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Luke 12.49-56
Proper 15 - Year C

Other texts:

Our gospel text is not one you find on many refrigerator doors or on greeting cards. It's not a verse we encourage our children to memorize. John Ylvisaker has written a song which includes the line: "Jesus was sent to upset and annoy." I had at least one church member who was upset and annoyed at that line in the song. It didn't describe the meek and mild Jesus he was more familiar with. Luke 12:49-56 is an upsetting and annoying text.

The first part of our lesson (vv. 49-53) contains three different images:

At least with the first two images, fire and baptism, Jesus' is distressed that he hasn't completed these tasks. By placing this saying in the midst of the journey narrative -- Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem but not there, yet -- Luke may be indicating that the completion of these tasks takes place on the cross in Jerusalem when he is "immersed" into death, or, in a broader sense, his immersion into the passion/suffering events that take place in Jerusalem.

The images of baptism and fire were given early in Luke as part of Jesus' "marching orders," "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Luke 3:16). However, the baptism referred to in our verses is applied to Jesus himself, not to anyone else.

FIRE (pyr)

Fire is emphasized in v. 49 by being the first word in the sentence. "Fire I have come to cast upon the earth."

What is the fire Jesus comes to cast? Some possibilities from Luke/Acts:

Other possibilities

We also have this advice from Proverbs (25:21-22, which Paul quotes in Rom 12:20), which may indicate Jesus' means of bringing fire to earth:

"If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat;
and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink;
for you will heap coals of fire on their heads,
and the LORD will reward you.

Could the fire that Jesus' cast down on earth be his good deeds for sinful humanity rather than a judgmental use of the word?

Lowe & Nida in their Greek-English Lexicon write this about the phrase "to cast fire". They suggest that the phrase means: "to cause discord and contention." However, they also present some alternative ways the phrase has been understood: "Some translators have preferred to retain the literal rendering of this expression in Lk 12:49, since this seems to be necessary in view of the larger figurative context, which speaks of "how I wish it were already kindled." A strictly literal translation may, however, be understood in a completely physical sense, namely, "to set the world on fire." There are a number of quite diverse interpretations of the significance of this expression in Lk 12:49. Some have assumed, for example, that it refers to the fire of Pentecost."

We use the phrase "being on fire" to refer to someone who is passionate about something.


"Baptism" is emphasized by being placed first in the sentence: "A baptism I have to be baptized."

Baptisma and baptizo probably carries the sense of "immersion, plunged, overwhelmed."

When I was in the Rocky Mt Synod - ELCA, they had (and may still have) an "Immersion" project, where suburbanites can immerse themselves in a different culture, e.g., living with Hispanic migrant workers or Native Americans on a reservation. This immersion is more than studying about these people, but actually living with them for a period of time -- to be immersed in their lifestyle. (Although I haven't watched the show, I wonder if "The Simple Life" was a type of immersion project.)

Usually this verse is taken to refer to Jesus' passion, I wonder if it couldn't also refer to the whole incarnation, where the eternal Word is immersed or plunged into human flesh and lives among us. I guess the question is, "What does it refer to in 50b?" What is it that being completed?

Usually this Greek word for "completed" (teleo) is used of "completing" or "fulfilling" a prior written word: the law of the Lord (2:39); the prophets (18:31); scripture (22:37 & Ac 13:29). The verses about fulfilling "the prophets" and "scriptures" seem to refer specifically to Jesus' passion and death.

It may be that the "plunge" into humanity is completed with Jesus' human death. The divine one dies. The immortal one "puts on" mortality.

This image of "being plunged" into suffering and death -- of emptying himself of his godliness -- would seem to be the opposite picture of the powerful God casting fire down on the earth. Perhaps, if "fire" refers to judgment, this happens when our godlessness is reveal to us as we inflicted pain and death on the innocent Son of God.

If "fire" refers to passion -- a strong commitment to something -- we could understand Jesus' commitment to the salvation of all humanity as the "fire" that motivated his life -- even to the point of being plunged into death.

As I noted above, "baptism" and "fire" were used together when John declares that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (3:16b). Is this a "fire" of judgment or a "fire" of passion and power that occurred at Pentecost?

Whatever "fire" and "baptism" mean, the result of them in these verses is divisions.

PEACE (eirene)

What is the "peace" that Jesus doesn't bring?

