Isaiah 5:1-7 – I will sing to my lover about his vineyard: It produced wild grapes. Therefore I will make it a wasteland.
Jeremiah 23:23-29 Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19 – Shepherd of Israel: You planted a vineyard, then tore down its walls. Support us again, and we will not turn from you.
Psalm 82 – Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy…. Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for the nations belong to you!
Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2 – By faith the people passed through the Red Sea… By faith the walls of Jericho fell. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient… Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Luke 12:49-56 – I have not come to bring peace but sword. Read the times like the seasons.
In Isaiah 5, we have a song about a vineyard that produced wild grapes. “Therefore I will make it a wasteland.” Here we have images of judgment that provide a foundation for the gospel reading. Psalm 80 continues the vineyard imagery. Psalm 82: “Rise up, O God, judge the earth!” Images of judgment abound.
The Jeremiah passage also captures hints of the gospel: “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”
The Hebrews passage continues the narrative of those who lived by faith, but it comes to a climax in the cross. Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, endured the cross because of the joy that was within him. It was his joy that empowered him to walk the way of the cross. This too is echoed in the gospel reading, when Jesus says, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized,” a clear reference to the crucifixion.
Luke 12:49-56: Playing with Fire 🔥 (and Swords)
Here is the text of Luke 12:49-56:
49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, 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.”
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?
This week’s gospel provides us with provocative (and easily misunderstood) images. Jesus says he has come to bring fire to the earth, hearkening back to Jeremiah. Not peace, but division. Actually, my title above notwithstanding, there is no sword in this passage. In some versions says he has come to bring a “sword,” probably to align it with the parallel passage in Matthew. In Luke, however, the word is διαμερισμός: division. There is no variant reading. So, there is no sword.
The first part of this passage (verses 49-50) has no parallel in the synoptic gospels. Fire to the earth and Jesus’ upcoming baptism. There is, however, a parallel in the Gospel of Thomas, a gospel discovered in 1945. Click here for a Scholar’s Translation of the Gospel of Thomas.
Gospel of Thomas, Saying 10:
Jesus said, “I have cast fire upon the world, and look, I’m guarding it until it blazes.”
And Gospel of Thomas, Saying 16:
Jesus said, “People probably think that it is peace that I have come to impose upon the world. And they do not recognize that it is divisions that I have come to impose upon the earth – fire, sword, battle. Indeed, there will be five in a house. There will be three over two and two over three, parent over child and child over parent. And they will stand at rest by being solitaries.”
Starting in verse 51, we have a parallel in Matthew 10:34-36:
‘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.
Since Matthew and Luke quote this passage, it is likely from Q, the Sayings (of Jesus) Source. But this raises the question, is the first part also from Q? Does this mean Thomas is also quoting Q? Does this mean Matthew, who clearly had Q, also had the first part of this passage, but intentionally omitted it? So many questions.
This is most certainly raw source material. We are hearing the earliest recordings of the voice of Jesus emerge from the cacophony of later copies of copies. Jesus was most certainly a mystic who spoke in parables and enigmas, which we too easily attempt explain away by jumping to 21st century conclusions. Why not let the fire burn?
The average congregation probably doesn’t give a hoot about source theories or narrative criticism scholarship. I’m sure a gifted preacher can set the stage for a mystique about getting to the original voice calling to us down two millennia, but few congregations will tolerate a steady diet of this. I mention it to spark the imagination. What on earth might this wild, traveling exorcist have meant when he said he was casting fire on the earth?
So, what is this fire that Jesus came to bring? Our people may go to fire as hell fire.
In the Jeremiah passage, the Fire seems to be God’s Word.
T.D. Jakes equates the fire with passion.
Brian Stoffregen says the fire could be revelation and calling: Moses’ burning bush. Or it could be purification (the refiner’s fire).
Mikeal Parsons (Luke, Paieia series) points out that some interpret the fire to be the tongues of flame on Pentecost, part of Luke’s story in Acts. Parson’s take on it is that the fire is the eschatological judgment. Earlier in Luke (3:9), Jesus equated fire with judgment day: “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.” See also Luke 3:17.
John Wesley, who attracted a huge following, was once asked how he did it. “I set myself on fire, and people come watch me burn,” he purportedly said. It’s fun to imagine a church baptized with fire. Even a small group of people on fire with the sacrificial love of God would shed a lot of light on the world.
