The lectionary skips a bit to give us Luke 12:49-56. Preachers who have taken a look are probably glad about that.
The omitted part was Jesus discussion of the need to be the kind of servant who keeps watch for the master’s return. This time he weighed in on the scale of punishments for various degrees of flagrant disregard of duty:
- Option 1: light beating.
- Option 2: severe beating.
- Option 3: dismemberment.
It’s one of those texts that is really hard to adapt for the children’s message.
But we get to skip that. Instead we have Jesus’ slightly less grim musings about the distressing consequences of his presence and teaching on human social relationships.
Prior to discussing the content, let me say that if I knew a NT scholar who specialized in prosody I would love to hear their comments on verses 49-51.
To my ear its phrasing, rhythms, and sentence length sound very different from Jesus’ typical speech in the Synoptics. I’m only looking at the English on this and I’d love to know what experts say — but since I’m recovering from some very ill health, I don’t really want to go look it up.
Fire and Division
The actual content of this section is some of Jesus’ sternest stuff.
He tells us he didn’t come to make everything better — rather he came
to bring fire to the earth” (Luke 12:49 NRSV)
He tells us he didn’t come to bring peace:
No, I tell you, but rather division!” (12:51 NRSV)
Then he enumerates the specifics: families divided by generation and across the lines of marriage, as if they’d been hacked up with a cleaver.
And you know, it works that way, often enough.
Not always: You surely have heard of people where one member became a follower of Christ and, bit by bit, everyone else came along until they were a Happy Christian Family.
But you probably also have heard cases where it happens just as Jesus said. I met young people in India who came to faith in Christ and were completely cast out by their families. They were never able to return.
And many are the mellower cases where one follows Christ and it simply leads to deep difference, so that the peace of the family suffers. Should we say “Hooray! Jesus’ words are fulfilled!”?
Then we have the current scene where the conservative Evangelical members of the family are at odds with the progressive Protestant members — all convinced that they are the ones following Christ the right way.
It is sad. And Jesus is telling us that we shouldn’t be surprised.
Your Family Systems Therapist might say it is predictable. Assuming that your newfound discipleship goes to the bone, then your new way of living will upset the status quo. And every family will quietly exert extreme pressure to get you back in line.
Not peace. Division. Fire on the earth.
I have a group where we’ve been reading the stories of martyrdoms from the Early Church, and it’s always sobering, even appalling, to see the cost following Christ can bring. Their courage and joy are inspiring, and we are left wondering whether our own commitment to Christ would be so calm and clear if we were in their sandals.
Well, it’s hard to know. Maybe we should start by clarifying our commitments, and analyzing where faithfulness puts us at odds with the prevailing trends.
Certainly doing the kinds of things Jesus did would have some of this result. Welcoming the stranger and the outcast often doesn’t bring your friends closer.
The Charge of Hypocrisy
Verses 54-56 veer in a slightly different direction.
Jesus points out that ordinary folks are able, to some degree, to predict the weather.
But, he points out, his listeners are failing in some way to interpret their own present day.
Now I don’t think he’s pointing us to the book of Daniel or other OT apocalyptic bits, telling us to match the predicted signs to the present headlines.
I think he’s pointing out that each of us is stuck in our own heads, awash in our own quest for our own well-being, and we have a hard time seeing the world through God’s priorities.
He could point us to a raft of texts from the Law and the Prophets telling us to care for the poor, to treat exiles and strangers as beloved neighbors and so forth — and we’d still be calling out for walls to keep them out and building bigger barns to hold our stuff.
For their lack of perspective, their lack of inward truth, Jesus makes an odd accusation:
He calls them “hypocrites.”
That’s a word we usually use for those who spout one set of values and act the opposite way in private. We tend to assume it is an inwardly malicious stance, preserving the status of righteousness while seeking something more vile.
But the word itself, the Greek word Jesus used, comes from the stage — it’s a word for an actor wearing a mask. Someone who is in real life one person, but who on the stage pretends to be someone else. The purpose can be mere entertainment, or serious education — it need not be anything insidious.
I used to do a lot of acting — school plays and community theatre. I can tell you that acting, the wearing of a real or metaphorical mask, is a lot of fun. (That’s why they call it a “play.”)
To do it well, you have to try to actually feel what the character you are portraying is supposed to be feeling. In a sense you reduce the “mask” quality to give a good performance. But it is still a mask. You don’t actually become the hero or the villain or the clown you are playing on stage. In that sense it is still innocent “hypocrisy.”
There’s a lot to be learned about the Christian life from the process of acting.
But in this text Jesus is saying not to wear a mask. He wants us to become truly Christian, more and more truly a member of his Body, behaving truly from a core shaped by the priorities of Christ himself.
We are to be hypocrites no more.
And I suspect he’s saying that if we can draw close enough to be transformed in that way we will have a better perspective on the present age.
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