This coming Sunday is the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time for Lectionary Cycle C. In yesterday’s post we took a moment to place the “fire and brimstone” opening verse in a context of the Lucan narrative. But as Brian Stoffregen insightfully noted that “Our gospel text is not one you find on many refrigerator doors or on greeting cards.” The image of Jesus in these texts 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.
The twinned images of baptism and fire were present in Luke’s gospel early on: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire’ (Luke 3:16). What differs here is that this baptism refers to Jesus himself, not to anyone else.
Interestingly, in the NT only rarely does “fire” (pýr) denote the earthly phenomenon. If Luke’s usage is not literal, then what are the possibilities? What is the fire Jesus comes to cast? Some possibilities from Luke/Acts (from Brian Stoffregen):
- purification = removing the bad from the good
- the unfruitful trees from the fruitful (Luke 3:9)
- the chaff from the wheat (Luke 3:17; see also Jer 6:29; Zeph 13:9; Mal 3:2)
- judgment = total destruction
- by James and John against Samaritans (Luke 9:54)
- by God on Sodom (Luke 17:29; Gen 19:24)
- the presence of God
- Jesus, who baptizes with Holy Spirit and fire (Luke 3:16)
- the Holy Spirit as tongues of fire (Acts 2:3)
- the angel in the burning bush (Acts 7:30; Ex 3:2)
- a sign of the last days (Acts 2:19; Joel 2:28-32; 2 Peter 3:12)
- a source of warmth and light on a cold, dark night (Luke 22:55; Acts 28:2)
- fire used in sacrifices (Ex 29:14; 29:34, etc.)
- fire used to destroy the idol of the golden calf (Ex 32:20, 24)
- connected with the Word of God (Is 30:27; Jer 5:14; 23:29)
Given the variety of meanings with Luke’s writings, the meaning of this passage is far from obvious. An argument can be made for any of Luke’s metaphorical uses of “fire.” In a larger context of Luke’s narrative, especially the Jerusalem journey, one must remember that Jesus continually asks people to “see” that God’s care and providence (cf. 12:22-28) now is only a sign of the salvation that awaits. God’s desire is to give us the kingdom (v.32). Yet the journey to that kingdom involves judgment.
Whatever the meaning, the sense of urgency and decision is clear.
“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” (v.49) likely includes the richness of all the Lucan expressions – Jesus came to bring the Word of God, to bring salvation, to purify, and to fill the world with God’s Spirit, to form a holy and faithful people. A people “on fire” for God. But, Jesus is saying that God’s plan for salvation involves judgment, but a judgment that the Messiah will bear for others, not one he will inflict on others. It is not an attractive prospect, but Jesus longs for it to come, so that the saving work be accomplished.
Image: Created by AXY, License: CC BY-NC 4.0