Jesus says he has not come to bring peace. “No peace” also brings Jeremiah to mind: “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:4) Jesus will set family members against one another.
David Jeffrey (Luke: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible) points out that there are partial parallels in the other synoptics (Matthew 10 and Mark 10). Pointing to the impending arrival of eschatological judgment must clearly have been a recurring theme in Jesus’ teaching. The entire Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25) is given over to this theme.
But what about no peace on earth? What about the song of the angels in Luke 2, “Peace on earth, goodwill to all…”? The peace Jesus brings is not the pax Romana, which is a false peace, based on a dominating dictatorship. In order for true peace to happen, there will have to be conflict, struggle. This is inevitable. This is clearly not a call to arms, however. Jesus obviously did not put together an army. He is speaking of the fire on the day of judgment.
Families will be separated.
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.
Parsons invites us to hear the prophet Micah (7:6) here:
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.
Familial or clan membership cannot save you. Households will not be saved, Jeffrey points out. There is a sense of personal responsibility here. Luke’s Jesus is drawing heavily upon the Hebrew prophets.
Also, following Jesus may very well result in family conflict. It did for Jesus. Mark 3:21 says,
When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”
Phyllis Tickle once remarked, “Intentionally giving up one’s life and its natural loves for the sake of being true at all costs to God’s logos and his prescribed way of mercy, justice, compassion, humility, and love of the other as of one’s self is a hard command.” If I treat the Samaritan as a neighbor, then is this a threat to my clan? If all people are my brothers and sisters then what of my family? The way of Jesus threatens all competing allegiances. Following Jesus forges a new family. Jesus is playing with fire.
Jesus redefines family as those who are in mission together. Mark 12:46-50 says,
While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him.
47 Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”[c] 48 But to the one who had told him this, Jesus[d] replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Then Jesus invites the crowd to look for signs in the moral universe in the same way they read the weather. Parsons quotes Culpepper (Luke: New Interpreter’s Bible):
The “weather-wise” Palestinian farmers were able to read the meteorological signs, since their livelihood depended on it. Clouds from the west, from the direction of the Mediterranean Sea, foretold of impending rain;’ the prognosis of southerly and southwesterly winds, from the direction of the desert, was scorching heat.
No doubt Jesus would have drawn upon these Farmer’s Almanac images, but Francois Bovon (Luke and Acts, ed. O’Collins and Marconi) points out that Luke, unfamiliar with Palestinian geography and context, probably is inserting his own Greek weather images for his listeners.
They are hypocrites because they can read the signs in the skies, but are missing the signs of the times.
I am not sure why the pericope doesn’t continue to the end of the chapter. It clearly is the conclusion of this section. Chapter 13 begins with a fresh narrative. Here are the final three verses of Luke 12:
“And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? 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. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.”
Jeffrey likes to paraphrase “And why do you not judge…” as “How could you possibly miss this?”
I have often felt the eschatological judgment in the future and the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (beginning with the siege of 66) get conflated. Things were clearly building to a head in Jesus’ earthly lifetime. Later generations would see the destruction of Jerusalem as the prophets did: a sign of God’s judgment.
This is not a happy passage. Jeffrey points out that “debt” is a euphemism for “sin” in Luke. Forgive us our “debts” means forgive us our “sins.” Being thrown into debtors’ prison is then like being thrown into sin prison. You don’t want that. Jeffrey points out that Palestinian jailers beat prisoners horribly to urge families to resolve indebtedness. Most did not survive jail. It was an expression of power then, as it is today. “You will never get out until you have paid the very last penny,” is an ominous phrase, perhaps known to Jesus’ hearers. Perhaps those who framed the lectionary didn’t want to end on such a tone of hopelessness.
But there is grace here. We can look up. We can read the signs. Cyril sees in this passage an encouragement to seize the grace of Christ before it is too late. For Jesus, sin is a serious matter. It threatens to destroy the good in us, the image of God, and the good in the world as well. But in Christ, there is forgiveness of sins.
Circling back to the beginning of Luke 12, don’t be like the rich fool who did not care for the poor, but hoarded his stuff, spending his life accumulating things for himself, and when the harvest was in, died and faced God. Instead, make heavenly purses that don’t wear out, where moths and rust don’t consume and where thieves cannot break in and steal. Practice prayer, faith, generosity, service. Follow in the footsteps of Christ, because the end, your end, is sooner than you think.