[Jesus said:]“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” He said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time? (NIV)
The author of Luke sure has our time and culture pegged. I’m sure it was true in the environment of the earliest Christ followers too. This describes perfectly what happens when one member of the family is enthusiastic about a new outlook on life and the others don’t see it their way. The others see it as a betrayal of all they worked for and stand for. The one who stands alone is committed to the new cause and the new identity it brings them and recognizes the potential costliness of their commitment. The cost is the very real possibility of opposition from those most dear. The very real cost of disavowal by one’s group is a painful one to bear.
Some may ask, “Is it necessary?” The answer is no. It is not necessary. This is not a prescriptive text. It is not telling us to separate ourselves from those who disagree, but it describes what so often happens. Human beings tend to seize onto differences and make them into fences that would keep us apart. It has been that way from the beginning. Once Adam and Eve had eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they knew too much and instead of being partners with God they became rivals with God and with that, had to leave the garden. Once competition is introduced, people cannot live in the full presence of God. It is much too painful for the people. I suspect it is also much too painful for God. In the next generation Cain and Abel were competitors rather than colleagues. It resulted in murder. If they just could have recognized that it would be good for the world to have both farmers and herders they could have seen themselves on the same team, partners in the glory of God’s wondrously diverse creation. But no… they had to see themselves as competitors. One had to be better than the other. It never stopped from there. No, that isn’t true… but it rarely stopped from there. People have been at war with each other in every generation. Comparatively few times have we seen examples of people giving up their power for the benefit of others. We cannot seem to fix the tendency within us that wants to be ‘one up’.
Jesus asks, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth?” (Luke 12:51, NIV) And I would answer, “Why yes. Yes I do.” Why? Because the angels told me so in Luke 2:14 when they appeared to the shepherds saying “Peace on earth!” But I also know it will be difficult, because also from the very beginning we are told Jesus’ reign as the holy one who would be called the Son of God (Luke 1:35) would cause the proud to be scattered and the mighty to be brought low, the hungry would be fed and the lowly would be lifted up. The rich would be sent away with nothing. (Luke 1:51-53) So far, that doesn’t seem to have happened. At least not on earth. The rich and powerful have retained their positions and the poor continue to be taken advantage of.
In fact, it seems as if nothing has changed.
So how is it that we don’t know how to interpret this present time?
Does that mean that we don’t know how to understand it? How to fix it? How to escape it? It it that we don’t know how to evaluate this present time? Is it that we have forgotten to consider where God is in all this mess? Is it that we have failed to be partners with Christ in bringing about the reign of God? The answer is ‘Yes.’
How do you interpret the present state of divisiveness in the US (and other places, for that matter)? Is it helpful, that it forces people to think about what they want and what kind of world they want to live in? Or is it destructive, that differences are disdained and disagreement is reason to denigrate the other? How do you interpret the global economy? Is it a disaster because it allows other nations to compete with our markets? Or is it a benefit because it ties us one to another across borders? How do you interpret technology? Is it an asset because information is available at our fingertips and communication happens at light speed? Or is it a detriment because it separates people from each other when they choose their screen over face to face conversations?
We have clearly failed to see the face of God in the other. We have carefully denied that the power of the Spirit is present in the stranger. We have put our focus on the wedges of technology and national borders and cultural differences and failed to recognize the baptism of fire on the day of Pentecost brought people together. The barriers of language (and therefore national origin and cultural differences) were crossed once and for all. The fences were burned away and our common humanity was rediscovered. God keeps removing the divisions and we keep re-erecting them.
There is definitely judgment in this passage, but there is good news here. Fire is destructive, but it is purifying too. When we give ourselves to the love of God in Jesus the Christ, we discover we do not need to defend God. God can take care of God’s self. God breaks down the barriers by loving the neighbor and cleansing the sinner. Forgiveness is a great power; the expression of love in action. It breaks down all barriers. Then, and only then, can we rightly interpret the present day.
Blessings to you,
Where have you seen love in action, breaking down barriers, freeing those who are oppressed, healing those who are broken?
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.