Read Luke 12:49-53 here.
I’m as torn as anybody over how I feel about conflict. On one hand, in full disclosure, avoidance is my favorite policy. I’m fairly introverted so I generally don’t like to cause a stir or to draw attention myself, and conflict does both of those things. Plus, dealing with “people issues” involves energy and stress, the kind that I don’t have and the kind that I don’t need more of, respectively. Plus, plus, maybe most of all, conflict can get in the way of one of my most nagging realities (and maybe yours): I like to be liked. So, naturally and by default, when friction builds I compromise to reduce it. Conflict avoided, crisis averted.
Except. Except, on the other hand, there are circumstances that stir up what Burroughs would call my “fighting blood,” when conflict involves things that are valuable enough to go to bat for, or to battle for. That’s when boundaries harden for me, when conflict is too important to just gloss over or ignore, and I say, “Let’s do this…come get some….” Then again, if I’m being totally honest, there are times when, even though there isn’t much at stake, I’m willing to engage conflict just because my OCD left-brain cannot stand for a problem to go unsolved. I want to fix it. I want to push back against the friction, plow through, and win.
Whether you relate directly or not, aren’t those the two sides of this thing for everybody? Conflict is both a threat to our beloved homeostasis, but also the only way to challenge a status quo. It’s the heat and noise and discomfort of friction, but then friction is also the force that lets us get traction, and without traction we would never be able to change direction.
That’s the framework we need to bring to Jesus’ words in Luke 12:49-53. Here is a semi-obscure piece of Scripture that smacks of friction, both in Jesus’ own tone and in the feelings it probably produces in some of us. I mean, it reads like Jesus is having a good rant. Some say that he’s breaking his usually cool character to vent about personal pressure; he seems to gainsay his own purpose by guaranteeing to cause some serious strife when all is finished; and he uses an image that even televangelists have learned to tone down –- FIRE, of all things.
Jesus. Said. There’s gonna be a fire.
Where do we go with that?
A Quick History
Well, if we’re to really engage Jesus’ words, and to really wrestle with reconciling and understanding them, we can start by tackling the difficult but obvious: he wasn’t lying. You and I know some things that his original listeners didn’t, like, most notably, everything that happened in subsequent history. While he was still alive, people were divided enough over who Jesus was, and what he came to do, and what it meant for them. That tension increased as he increased in popularity, and it escalated exponentially after his death and resurrection.
Jews were divided over whether or not this was their long-awaited Messiah. Some said, “He’s the one! This is what being a child of Abraham and Moses is all about! Resurrected life!” Others said, “Blasphemy, lies, and foolishness! Arrest them! Stone them!” Christian Jews were divided further over the idea that suddenly this salvation was free for anyone who believed, even pagans and foreigners, so they weren’t going to have a monopoly on the God of Israel anymore. They couldn’t agree on how much they were still bound to the old Law of Moses or not. Even further, the pagans and foreigners who had become Christians had their own cultures and rituals and gods beckoning to them from the opposite side; they didn’t know how to leave the old ways behind.
If that wasn’t enough, there was a state religious cult imposed by the Romans that would have no talk of salvation or a kingdom or rule other than Caesar’s. The result was that, for three centuries, Christians were arrested, tortured, and slaughtered for the faith. Besides, during that same time period, the cultural norms and philosophies of the Greco-Roman world surrounding the infant Church continued to threaten to pollute or strangle the authentic Gospel.
Division. Friction. And just the beginning. Frankly, once Christianity had finally itself become the state religion of Rome, then the real conflict began, the conflict between authentic Jesus-followers and the superficial sham of false faith. Thus began the era that supplies the world with its favorite anti-Church fodder — Papal armies and crusades, icons and indulgences and inquisitions, reformation and colonization. It was the age of the division between those who would co-opt Christ’s cross for every kind of human corruption, and those who actually served him as Lord. It’s the age we’re still living in.
So, to get back to the point, we know now that Jesus was right in Luke 12. Absolutely and invariably right. One good question is, then, how did he know what we should expect?
In addition to the whole prescient God bit, maybe Jesus foresaw the future by realizing a simple truth: anytime anything actually matters to human beings, and anytime such things involve any level of interpretation, there’s potential for division. Moreover, the greater something matters to us, and the greater the room we have for interpretation, all the greater is that potential conflict. Along those lines, the gospel of Christ wields a massive “potential ruckus quotient.”
Jesus certainly knew that, not just conceptually or prophetically, but experientially. He felt firsthand the deep division that sometimes surrounded his presence. People fought him, and fought over him. They rioted, in joy and in wrath, because of what came out of his mouth. On multiple occasions, crowds were ready to stone and kill him, or to seize him to crown him king. In the very moments that he was teaching on God’s infinite love and grace, or when he was healing and doing the work of the Messiah, there were people ready to spit on him as a heretic. Try to imagine how he felt, especially considering just how badly he must have hoped that people would follow him, and just how much was at stake. In that light, Jesus’ words in Luke 12 are spot on. He knew that discipleship was and would always be a battleground.
