I imagine if we took a poll this morning, a large number of us would feel that today’s Gospel reading from Luke makes us uncomfortable. Jesus’ words are not what we might be use to hearing in our gospel stories. So often we hear the stories of Jesus bringing people together with words of love.
Maybe we picture Jesus as the pastor who always calmly and compassionately tends to all the sheep of the flock. Today’s text is in sharp contrast to that image. “I came to bring fire to the earth…Do you think I have come to bring peace?”…Today Jesus is playing the role of prophet and truth teller. Sometimes the truth is uncomfortable to hear and comprehend.
Context is everything as we explore this passage today. Taken out of context one would be confused as to why Jesus is preaching fire, division, and a world with no peace. The audience he is speaking to is an important factor to remember as we explore the context of today’s passage. In 1st Century Palestine FAMILY was the number one social system and human institution of Jesus’ day.
Your family was the core of your identity, vocation, purpose, and allegiance. The household was the fundamental building block for society. While on paper this sounds like a great thing, the reality is power and greed can even rear its ugly head on something that sounds so nice as family.
The earthly things of the world, specifically power, money, status, and privilege were destroying the families and communities throughout Palestine and were creating a system where there were households with power and privilege and households on the margins with nothing. You see rampant debt was plaguing the families of 1st Century Palestine.
New Testament Scholar Sharon Ringe paints the picture well…“If disputes of debt between two individuals reached the Roman legal system, one of two verdicts would happen towards the debtor. Either the debtor would be thrown in prison until the family members could manage to pull enough money together to pay off the debt (usually that meant selling of any remaining land) or the debtor would be forced into indentured service to work off the debt”. It was a social and economic system that allowed the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer.
Another important factor to consider as we process the context of the text is Jesus’ purpose and mission for the world proclaimed in the Gospel of Luke. The Gospel proclaims Jesus was sent by God to radically reverse the social, economic, and political status quo. Even before his birth his mother Mary and relative Zechariah foreshadow God’s radical purpose through Christ in chapter 1 proclaiming Christ presence will “give light to those who sit in darkness” and through Christ “God has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly”.
God through Jesus Christ would flip the world’s theological expectations upside down. After all where was the Savior, the world’s Messiah born? He was born not in a palace and lying some fancy crib, but in a stable lying in a feeding trough.
Even his ministry starts off challenging the status quo. After his baptism, Jesus full of the Spirit finds himself in his hometown. While in the synagogue he is handed the scroll of Isaiah and proceeds to read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to be bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” After he rolls up the scripture he tells them, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
At first his hometown is excited because they think he is talking about them, but soon they realize he was not just talking about them but also the outsiders and those on the margins that they despise. They become so mad they want to throw him off a cliff.
This is only the beginning of Jesus proclaiming to the world that God’s radical will of compassion, mercy, and love is before them to shatter the social, economic, and political status quo in 1st Century Palestine. In chapters 6, 7, 8, and 9 Jesus lifts up the truth that God’s will through Christ is to reverse the status quo…“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled”… “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.”
As Jesus reforms the status quo with a refiner’s fire there will be resistance to Christ’s divine radical truth and purpose by those who find their own power and status threatened. Not everyone is going to be comfortable with hearing the truth of God’s will. As we continue reading the Gospel and hear the story of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial and death there is no doubt that his words and actions will cause division between those focused on the earthly things and those focused on the heavenly things. “Do you think I have come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”
These words might make you shutter. Taken out of context it seems Jesus is proclaiming his purpose is division not peace. But let’s back up and remember the big picture of God’s divine peace revealed through Christ. Lowly shepherds, the lowest of the low in society were in a field watching their sheep when a chorus of Angels announced Jesus’ birth to them… “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth PEACE among those whom he favors.” From his birth to his death God’s divine peace for all has been revealed through Christ’s words and presence.
“Peace on earth” can be a tricky phrase. There is “divine peace on earth”. A peace that brings mercy, compassion, and justice for all the earth. In order for Divine peace to happen and bring harmony some will have to lose things and some will gain things. Then there is “human peace on earth”. You demand peace and prosperity for all, but the powerful remain powerful and any “peace” comes at the expense of those on the margins. To quote the prophet Jeremiah human peace on earth is for us to say “Peace, Peace” but there is not peace.
Knowing the social, economic, and political structures of the world around him Jesus is proclaiming he has not come to bring the type of peace they want, he is coming to bring the type of peace God wants…and that in itself will bring division. Division between those who are focused on the earthly things of power, greed, and status and those focused on the divine things of mercy, compassion, and justice.
Our human nature is to create human institutions, relationships, and systems that bring power and status to us over others. The good news proclaimed today is the radical nature of God’s will and purpose through Christ is always going to challenge the earthly things. God’s radical will of mercy, compassion, and justice will always challenge human institutions, relationships, and social status quo. Whether it’s 1st Century Palestine or 21st Century America.
As Christians, especially Christians in America there will be times the Gospel makes us uncomfortable with our status and privilege. A text like today challenges us to examine and ponder what are current state of affairs (socially, economically, and politically) that are causing people to cling onto the earthly things and ignoring the divine peace, mercy, compassion, and justice that Christ is calling his disciples to show. As we examine and ponder a world of the haves and the have nots and those with power and those on the margins, we will quickly realize that even 21st Christians will find themselves just like predicted, divided and struggling know “how to interpret the present time.”
In the moments of division whether they are with fellow christians, family members or in our community or nation, may we all lean on Christ to be our guide. The earthly things of this world might be the shiny objects distracting us from God and one another, but Jesus Christ, the Hope of the World is our TRUE LIGHT. While Jesus’ words of TRUTH might sometimes be uncomfortable to hear in the 21st century, his words offer his followers a guide to faithful living that involves mercy, compassion, and justice in a broken and fearful world. While the earthly things might cause us to bicker and choose sides, God’s divine purpose is for Christ to be the one true light that unites us in love.
We might find ourselves in times not much different than those of 1st Century Palestines. Sadly human nature has not changed much. We still create human institutions of inequality and injustice, we still seek peace only if its for our gain, and we are still lost and focused on the sinful earthly things. The Good News is God’s purpose and mission through Christ has not changed either. God through Christ has revealed for us the heavenly purpose of radical compassion, mercy, and love for all.
I came across this quote from Theologian Shirley Guthrie that is a great reminder for us all as we live in a world of divisions; a world caught in a tension of struggling to seek the path of divine peace when surrounded many earthly things that cause strife. "If you want to know what it means to be a genuinely human being and to stand for the cause of humanity—look at Christ. If you want to know who God is and what God is doing in the world—Look at Jesus Christ."
When you are found in a moment where tension, division, and the world seems stuck in a status quo that causes pain and suffering…Look at Christ! Look at Christ and know that God’s radical will is calling you to stand for the cause of humanity. Look at Christ and know that God’s love will reign forever.
Look at Christ and know that our Emmanuel, God with us, came into the world to love the world. May that love make us uncomfortable when we need to be uncomfortable, may that love lead us to compassion, mercy, and justice to the least of these, and may that love leads us to unite in actions of divine peace. May we all look at Christ, our Hope of the World. Alleluia Amen