Luke 12:49-56 – When Faith Meets Family

‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!  Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!  From now on, five in one household will be divided, 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 her daughter-in-law
   and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’

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.  And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens.  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?

Let me start by saying that this is not one of the passages of scripture that everyone loves and emblazons on their bookmarks or embroidered on their pillows.  If the word of God is meant to comfort the troubled and trouble the comfortable, then this passage is nothing but trouble.  It’s aimed at us like a bowling ball, and if we really take the time to hear it and digest Jesus’ words to us, then there won’t be a pin left standing.

It’s a very challenging text, first of all, because it isn’t as if this is just some random prophet or commentator saying these things.  This is Jesus, the Messiah, the one to whom we have dedicated our lives.  He’s more than just a little worked up at this point in Luke’s gospel, and he’s saying some things that are very, very hard to hear.

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, 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 her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

This Jesus is coming with fire and division, with conflict and separation, and that’s not really what we want to hear.  Furthermore, Jesus is speaking of something that is sacred to us and to our culture: the notion of family.  Few things in life are more important than family, and here Jesus seems to be upsetting our neatly settled hierarchy of values and important things.  He’s very directly and harshly insisting not on a unified family but on a fractured one.  Father against son.  Mother against daughter.  Children against parents.  Again, that’s not exactly what we come to Jesus to hear.  We’d much prefer Jesus to bless us with strong families and harmonious relationships with each other.

Usually we like to think of a softer and more gentle Jesus.  Luke, in fact, begins his gospel by proclaiming that Jesus will “guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79).  That’s the Jesus we like to see.  He mends, he fixes, he blesses.  He heals, and reconciles, and forgives.  He’s every bit the spiritual glue that binds up the brokenhearted and restores to wholeness those who are broken.  In this text this morning, however, he’s seemingly the one who will be doing the breaking.  He’s not the glue, he’s the hammer.  He says that he has come to bring fire to the earth.  He has come to bring division, not peace.  It’s very challenging to reconcile these two disparate images of our Lord.

A few weeks ago my son A.J. was trying to be helpful as we were cleaning the house, so he grabbed the broom from the pantry and began sweeping the floor.  If you’ve seen A.J. you will know that he’s about three-foot-six, and if you’ve seen a broom handle you know that it’s about five feet long, and as you can probably imagine, it was a bit too much broom to handle.  The handle, in fact, was what ended up knocking over the lamp and shattering it in pieces all over the floor.  Through his tears he asked if we could glue it back together, and as I looked at the pieces on the floor I knew that there was no way they were going back together.  I had to explain to him, you see, that sometimes things are broken and we can fix them.  We can glue them back together in such a way that they are one whole thing again.  However, sometimes things are beyond broken.  Sometimes things are shattered, and when that happens there is no putting them back together.  The difference between broken and shattered can be a difficult thing to learn, and the trick as you go through life is knowing the difference between the two.  That lesson is one that I think runs alongside our scripture reading for this morning.

When Jesus spoke of families being torn apart, mothers turning against daughters, fathers turning against sons, and family units being broken apart, which word, I wonder, would he choose?  Are they shattered, never to be restored to wholeness?  Or are they merely broken, with at least some hope that the pieces may one day come together again?  Is Jesus really in this text advocating for permanent division, and separation, and turmoil, and conflict even amidst our own families?

It helps, I think, to understand a bit about the context of this passage.  Jesus here is teaching his disciples and the assembled crowds, and the entirety of chapter twelve in Luke’s gospel is one long discourse.  The primary theme that runs through his teaching here is confession and repentance.  He begins this section of Luke’s gospel by saying, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.  Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.”  That is to say, there is no hiding from Jesus.  He knows us too well.  He knows our brokenness.  He knows our tendencies to hide our own brokenness deep within ourselves, our failures, our sins, our misguided and unhealthy desires…  He knows.

