The gospel lesson for Proper 15C, Luke 12:49-56, continues the thematic emphases of the Gospel readings from previous weeks: eschatological readiness. The gospel of Luke has described Jesus and his ministry as one whose purpose is to bring “peace on earth,” but in today’s passage we find what appears to be quite the opposite: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” In this week’s gospel reading we see aspects of Jesus’ identity that are, typically, easy to ignore. These aspects seem at odds with the Jesus sweetly abiding with us, leading us into lush meadows by calm waters; Luke 12:49-56 shows us a Jesus who “came to bring fire to the earth,” who brings division between us and our closest loved ones, and who calls us “hypocrites” who cannot seem to read the signs of the times. But, as we will see, these aspects are not incongruous with Jesus’ peaceful and peace-making identity. He is showing us the difficult road to that peace, a road that he does not send us down alone; he goes before us and with us. I would like to lift up a few themes from this passage from which one could preach or teach.
Jesus says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” Yet, while Jesus came to bring “division,” he did not come to bring divisiveness; while he did not come to bring “peace,” he did come to bring shalom, and there are important distinctions there. Jesus came to bring shalom not shallow peace; the way to shalom is not smooth but riddled with bumps and challenges. Jesus does not want his disciples to settle for the easy way of shallow peace, but to follow him toward shalom, marked by wholeness and mutual flourishing. This is where, I think, another distinction is important: the church’s ministerial mission is reconciliation, which often gets confused with unity for unity’s sake. Unity is an aspect of the shalom God envisions for all of creation, when we all live in unity because we have been reconciled with God, each other, and all of creation. Sadly, for instance, in the face of injustice in our world, people of privilege are tempted toward silence because they do not want to cause division, and the desire for unity and shallow peace becomes the excuse for not engaging in the work of justice, equality, anti-racism, and reconciliation. People erroneously assume: “God wouldn’t want that. See how divided that movement is making everyone?” But those forms of division are signs of Jesus’ ministry; sometimes the way to shalom includes temporary disunity for the sake of bringing more into the reconciliation. Further, Jesus did not come to bring divisiveness. This is a temptation on the other end of that spectrum. When we have embraced that division is a part of the way of shalom, sometimes we embrace the division as the mission rather than reconciliation aimed at shalom. We have all experienced, I’m sure, folks who develop a divisive posture. When reconciliation aimed at shalom is the focus, then we face division with courage (and lament) but we don’t use it as a tool. We speak the truth but in love; we pursue peace with peace. Jesus has come to bring division not divisiveness and shalom not shallow peace.
Another theme that emerges in our passage for this week, as it has in previous weeks, is the necessary disposition of urgency for disciples of Jesus. We all know how to read the first signs of a summer thunderstorm, the kind the comes quickly and drenches thoroughly. We’ve all learned to read those signs, the sights and sounds, and to respond with haste. Jesus uses the Palestinian weather patterns and the crowd’s awareness and responsiveness to the those to call the people to heed the sign of the present time, the kairos, and to respond with equal preparedness, haste, and urgency. These teachings, being received by an early church who had grown tired of waiting on the coming Reign of God, were meant to shake the community awake and call them to remember that the hour is at hand, always. Our communities need to hear this call to somehow be patient and urgent: discipleship requires living with a patient urgency or urgent patience. Our patience keeps us trusting God’s hand at work, bringing the Reign of God among us; for it is a gift we receive not create. Yet, our urgency keeps us waiting with palms up, looking with a long view toward God’s vision of shalom, and working with all we have to build upon the foundation laid before us.
Jesus utters some harsh words in our passage today, but their intent is to give us resolve, strength, and courage as we walk in faith the path that seeks the fullness of God’s shalom. It will not be easy, do not be mistaken, Jesus says. And it will even include division from the people and things we may love the most. But division does not mean it is not of God, necessarily. In the end, all things will be made well and whole, having been reconciled to God; the path to that wholeness, that reconciliation, that shalom is difficult. Press on, he says, not blazing a trail untraversed, for we follow the one who has gone before us and shown us the way.
Fred B. Craddock. Luke. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, edited by James L. Mays. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990.
R. Alan Culpepper. “The Gospel of Luke,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.
Joseph A Fitzmyer. The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV. The Anchor Bible, edited by William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1985.
Joel B. Green. The Gospel of Luke. The New International Commentary on the New Testament, edited by Joel B. Green. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.