10 Pentecost: Luke 12.49–56 Truth or Dare?

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From The Rev. Clarence E. Butler
18 August 2019
St. James Church, Somerville, MA

Luke 12.49 -56 Truth or Dare?

From stories told us by grandparents, parents, relatives, teachers, clergy, you and I have a different image of Jesus of Nazareth, from the one which intrudes this morning into our thoughts. Both prior to his advent on earth, as well as since his ascension, Jesus collected many titles: Prince of Peace, the Good Shepherd, the Bread of Life, Dayspring on High, Son of David, Messiah, Lamb of God, to recall just a few of the Biblical titles. He is usually portrayed as a gentle, caring being. And because of these descriptions, some, encumbered by the archaic thought pattern “male-dominant female-passive,” think of Jesus in more feminine, rather than masculine, terms.

That is why Luke 12: 49-56 is not a favorite text for preachers. This jars our sensibilities. It violates this “kinder, gentler” image of Jesus. If biblical history is to be believed, Jesus was gentle and approachable. He took a child and put him or her on his knee for a show-and-tell lesson. He was patient in his nocturnal counseling session with the ace theologian Nicodemus. Even though occasionally, with Peter, he became a bit stern, still his firmness was tempered with patience and understanding.

And then, we come upon this section in Luke’s gospel that appears to repudiate, to destroy that image. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Lk 12.51) So, what is wrong with this picture, with its imagery of fire, disturbing the peace and creating animosity within the family? If we think about our own nation, at this very moment, it should not surprise us—should it?—that Jesus of Nazareth should make such a statement. For, did Jesus not understand what lay in the hearts of people? In our own country, families are divided this very day by ideology and national political processes. An uncle, a retired physician, appeared recently on national television in order to call out his nephew on his hypocrisy. The nephew, whose parents survived the Nazi Holocaust, advises the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., to enact policies that, had they been in place years ago, would have prevented his Jewish family, penniless as they were, from entering the United States.

Here in Luke, Jesus addresses this same tension. Jesus knows he is on a path that leads to conflict and, probably, to death. He can feel the tension simmering. It is difficult for him to know that his message as Prince of Peace has not been accepted by the authorities of his people.

It must have been torture to wonder when his adversaries would come to get him, who will turn him in, where he will be, how many days he has left to fulfill his mission. In this tension, Jesus talks to his followers about conflict and about the price of the way they have chosen.

Jesus starts by talking about peace: “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, but rather division!” Now, peace was what Jesus most wanted to bring to the earth. At his birth, angels had announced, “Glory to God and on earth peace, good will.” As Jesus taught and healed, his followers began to catch a glimpse of what that peace might be.

The prophets had spoken of a life that was full, of a peace that included enough for everyone and an end to exploitation. Jesus spoke the same message. Peace was more than a political absence of war. It was more than feeling good or being nice. Living by a vision of peace meant you had to choose where you would place your trust, how you would spend your money and time and power.

I imagine that, somewhere along the way, it became apparent that the general public was not buying the message. People were not eager to stop storing up their wealth in barns rather than sharing it. They were not ready to place the welfare of the community over their own ambition. People might have been tired of the old ways, but they were not about to change the power structures, even when they saw how destructive they were. And why not, one may well ask? What people had, they know. The future was too uncertain, too risky. So, they voted against their own long-range self-interest.

Jesus would stand over Jerusalem and weep. “Would that you knew the things that make for peace.” They had heard the message from the prophets and from Jesus himself. But they did not know how to live by peace, or how badly they need it.

The people who did try to live by his vision found that their lives were not very peaceful. Many of them had experienced healing, and many had changed their priorities. Maybe they expected their private lives to improve, even if the outside world was being torn apart. But conflict in their families increased when they started on this new way. The older generation felt rejected when the younger folks said “make love, not war,” and turned away from the traditions of their forebears. The older generation felt criticized and insulted by Jesus’ sermons.

In other families, the opposite occurred. The young ones felt abandoned when the elders went off with Jesus, or maybe they just resented their inheritance being squandered by people who always had seemed so responsible before. Life was anything but peaceful. Maybe the new disciples had accepted that they were not going to convince the whole Roman Empire of Jesus’ way, but they probably thought their own families would understand what they were talking about. It must have been terribly painful that the people closest to them did not share enthusiasm for this new preaching.

Therefore, when the tension was so high and they were all waiting for the explosion, Jesus said some new things about peace. Jesus said he had not come to bring peace, rather he had come to start the process of peace—to show a new way. He said that his way involves making choices—choices about priorities and money and loyalties. Making choices like that leads, always and without exception, to division. Division was the only way to peace.

So, conflict was part of what they could expect when they decided to follow him. They did not have to be ashamed of it, or feel like bad disciples because of it. Peace would come, but only through walking a hard road and enduring hard conflicts on the way.

Most of you are familiar with the Gideon Bible. It is the one placed in many hotel rooms by the Gideon Society. Well, there is another Bible that is illustrated with pink, waif-like cartoon characters and it is called the “Precious Moments” Bible. It is intended to simplify the lessons of the Bible and to make them accessible through these pictures. Well, today’s gospel is probably not one of the “precious moments” between Jesus and the disciples which that Bible chose to highlight.

What do these harsh words say to us? For starters, they acknowledge that Jesus and his disciples had family conflict, as we all do. Having a perfect family life was not a required trait for disciples in the early church. You could be a good disciple or even a leader of disciples, even if it was all torn up at home.

Second, there is the issue of the broader family, the community. The life of a Christian is not without challenge. The African American spiritual “sweet little Jesus boy, he was born in a manger,” as beautiful and soothing as it is, may lull us, if we are not careful, into an image of Christianity that is not that which motivated the Prince of Peace. The ministry of the Prince of Peace asks us to be clear about where our motivating values lie, for they have consequences in our relationship, in our work, and in our communal life.

Luke’s gospel record is one to be believed, as it, for me, presents real life encounter with Jesus. Following in his way, we are destined to experience the tension, when all we can do is hold high in our mind’s eye the cross that is our banner, our sign of dedication to that elusive peace.

We take heart from those who have gone before us, as well as from those who walk the path with us. We support one another in trying to live by values that will bring wholeness to this world. We trust that peace will come. We keep walking, even on a hot summer day.