He begins his speech by assuming what everybody knows but nobody will say: we have all sinned and fallen short.  That’s the common truth shared by all of those people listening to Jesus speak that day.  It’s the common truth that draws us here to worship as well.  We’ve sinned.  We’ve fallen short.  And we come here that we might confess, repent, and hear the good news of God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness.  That context of confession, repentance, and forgiveness is what surrounds Jesus’ teachings that we have heard in our New Testament reading.  It’s also a clue that even as Jesus is seemingly upsetting our carefully arranged world and breaking things that ought not to be broken, there is at least the hope of some mending, some reconciliation on the horizon.

This text is reflective of something that is constantly in the foreground throughout scripture: the conflict between the ways of God and the ways of humanity.  We tend to value order, comfort, ease, and security.  Then Jesus comes along and upsets the whole arrangement when he eats with people you shouldn’t eat with, and touches people you shouldn’t touch, and forgives people you shouldn’t forgive, and welcomes people you shouldn’t welcome.  On and on and on he goes.  You get the idea.  When he said things like the first shall be last and the last shall be first, he meant it.  When he welcomed wretched sinners into his arms and spoke words of forgiveness to them, he meant it.  When he ushered in God’s kingdom by marching, not to the throne room but to the cross…  Yeah, he meant that, too.

It’s obvious if you pay any attention to the gospel whatsoever, that following Jesus will mean being radically out of step with much of what goes on around us.  You won’t see sinners like most people see them.  You won’t value self-sufficiency and self-security like the vast majority of our culture does.  You won’t let an opportunity to give, or to serve, or to love pass you by without seeing in yourself that same capacity to pour yourself out that Jesus had.  Following Jesus and living like Jesus means being out of step with culture, with societal norms, with trends and fads and popular sentiment, out of step with colleagues, friends, and yes, even family.

There’s no telling who may end up getting upset with you once you start living in Jesus’ upside-down world.  When Jesus claims that reality and holds it out in front of us to see, as he does in our reading for this morning, then, he is being descriptive rather than prescriptive.  In other words, it is not Jesus’ intent to set children against their parents, or parents against their children, but that sort of division, a rupture within and among longstanding personal relationship, is one of the possible outcomes that result from Christ’s work.  We see it in our own lives, and we see it in scripture as well.

Again, looking just within Luke’s own gospel we encounter another story of a fractured family.  In Luke 15 Jesus tells the story of a man who had two sons, one of whom asked for his portion of the family inheritance now, and then went and squandered it all in dissolute living.  When he had nothing left and even had taken to sharing his meals with the pigs, he decided to return home.  You know the rest of the story, don’t you?  The “prodigal son” returned home and before he could even get a word out of his mouth his father wrapped him in a hug and decided to throw the biggest party the family had ever seen.  It was an extravagant illustration of God’s deep and persistent love for us.  But you know, there was an older brother.  He was none too happy about that party, and it would be an understatement to say that he was angry with his father for that extravagant love.  The story ends with an overjoyed father, a mercifully forgiven son, and an older brother who suddenly feels a distance, a separation that was not there before, and he will never look at his father or his brother the same way ever again.  It’s the same way throughout the gospels: the ministry of Jesus, which exhibits radical grace and unconditional love, will inevitably break relationships that formerly depended on the status quo.

That’s why following Jesus is never easy.  It can cause conflict.  It can lead to cracks and fissures and breaks around us, between us, even in us.  As we seek to follow the path that he walks, we find that we are living by a new set of priorities, and sometimes those priorities are opposed to what is common, or what is accepted, or what is popular.  Jesus did say that he came to bring division.  The prodigal son did come home to a prodigal father, whose extravagant love and forgiveness pushed one son away even as it drew the other closer.

The story, however, does not end there.  At the very end of the story, and indeed at the end of Luke’s gospel as well, we get a glimpse of the “glue” again.  We see the Jesus who is not content to let broken things stay broken, the Jesus who claims all things – even that which has been shattered! – to himself that it all might be reconciled with God.  We meet the Jesus who has gone to the cross to die for us, that not even death would separate us.  We see face-to-face the Jesus who comes again to us, right where we are, and even in the midst of our sins and our failures, invites us to walk…  through joy and through sorrow, through chaos and reconciliation, yes, even through conflict, and through peace.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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