I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. (Luke 12:49-53 – NRSV)
I came to bring fire to the earth: “This fire signifies neither the spiritual struggle that the coming of Jesus provokes nor, strictly speaking, the Holy Spirit. It is the fire that is to purify and inflame men’s hearts, the fire lit on the cross. John 12:32 has the same thought in different words.” (Footnote in the Jerusalem Bible.)
There are echoes here of the prophet Elijah who draws down fire from the Lord on the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:36-40) and the soldiers of King Ahaziah (2 Kings 1:10, 12 &14). Luke has also already suggested this link with Elijah when he told us of the time James and John wanted Jesus to call down fire on the Samaritan village where the people would not give them hospitality – see In 9:54. This reference to fire is found only in Luke and, given the links to Elijah, and the situation in the journey to Jerusalem where there are suggestions of the end time, we can also take it as an expression of Jesus’ desire for the eschatological judgment that was promised by John the Baptist: the tree not bearing fruit is to be thrown in the fire (3:9), the chaff is thrown into unquenchable fire (3:16). See also 17:29 where there is a reference to the destruction of Sodom by “fire and brimstone”.
We also note that Luke associates fire with the gift of the Spirit – see 3:16 and Acts 2:3.
One commentator writes of the symbolism of fire in the Jewish tradition: “From the time of Abraham’s election, the symbol of fire shines out in the history of God’s relations with His people (Genesis 15:17). This biblical revelation has a different dimension from the philosophies of nature of the religions which divinize fire. Israel undoubtedly shares with the all the ancient peoples the theory of four elements; but in its religion, fire has value only as a sign, which men must transcend in order to find God. In fact it is always in the course of a personal dialogue that Yahweh manifests Himself ‘in the form of fire’; yet this fire is not the only symbol which is used to translate the essence of divinity. Sometimes fire is seen associated with contrary symbols such as breath, water or wind; or else it changes itself into light.” (Xavier Léon-Dufour SJ, editor, Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Geoffrey Chapman, 1972, 156.) We could add to the reference of Genesis 15:17 – where the “firebrand” passes between the halves of the animals Abraham is sacrificing – the haunting last words of the Book of Exodus: “The cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey” (40:38).
Matthew uses the symbolism of fire eleven times and generally with punitive intent – as in 25:41: “‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’.” The one notable exception is in the proclamation of John the Baptist: “‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire’” (3:11). Mark only uses the symbolism of fire three times, twice with a punitive intent similar to Matthew and once with the sense of purification: “‘everyone will be salted with fire’” (9:49). John uses the symbolism of fire only once and that is in a punitive way: “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” (15:6)
I have a baptism with which to be baptized: It is not entirely clear what Luke is saying here. Perhaps he is following Mark 10:38 and referring to Jesus’ death. Perhaps he is referring to the “baptism in the Spirit” at Pentecost.
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!: Luke shares this saying with Matthew – see 10:34 – except that Matthew uses the word machaira, meaning sword or dagger. Luke softens the expression by using the word diamerismos, meaning division, dissension or disunity. On the face of it, both expressions seem to be saying that Jesus is here to cause trouble, even violence. This apparent contradiction needs to be addressed, especially at a time when religion and violence are too often seen to be of a piece.
The Letter to the Ephesians offers a useful starting point: “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (6:15-17). Jesus’ teaching – confirmed by his life – was thoroughly oriented towards peace, definitely non-violent. No reasonable person could read the Gospels and go away thinking there is a call to violence there. The birth of Jesus is announced with the words: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to people who enjoy his favour” (Luke 2:14), Jesus is quite explicit in rejecting violence – see for example the Sermon on the Mount (“turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39)), particularly the Beatitudes (“blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9)), and the response when Peter draws his knife and cuts off the ear of the slave of the high priest – see Luke 22:50. When Jesus goes to the disciples after the resurrection he greets them with peace – see Luke 24:36 and John 20:19.
Three obvious factors can be noted. The first is the simple, recurring datum of human experience, that people typically react to prophets in their midst with violence. For example, even today whistle-blowers are typically made to pay a heavy price for revealing the truth concerning an organization. Jesus – like the prophets before him – had firsthand experience of this – see for example the rejection of Jesus in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30). In this context it is interesting to note the prophecy of Simeon: “‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too’” (Luke 2:34-35).
