“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” (Luke 12:49) Our gospel text is not one you find on many refrigerator doors or on greeting cards. The image of Jesus in these text is upsetting to one who only seeks the meek and mild Jesus. Having begun with an exhortation to courage in the face of tribulation, continuing with a warning against avarice in the face of fear, Jesus now raises the issue of judgment. The people are called to conversion before it is too late.
Throughout Luke 12 Jesus has continued to call for people to “see,” a message that has been present since the beginning of the mission of the 72 others in the beginning of Luke 10. A message made clear upon their return: “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I say to you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” (Luke 10:23-24). Along the continuing journey to Jerusalem each person becomes an opportunity for Jesus to help them (and the crowds) to see more clearly, more richly: the scholar of the Law in Luke 10:25 ff; Martha and Mary (vv.38-42); the disciples in Luke 11, as well as the Pharisees in that same encounter; and Jesus continually speaks so that they will become “rich in what matters to God” (Luke 12:21). But in the end a decision is always needed.49 “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! 50 There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished! 51 Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. 52 From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:49-53)
To the question whether Jesus came to bring peace most of us would unhesitatingly reply ‘Yes’. But Jesus’ “No, I tell you” is emphatic (ouchi). There is, of course, a sense in which he does bring peace, that deep peace with God which leads to true peace among people. But in another sense his message is divisive – such is the effect of prophetic speech. In this Jesus gives a fulfillment in the prophecy of Simeon (Luke 2:35). But one must note that the division is really caused – not by the prophetic speech – but by the decisions one makes because of that speech. This has already been seen when people are called to decide if Jesus is of God or of Satan (Luke 11:14-20). Those who see Jesus must decide rightly lest “the light in you not become darkness” (11:35).
The cross challenges people. Jesus calls on his followers to take up their own cross as they follow him (9:23ff.; 14:27). When people do not rise to this challenge it is not unusual for them to become critical of those who do. Jesus’ words are quite literal and were the experience of the early church (and in differing ways, the experience of the church is all ages). Verses 52-53 strongly echo the words of the OT: “For the son dishonors his father, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and a man’s enemies are those of his household. But as for me, I will look to the LORD, I will put my trust in God my savior; my God will hear me!” (Micah 7:6-7).
Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreters Bible, p.267) reflects 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.