I think that in the first century, this was understood literally. Following Jesus, often meant divisions in families. This has also happened in our centuries. A woman in a church I served a few years ago, hadn't spoken with her mother in 18 years -- ever since "this good Catholic girl" married a Lutheran man and joined the Lutheran church. I know of instances where former Lutheran Church Missouri Synod clergy/seminarians ended up on the "outs" with their families when they went with the seminex walk-out. One's beliefs can bring separation from family members.

The same Greek words for "son," "father," "daughter," "mother," "daughter-in-law," and "mother-in-law" are used in the LXX of Micah 7:6, with similar disintegrating relationships. Thus Luke is indicating that Jesus is fulfilling another prophetic utterance with the destruction of family relationships. Yet, in stark contrast, Luke 1:17 seems to make reference to Malachi 4:6: "He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse" (cf. Sir 48:10).

The result of Jesus' coming both turns family members towards each other and it turns them against each other. Examples of both reactions can be found in contemporary society.

The word for "divide" is used of what the soldiers did with Jesus' clothing (23:34) -- each piece was taken by a different owner. Jesus also said that a kingdom divided against itself will become a desert (11:17). Perhaps what divides the families is not Jesus himself, but his demand for total allegiance to his cause. His kingdom -- his people -- cannot be divided. It is not a question of "both/and," but "either/or." As Jesus will say later: "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" (14:26).

I had a member who clearly stated number of times to me that her family came first. They came before her church -- and I image there are such people in all congregations. When it became a financial issue of "does my family do without" or "will the church have to do without," guess who won? Yet, I don't want to see a commitment to the church to be a way of "escaping" from family responsibilities: "I won't be home again tonight because there is another church meeting." As a friend came to realize, "Saying 'yes' to the church (or other volunteer requests) meant saying 'no' to her family."


Parallels in Gospel of Thomas:

Jesus said, "I have cast fire upon the world, and behold, I guard it until it is ablaze." [10]

Jesus said, "Men perhaps think that I have come to cast peace upon the world, and they do not know that I have come to cast divisions upon the earth, fire, sword, war. For there shall be five in a house; there will be three against two and two against three, the father against the son and the son against the father, and they will stand alone (or, as monks)." [16:1-4].

Another interesting image from the Gospel of Thomas:

Jesus said: "He who is near me is near the fire, and he who is far from me is far from the kingdom." [82]

This saying is similar to Aesop's: "Whoever is near to Zeus is near the thunderbolt." To approach the divine is to risk danger.

Could Jesus, the "caster of fire," "the family divider," also be the "adversary" in 12:58, with whom we need to settle the case before coming to the judge? These are not common pictures of Jesus. How many churches have pictures of Jesus throwing a lightning bolt down on the Cleavers and disrupting their whole household?

Culpepper's (Luke, New Interpreters Bible) reflections on this passage:

Repeatedly, the warnings about the coming judgment have forced us to examine the implications of our commitments. It is all too easy to make commitments in one area of life as though they did not affect other areas also. Jesus warned that those who make a commitment to him will be persecuted, that a commitment of faith also means that our attitude toward material possessions must change, and that moral responsibilities must be taken with even greater seriousness. Now Jesus warns that persons who make a commitment to him will find their relationships to others, even those closest to them, affected by that commitment. We cannot make a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord without its affecting the way we related to friends and to family members. Because our commitment to Christ shapes our values, priorities, goals, and behavior, it also forces us to change old patterns of life, and these changes may precipitate crises in significant relationships. [p. 267]


In an old sermon, I quoted Consumer Reports where someone wrote a letter describing some of the people at his church. Unfortunately, I didn't record the issue number -- and I don't want to go through my stacks of magazines to find it.

They want all the goodies of everlasting salvation for themselves, but when it comes to the goodies of the day for the needy and exploited, that's political talk they would like the preacher to avoid.

From Laughing Out Loud and Other Religious Experiences, by Tom Mullen:

My religious denomination is the Society of Friends (Quaker). . . . I learned upon joining Quakers that they attack large social and moral problems with conscientious determination. THEY WORK FOR PEACE -- AND IF YOU REALLY WANT TO CAUSE CONFLICT, WORK FOR PEACE" [page 59, caps added].

I've heard other clergy talk about the great problems and divisions it has created when they had a "peace/shalom" Sunday.