The second is the historical fact that Jesus was indeed the occasion of divisions and disunity in families at that time in the first century – and this in the face of the promise made concerning the mission of John by the Angel Gabriel, that like Elijah, he would “turn the hearts of fathers to their children” (1:17). Many Jews of the first century saw Jesus as a threat to the tradition. It is not hard to imagine the atmosphere in a household where a member of the family declared his or her faith in Jesus as the Messiah.
The third is that the Christians refused to join the armed rebellion by the Jews against the Romans in Jerusalem in 66 CE.
Whilst there is no serious evidence that Jesus sanctioned violence to support his message, there is evidence that at least some of the first Christians believed that Jesus did permit violence under some circumstances. For example, Jesus never rebuked the Romans as he frequently rebuked the Jewish religious authorities, he praised the centurion (Matthew 8:5-13), he said his disciples should render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar (Matthew 12:21). It is significant that Peter does not seem to have had any qualms about baptising the centurion Cornelius (Acts 10).
The reign of Constantine (313-337 CE) brought a massive change to the lives of Christians. However, the attitude to war and military service by Christians was not a volte face: “…. There were two sides to the issue (before Constantine). The most vocal and the most articulate side was pacifist. In this school Tertullian, Origen and the early Lactantius stand out as the most reflective and persuasive writers. Although they do not all agree on the reasons for opposing Christian participation in war or military service, although they are not of one mind on the amount of cooperation they will allow a Christian in such matters, and although they are not always consistent in their own thinking on the subject, they leave no doubt that for them violence of any kind is incompatible with the demands of the Christian faith. The other side is non-pacifist. It has no apologists that we know of, and no articulated rationale. Both the fact of its existence and the arguments on which it is based are gleaned indirectly from a very few sources. When, for example, Tertullian in his treatise On the Crown commends a Christian soldier for renouncing the service he notes that this individual represented an exception to the rule.” (Louis J Swift, The Early Fathers on War and Military Service, Michael Glazier, 1983, 27-28.)
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”. Matthew has a similar text but instead of bringing “division” it is “the sword”! On the face of it, this seems to defy everything we believe Jesus stands for. What are we to make of it?
If we allow Jesus to be the centre of our lives, the consequences will be life-changing. Some behaviours will be seen by us to be evidently inappropriate and will, with a little cooperation from us, begin to disappear, some friendships will fade away but perhaps not without conflict, our expectations of ourselves and others will shift, new priorities will emerge. This is typically a slow and painful journey. And it not only affects the way we relate to others, it affects the way others relate to us.
In particular, it may surface serious issues in the relationships close to us. Depending on how these issues are handled – by us and by the others – divisions may emerge. There may even be conflict and alienation with parents, siblings or friends. Such outcomes are not desired by those who seek the Christ-centred life but sadly they may be unavoidable.
In the 4th century, many men and women went to the desert around the Upper Nile in Egypt. They became known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers and were sought for their wisdom. The greatest of them all was St Anthony (251-356). He gave the following advice to one who sought his wisdom: “A time is coming when people will go mad and when they meet someone who is not mad, they will turn to them and say, ‘You are out of your mind,’ just because they are not like them’.”(Benedicta Ward, editor, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Mowbray, 1975/1983, 6) Those who have “put on the mind of Christ” (Philippians 2:5) are in a very real sense “out of their minds” – their old minds.
Nothing can be found in the life and teaching of Jesus that would justify the violence perpetrated by Christians down the ages – for example, the persecution of the Jews, the waging of the Crusades, the cruel torture and execution of so-called “heretics”. Tragically, however, history reminds us that violence and conflict may arise because of human beings who claim to be disciples of Jesus and because of human beings who do not accept Jesus’ disciples. Ironically, the peace of the Kingdom – where the lie is exposed and replaced with the truth, hatred gives way to love and evil is overcome by the good – may be experienced by some – self-confessed Christians and others – as threat rather than promise. Such people may resort to violence to defend their “kingdoms”. What prompts you to violence? What is happening there?