Commentary on Luke 12:49-53

This reflection was given by our Reader Carol on Sunday 18 August. You can read it again here:

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who pours out his Holy Spirit on us through his Word and Sacraments. Let us now listen to the Word the Spirit speaks to us today from Luke’s Gospel.

My goodness we have some passionate and disturbing words from Jesus today, but it is not a very cheerful passage either, is it?  I admit on first reading this Gospel I thought what is that all about; but don’t we all have a rant at someone or something at some time in our lives, so why not Jesus! Remember that He and his disciples were on their final journey to Jerusalem.  As Jesus moved closer and closer to his destination – his death – a sense of urgency must have been rising in him.  There was so much his disciples still did not understand about the Kingdom he had been born to rule.

So let us break this down: Jesus expresses his deep desire to cast fire on the earth. In the imagery of the Old Testament, fire is a symbol of God’s powerful presence. We remember Moses at the burning bush, the pillar of fire that accompanied the Israelites by night as they wandered through the desert to the promised land, as well as the tongues of fire that hovered over the disciples at Pentecost. The Pentecostal fire that is of divine love, the fire of the Holy Spirit. No one could emerge unscathed, unchanged from such an immediate encounter with the living God. This fire is burning, purifying, transforming, overwhelming, thrilling, energising.

Jesus said to his disciples: I have come to cast fire on the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already! It’s necessary here to focus on what Jesus did not mean by casting fire on earth. He very explicitly and deliberately rejected any use of violence or coercion in his mission. He did not form his followers into an army or lead them in war. A follower of Jesus could never be led to commit acts of terrorism, to murder the innocent, or to imagine that suicide might be rewarded with special favours in the Kingdom of Heaven. Someone ablaze with the fire of Christ will love, not attack his enemies. He will be endlessly patient, gentle, forgiving, compassionate. He will always tend to create around him peace, joy, hope, reconciliation, mercy, goodness.

The fire of Jesus burns, at least potentially, within each one of us. It’s our secret, of which the secular world has no understanding, or conception. The dominant reality of our lives is not what you see; not the unexciting routines by which we live, but the living presence of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity: infinite love; absolute goodness; divine life. Touched by this fire, each of us is – should be – set alight by its contagious holiness, made to shine with its glory, to become ever more truly what we already are: God’s own beloved children.

Our lives will give great glory to God. And our prayer of intercession will be a powerful force for good, for blessing, for salvation, in the world.

The instinct of Christians will always be to avoid confrontation where possible; to promote reconciliation, harmony, dialogue, mutual respect. Still, conflicts will arise, but above all we will remain deeply united to Jesus, leaving the outcome of our lives in his hands. At every holy Eucharist we ask the Lord to send down his fire into our hearts, into our lives; to transform us by his Holy Spirit: so that we truly become ablaze with his love. For Jesus’ wish to be fulfilled we must play our part in helping to spread some of that fire of God’s love everywhere.

When St. Teresa of Avila travelled about Spain founding monasteries, she took with her an uneducated lay sister called Anne of St. Bartholomew. Sometime after Teresa’s death, when she was a Prioress, she was subsequently asked not only to found new monasteries herself, but to do so in foreign countries. She complained to God in prayer: Lord, can you ask all this of me? I am nothing but straw! And he replied: Ah, but it is with straws like this that I light my fire.

Also in this passage Jesus expresses a longing for his baptism to be accomplished and how much stress he is under until it is completed. The Baptism he refers to is his immersion in the terrible suffering and death by which we will be liberated, and not the Baptism by John the Baptist when the person to be baptised was immersed in the baptismal pool which was seen as a parallel to Jesus going down into death and emerging to the new life of the resurrection.

Then, Jesus says he has come not to bring peace but division on the earth. At first sight, this is a hard saying and it does not make any sense. The Jesus we see in this passage seems out of character with the Jesus who loves and heals and cares for the poor.  This is not the sweet baby Jesus for whom the angels sang, “Peace on earth, good will to all”.  Is Jesus not the Prince of Peace? Did Jesus not say at the Last Supper that he was giving his peace to his disciples, a peace that the world could not give and that no one could take away? Did he not say, “Come to me, all you who labour and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest”? Was the final greeting of the Risen Christ to his disciples in the upper room not “Peace be with you”?

Yes, but he also warned his disciples that, after he was gone, they could expect a rough ride. They would be hauled before rulers and governors, they would be beaten and jailed and put to death. People would think they were doing well in ridding the world of them. In that sense, Jesus was certainly not going to bring peace. Jesus has come to set into motion God’s radical will for the world.  The stress Jesus is under is not anxiety, but a total absorption in his mission.  That mission is to redeem a broken world.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus pits “peace” against “division,” treating them as opposites?  We often think of the opposite of peace as war, and the opposite of division as unity.  But here Jesus turns the dial up a notch.  It’s as if Jesus is saying any division is war, and there can be no peace without complete unity.  He is not satisfied with half measures.

But maybe the confusion and tension of Jesus’ teachings here cannot, and should not, be resolved.  If we look at this passage in light of the whole gospel story, perhaps we find it may describe rather than prescribe division among us.  That is, it is not Jesus’ purpose to set children against their parents or parents against their children, but this sort of breakdown can be the result of the changes brought about by Christ’s work.

The break-up of families, father against mother, parents against children, in-laws against in-laws, were unfortunately only too common as one or more members in a family decided to follow Christ and be baptised. These must have been very painful experiences which no one wanted. Many people then, and still today, suffer persecution and many families were and are torn apart by their accepting Christianity. Jesus had warned that those who wanted to follow him had to be ready, if necessary, to leave home and family and enter a new family of brothers and sisters. To follow the way of truth and love, of freedom and justice is always going to arouse the hostility of those who feel threatened by goodness.

But is it right to break up one’s family? We might counter by asking which is the more loving thing to do: to be true to one’s convictions and one’s integrity or to compromise them for the sake of a merely external peace? In today’s world many families are broken apart for many different reasons not just to follow Jesus. The one who leaves shows a greater love for one’s family and will never cease to love them no matter how viciously they may react to the choice the person has felt it necessary to make. In the long run, truth and love will prevail. They must.

Finally, hostility, division, persecution, providing we are not directly involved, does not take away the peace that Jesus spoke about. On the contrary, it is only by being true to one’s convictions, whatever the price, that peace can be experienced. With this peace in our hearts, we can live at peace no matter what kind of fire or division rages around us. For Christ is our one and only Saviour. In him is peace. For he brings us all a different kind of peace.


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