nailed to the cross next to him.  The story as a whole works mightily to wrap its arms around the entire world, welcoming Jews and setting the stage to welcome Gentiles, as well.

And this scene excludes, divides, and burns the world.

I do not like this scene, maybe mostly because I know enough religious (and non-religious) zealots who are far too ready to burn the world down.

I am weary of ideologues of all sorts, especially religious ones.  Some of them scare me.

It is tempting to look for a way  to argue that these words do not come from Jesus, or that they are some sort of awkward insertion into Luke’s story.  There are (a few) passages for which such arguments are plausible, sometimes completely persuasive.  This one will probably not fit into that category.  Though it fits poorly into Luke’s story, the language seems Lukan, and it won’t do to insist that stories have to have a foolish narrative consistency.  Luke can inject tension into his story, and does (see Luke 4, where Jesus picks a fight he did not need), and such injections make the story richer and more interesting.

They still scare me.  I have known people who, out of the whole gospel of Luke, could quote only these verses, and did so gleefully in order to justify their own divisiveness and fire-starting.

Despite the Pentecost scene in Acts, arson is not a spiritual gift.

There is one thing that must be noted about this scene.

The references to divisions, to splits even within families, fits very well into what we know about the aftermath of the crushing of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome.  The defeat was horrifying.  And after the tens (probably hundreds) of thousands of bodies had been buried, the survivors began to do what ruined communities always do: they began to assign blame for the failed Revolt.  Every faction pointed to every other faction.

At the heart of the dispute was blame for the loss of the Temple.  The Temple, of course, was not just a building, and not just a cultural and religious site.  The Temple was the single point where God touched the earth and held it still and safe.  That meant that the destruction of the Temple was also the destruction of safety and stability.  It embodied all that had been lost when Rome slaughtered the Jewish soldiers and citizens.  In the years after the slaughter the rabbis searched for the cause of the loss of the Temple.  Their answer is fascinating.  They did not fix on any particular group or practice that led to this devastating loss.  The Temple was lost, they said, because of factionalism, because of division.

At this point, therefore, Christians must read carefully and wisely.

Do not join Justin Martyr in celebrating the loss of the Temple while blaming it on Jews who did not accept Jesus as the messiah.  This just continues the practice of factionalism.  The rabbis were right: such divisiveness destroys safety and stability every time.  We would do better to recognize simply that Jesus’ words about divisions were remembered and intensified in the post-70 CE atmosphere of charge and counter-charge.  Everyone was blamed, Christians included.  The rabbis rightly conclude that it was the process of blaming that destroyed the community.

The scene still makes me shudder.

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