In fact, he knew better than anybody that authentic faith had always been a battleground. Jesus knew the nature of the world. He had witnessed the Fall. He saw there the budding partnership between his ancient spiritual enemy and the corrupted desire of his very own image-bearing creatures. He observed our growing human bent towards selfishness and the stuff of sin and death. He knew that, by the time of his birth, humanity was totally overrun and the earth was utterly hostile territory. I mean, just listen to the way that John 1 describes the incarnation:
“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”
How could Jesus appear at the epicenter of so much outward-rippling controversy, and trouble, and disagreement, and corruption? How could he be so sure that it would unavoidably kindle around his Church? Because those ripples were the byproduct of his Way coming into contact with the existing way of the world. Don’t forget that in Isaiah 9, just before he’s titled as the “Prince of Peace,” the mission of the Messiah is described like this:
“The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.”
That wholesome Christmas text should be treated more like the real harbinger that it was, because, pay attention: a great light penetrating deep darkness is, by nature, a pretty severe conflict. Indeed, if the universe was going to be redeemed, then its former self was going to have to be introduced to the new. Jesus was the agent for that introduction, and it wasn’t (isn’t) a peaceful one. Light and life and goodness were coming crashing into a dominion of darkness and death and evil, and any time two forces oppose each other, there is going to be friction. Jesus wanted to be clear on that.
So we have a context for the image of fire, and if that still freaks anybody out, let’s try to get over the misconceptions that old school revival preaching has tainted us with. After all, if we survey the whole Biblical voice, fire can be a versatile and nuanced metaphor. Sometimes, for instance, fire is synonymous with a transformative force like in the refiner’s oven that molds or purifies. In other cases, fire is a creative or empowering image, used to describe God’s movement and Spirit. In still other cases, yes, fire is indeed a Biblical sign for destruction, but not in the sense that “God is like a child sitting on an anthill with a magnifying class on a sunny day.” Fire often depicts the agent for the unmaking of things that need unmaking if God’s kingdom of love is to be fulfilled.
After all, can’t our worldview admit that there are things in the universe that we could all stand to do without completely? Things that we would love never to experience again? Things that should be visited on no one ever again? Then maybe we can admit that there is a time to welcome an intentional, selective, destructive force. I mean, there are things that happen every day, to children and to people and to families, that we can safely assume God never originally intended for his creation before its fall. Big things like cancer and malaria, war and civil war, child soldiers and collateral damage, starvation and homelessness, depression and, well, division of all kinds. But also personal things, things that I see inside of me that I hate, like utter selfishness, destructive pride, greed and competitive envy and lust, and more. This is the stuff that, in my better moments, I would welcome seeing destroyed. It’s the stuff that means we should sometimes welcome a holy fire.
Indeed, growing up in rural South Carolina, or on trips around the world, you learn that if there’s no city dump — and if the geology of the countryside doesn’t allow for land-fill digging — then the only way to be rid of your household trash is to burn it. The only way to consume not only the garbage itself but also all of its secondary harm — the stench and flies and germs — is to set a fire that will vaporize everything. Is the same not true for foul selfishness and hatred?
I’m saying that, even if some belligerent voices have left a sour taste in our culture’s mouth by abusing fire-language in the Church — especially when they implied that they had the authority to decide who or what needed to burn — we need to be able to return to the true heart of the fire image. It’s the idea that judgment and justice go hand-in-hand, and, in the hands of God alone, fire can be appropriately useful and ultimately beneficial. It also means that justice and judgment aren’t just reserved for those select “other people”, rather it’s a fire that touches us all, intimately.
I can’t say conclusively which specific flavor of the fire metaphor Jesus meant to call on in Luke 12:49. Probably a composite. But I do think Jesus was ready to see the earth and its people transformed. I think he was ready to see some of the absolute rubbish of evil and sin and death begin to be consumed, eradicated, and vaporized. I think he was ready to see his movement start to catch fire on earth, and I think he wanted his disciples to be ready for it, too.
That being so, this Luke 12 passage isn’t about conflict-mongering or self-righteous judgmentalism or even an overwhelmed Jesus bursting into an emotional rant. It’s a reminder that we have to be careful and humble and attuned to our God so that in this age of division we can choose our steps wisely and live among those who actually serve Jesus as Lord. It’s probably also an invitation to submit ourselves to Christ’s holy, purifying, empowering fire. Whatever the case, I hear Jesus doing what he always tended to do — preparing his people for what was to come so that they wouldn’t be caught off guard. And thanks be to God.