Read Luke 12:49-53 here.
I am truly split on how I feel about conflict. One part of me, definitely my more default mode, prefers to avoid it at all costs. I like to be liked. I’m fairly introverted so I generally don’t like to cause a stir or call attention to myself. Dealing with other people and their issues takes energy and increases personal stress, so I like to see problems disarmed as quickly and as easily as possible. When I start to feel friction building over something, I’m more likely to compromise to reduce it.
On the other hand, I hate to see inefficient and broken systems. I hate to see problems go unsolved, especially when they seem fairly easy to address. When something really matters, I can pretty quickly go into “fight to the death” mode where it’s time to pursue a solution at all costs and not settle for anything less. In that case, the friction of conflict is just a force to push back against, and to endure, and to work through.
Those are the two sides of conflict for all of us, right? It’s both a threat to our beloved homeostasis, but also the only way to challenge the status quo. It’s the heat and noise and discomfort of friction, but then friction is also the force that lets us get the traction we need to change direction.
That’s the framework we need to bring to Jesus’ words in Luke 12:49-53. It’s 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. He breaks his usually cool character to vent about being under 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 American televangelists have learned to avoid as much as possible in Christian speech – fire. Jesus… said… he wanted to set a fire? Friction. Conflict. If he was to be the “Prince of Peace” to usher in an age of unconditional love, where war and suffering and violence would have no place, then what kind of things are these to say, and why would he say them?
A Quick History
To tackle the obvious, we can start to reconcile Jesus’ words by realizing that, well, he was telling the truth. We know some things that his original listeners didn’t, like, most notably, everything that happened next.
While he was still alive, people were divided over who Jesus was, and what he came to do, and what it meant for them. That tension only increased as he increased in popularity, and even more after his death and resurrection. Jews were divided over whether or not this was their long-awaited Messiah. Some said, “He is 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. Likewise, 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 all of that 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 so that, for three centuries, Christians were arrested, tortured, and slaughtered for the faith. During that same time period, the cultural norms and philosophies surrounding the infant Church continued to threaten to pollute or strangle the authentic Gospel.
Division. And just the beginning. Frankly, once Christianity had finally itself become the state religion, then the real conflict began. That’s the era that supplied the world with its best anti-Church fodder — Papal armies and crusades, 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.
But, back to the point, we know now that Jesus was right in Luke 12. Absolutely right. One good question, then, is how did he know what we should expect?
Other than the prescient God part, maybe Jesus just realized that anytime anything actually matters to human beings, and anytime such things involve any level of interpretation, there will always be the potential for division. And, the more something matters to us, and the more room there is for interpretation, all the greater is that potential conflict. If so, the gospel of Christ wields a massive potential for ruckus, and Jesus certainly knew it. But the thing is, he didn’t just know it conceptually, or prophetically, we can understand that he knew it personally.
He, more than anyone, knew how his very presence was a dividing force among people. They fought over him. They rioted because of what came out of his mouth. Crowds were ready to stone and kill him, or to seize him to crown him king, on more than one occasion. In the very moments that he was elaborating on God’s infinite love, grace, and salvation for God’s children, healing and doing the work of the Messiah, there were people ready to spit on him as a heretic. I can’t imagine how he felt, other than to totally understand his pressure-packed words in Luke 12. And do I think that he had moments where he was just fed up with it all? Do I think this passage was a moment of weakness when Jesus was ready to just “burn it all down”? Not even for a minute.
I think he knew the world he was coming into. I think that God knew that every moment he was alive on earth would be charged with potential for conflict. After all, he was coming to the world that he had created but that had fallen.
Just listen to how John 1 describes the incarnation:
“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”
Time and again, C.S. Lewis describes Christ’s coming as a foray into enemy-occupied territory, and I think Luke 12 reflects this reality so well. How could Jesus appear at the epicenter of so much outward-rippling controversy, and trouble, and disagreement, and corruption? 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 a few verses before the Messiah is prophetically titled the “Prince of Peace,” this is how Jesus’ mission is described:
“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 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 was coming crashing into a dominion of darkness and death and evil, and any time two forces oppose each other, there’s friction.
All of this makes up the context for the image of fire. If Jesus’ pyromaniacal verbiage freaks anybody out, we need to pause to reset our understanding a little bit. Listening to the whole Biblical voice, and not just flashbacks from old school revival preaching, fire can be a deep and nuanced metaphor. Many times, it’s a constructive or transformative force, like in the refiner’s fire that molds or purifies. Sometimes fire is a creative or empowering image, used as a descriptor for things like God’s movement and Spirit. And, yes, on a ton of occasions, fire is very much a Biblical tool for destruction, but even that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
After all, if our worldview has room to admit that there are things in the universe that we could all stand to do without completely, and never to experience again, then maybe we can admit that there is a time to welcome a 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. Or, personal things, things I see inside of me that I hate, like utter selfishness, destructive pride, g28ed and competitive envy and lust, and more. They are all things that, in my better moments, I would welcome seeing destroyed.
Growing up in rural South Carolina, and during my time in the Bahamas, you learn that if there’s no municipal dump and if the geology of the countryside doesn’t allow for land-fill digging, the only way to be rid of your household trash is to burn it. The only way to consume the sight and stench and flies and germs of it all is to set a fire to vaporize your garbage. For me, the same is true for evil and hatred. Some things need to be done away with, permanently.
So even if some vocal few have left a sour taste in our culture’s mouth by abusing fire-language in the Church — especially when they seemed to think 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 means that justice and judgment aren’t just reserved for those “other people” who are sinful and/or unchurched, it’s a fire that touches us all.
Can I say conclusively which flavor of the fire metaphor Jesus meant to call on in Luke 12:49? Not really. But I believe it was a composite. I 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 to see his disciples truly choose which way to follow. I think he wanted his people to be prepared.
Jesus knew that his presence, his teaching, his death and Resurrection, and his emerging Church were going to be the driving forces behind the redemption of creation. In that case, these words in Luke 12 are an honest, foretelling challenge to his followers – making clear what they were a part of and what they should be prepared for. They’re words that make clear to us that, inside and outside of this Church, conflict is inevitable because Light is still actively penetrating darkness, because the force of Goodness if one that still faces opposition, and because transformation cannot help but produce friction.
Is that an excuse for conflict, or conflict-mongering? Is it a way to justify self-righteous Christian judgmentalism? Not even a little bit. This passage is 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 wisely and live among those who actually serve Jesus as Lord. And maybe it’s an invitation to submit ourselves to Christ’s holy, purifying, empowering fire. Whatever the case, I don’t hear an uncharacteristic rant in Luke 12 anymore. 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.