Luke 12:49-56


It is difficult to over-emphasize how revolutionary Jesus is being in stressing loyalty to him - and kinship with those who are also loyal to him - over family.

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Sunday Between August 14 and August 20 Inclusive

Proper 15, Ordinary Time 20

Read the passage at the bottom of this post: Luke 12:49-56, The Message   or   Luke 12:49-56, The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

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Rats! Just as I'm dusting off my fire and brimstone sermon Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh (See footnote below.) point out that "the earth" in Verse 49 refers to an outdoor oven:

"To bring fire to the earth" refers to lighting an outdoor oven, called "earth." It is an idiom for getting things started, or, as the USA idiom has it, "start things cooking."
Page 279.

And commenting on Matthew 5:13, "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot," Malina and Rohrbaugh add:

The "earth" is an outdoor earthen oven (Job 28:5, "As for the earth, out of it comes bread;" Psalm 12:6, "silver refined in a furnace on the ground") found near the house. The ideal house had a house fronted by a walled courtyard that contained (1) an earthen oven with (2) a double stove, (3) a millstone for grinding, (4) a dung heap, along with (5) chickens and (6) cattle. ... The earthen oven used dung as fuel. The dung heap was salted, and salt plates were used as a catalyst to make the dung burn. Salt loses its saltiness when the exhausted plates no longer serve to facilitate burning. Unlike Matthew, Luke specifies that salt without saltiness is "fit neither for the earth nor the dunghill; men throw it away." (Luke 14:34-35)
Page 41.

So let's read this text as Jesus being eager for constructive cooking and not destructive conflagration.

Verse 50. Just as "earth" in Verse 49 was used in a non-literal idiomatic way, so too Jesus here speaks of a "baptism" that does not refer to the ritual act using water. Since Jesus has already been baptized with water, we can only assume that the baptism yet to come which is causing him such stress until it is completed is his execution and resurrection.

Verse 51. Now here is an interesting question: "Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?"

It would be a mis-reading of this verse that Jesus' mission / purpose is solely to bring division. This is not to be taken as justification for going about wreaking havoc in the name of Jesus.

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But on the other hand, it is also a mis-reading of Jesus' mission / purpose to believe that it is identical with unity.

All change - even Good News change - will cause conflict and grief for the simple reason that all change - even Good News change - means giving up / losing something, and it means valuing one thing over another.

Personal aside. In my not-so-humble opinion, too many congregations die because they will not face the inevitable conflict, division and losses that core identity / values / vision change requires. Sometimes you really do have to make an either / or decision and give up the false unity of both / and.

Verses 52 and 53. Notice that Jesus refers to division between family members and not divisions between nations or races. At the time of Jesus, such divisions among family members would not be simply painful family fights. Such separation from blood family in order to form comparable relationships within the new "family" of followers of Jesus was a shocking - and extraordinary - demand. Malina and Rohrbaugh comment (Page 280, see footnote below.):

Given the sharp sense of social stratification prevalent in antiquity, persons engaging in inappropriate social relations risked being cut off from the networks on which their positions depended. In traditional societies this was taken with deadly seriousness. Alienation from family or clan could literally be a matter of life or death, especially for the elite, who would risk everything by association with the wrong kind of people. Since the inclusive early Christian communities demanded just this kind of association across status lines, the situation depicted here is realistic indeed. The alienation would spread beyond the biological family to the larger kinship network formed by marriage.

It is difficult to over-emphasize how revolutionary Jesus is being in stressing loyalty to him - and kinship with those who are also loyal to him - over family. And we especially need to remember that for Luke, and all other non-Jewish and/or higher status people, joining the early Christian community did have these real-life consequences.

Verses 54 to 56. These verses use common local lore about weather - a topic that would be crucial in an agricultural society. The hypocrisy is to claim to be able to interpret God's purposes expressed in nature, but not do the same in human nature - the "present time."

Just as natural consequences follow from the weather, so do natural consequences follow from human behaviours. The "present times" presage the future, and it is hypocrisy to plead innocence or naivete when that future unfolds.

A warning that is as true now as it was in the time of Jesus.

David Ewart,,
Short, easy to use, faith inspiring explanations of the meaning of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John for your sermon, homily, bible study, or reflection.

Note: Historical background information is primarily from Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, pages 278-280; and the writings of Amy-Jill Levine, et. al.

Luke 12:49-56 (NRSV)

   49 "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I 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?"  

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Luke 12:49-56 (The Message)

   49 "I've come to start a fire on this earth—how I wish it were blazing right now! 50 I've come to change everything, turn everything rightside up—how I long for it to be finished! 51 Do you think I came to smooth things over and make everything nice? Not so. I've come to disrupt and confront! 52 From now on, when you find five in a house, it will be—

      Three against two,
         and two against three; 
   53 Father against son,
         and son against father;
      Mother against daughter,
         and daughter against mother;
      Mother-in-law against bride,
         and bride against mother-in-law."

   54 Then he turned to the crowd: "When you see clouds coming in from the west, you say, 'Storm's coming'—and you're right. 55 And when the wind comes out of the south, you say, 'This'll be a hot one'—and you're right. 56 Frauds! You know how to tell a change in the weather, so don't tell me you can't tell a change in the season, the God-season we're in right now."  

Scripture quotations from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.

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