Sometime ago I read this question: "With all the different peace groups around the world, why hasn't the world become more peaceful?" The answer given was that each group wanted their own kind of peace. They wanted world peace on their own terms and in their own way -- and that could put the different peace groups in conflict with each other. (Could the same be said of our different denominations and congregations? "We want to convert the world to Christianity -- as long as it's our kind of Christianity.")

"When I give bread to the poor, they call me a saint. But when I ask why the poor have no bread, they call me a communist." (Helder Camara)

A punny sermon title: "Passers of Fire or Pacifiers?" (I have actually used that!)

What are differences between godly divisions and ungodly divisions? I'm certain that both are found in our congregations and families. Can the opposite question also be asked about godly or ungodly peace or unity?

If we take the image of "fire" as "passion," the first key in Kennon Callahan's 12 Keys can be worded: "What are you passionate about?" As congregations, Callahan says that we need to have a passion about something in our world for the sake of God's kingdom. It might be a passion against something or a passion for something. I would guess that whenever a person or group has such a passion about something, they will run into conflict with people without that passion. This also suggests that followers of Jesus cannot be apathetic.

Bill Easum in a presentation I heard wondered, "How can so many pastors be burnt out when they've never been on fire?"

The Iona Community has a song about the Holy Spirit called, "Enemy of Apathy". (It's in a song book with the same title, available from GIA.)


The illustration seems to point to the weather patterns in the Near East. The Mediterranean Sea was to the west and winds from that direction brought rain. The desert was to the south and winds from that direction brought heat.

"Interpret" (v. 56 twice) is a bit of a stretch as a translation of the Greek word dokimazo. The basic meaning of this word group is "to test". The definitions given by Lowe & Nida are:

  1. to try to learn the genuineness of something by examination and testing, often through actual use

  2. to regard something as being worthwhile or appropriate

  3. to regard something as genuine or worthy on the basis of testing

Meaning (2) seems to best fit our verse. The people "regard the appearances of earth and sky as worthwhile or appropriate." That is, I think, they will take the time to check the direction of the wind. They plan their planting or harvesting or picnics or travel accordingly. They take seriously the direction of the wind and let that determine their actions. Could we possibly take as seriously the signs of our times?

Part of Culpepper's (Luke, New Interpreters Bible) reflections on these verses:

To what do we pay close attention, and to what do we turn a blind eye?...

Jesus' sayings challenge us to examine the inconsistencies between attention and neglect in our own lives, but the underlying challenge is to consider whether these inconsistencies reveal a pattern of prioritizing the insignificant while jeopardizing the things of greatest value and importance. Have we given as much attention to the health of the church as we have to our golf score? Have we given as much attention to the maintenance of our spiritual disciplines as to the maintenance schedule for our car? Where in the scale of our attention to detail does our devotion to the teachings of our Lord rank? [p. 269]

A non-religious book I have read and recommend is Stephen Covey's First Things First. (also co-written by A. Roger Merrill & Rebecca R. Merrill). He presents a process of moving from a personal mission statement to personal priorities to planning and putting those priorities on a weekly calendar, so that the most important things in our lives are the most important things on our calendars. Do we discover people's real priorities by listening to what they say is important to them or seeing what's on their calendar and to whom checks are written?

A UCC colleague pointed out that Garth Brooks' song, "Standing Outside the Fire" is a appropriate commentary on this text. (The song is really an encouragement to "stand in the fire" -- a possible sermon title.)

Standing Outside the Fire (text & tune: Jenny Yates & Garth Brooks)

We call them cool
Those hearts that have no scars to show
The ones that never do let go
And risk the tables being turned

We call them fools
Who have to dance within the flame
Who chance the sorrow and the shame
That always comes with getting burned

But you got to be rough when consumed by desire
'Cause it's not enough just to stand outside the fire

We call them strong
Those who can face this world alone
Who seem to get by on their own
Those who will never take the fall

We call them weak
Who are unable to resist
The slightest chance love might exist
And for that forsake it all

They're so hell bent on giving, walking a wire
convinced it's not living if you stand outside the fire.

Standing outside the fire
Standing outside the fire
Life is not tried it is merely survived
If you're standing outside the fire

There's this love that is burning
Deep in my soul
Constantly yearning to get out of control
Wanting to fly higher and higher
I can't abide standing outside the fire

Copyright 1993 by Criterion Music Corp./Escudilla Music/Major bob Music Co., Inc./No fences Music (Adm. by Major Bob Music Co., Inc.) (ASCAP)

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901