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)
Luke continues to tell of the prophet Jesus on his way to Jerusalem. He has begun this section of his Gospel with an exhortation to courage in the face of trials. That was followed with the warning against avarice in the face of fear. Now Luke has Jesus speak of judgement and this includes a call to conversion.
fire: One commentator writes: “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.) Perhaps it is not as straightforward as this comment implies.
We recall that the prophet Elijah 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 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 should not forget that Luke also associates fire with the gift of the Spirit – see3:16 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 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, almost always 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)
baptism: This reference to baptism, like the reference to fire, is not straightforward. It might be a reference to Jesus’ death – as in Mark 10:38 – or 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 stating 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 factor 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 the organization of which they have been part. 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 factor is the historical truth that Jesus was indeed the occasion of divisions and disunity in families and friends and villagers 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 or simply as another pretender. 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 factor 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).
In today’s Gospel – Luke 12:49-53 – we hear Jesus say: “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 (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. Is that a fair interpretation?
An axiom of biblical interpretation says that the part must be interpreted in the context of the whole. In the Letter to the Ephesians we read: “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace” (6:15). Jesus’ teaching – confirmed by his life – was thoroughly oriented towards peace, definitely non-violent. In fact, Jesus is quite explicit in rejecting violence. For example: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly. To the man who slaps you on one cheek, present the other cheek too” (Luke 6:27-28). Jesus rebukes Peter when he draws his knife and cuts off the ear of the slave of the high priest – see Luke 22:50. Jesus greets the disciples with peace – see Luke 24:36 and John 20:19. Jesus’ disciples both lived and proclaimed this message of peace.
People tend to react – sometimes violently – against prophets. For example, whistle-blowers are typically made to pay a heavy price for speaking the truth. When Jesus announces his message in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30), his own people “drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff”. 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).
It is a much more reasonable interpretation of Jesus’ words to say that he is warning his disciples of the violence that may come upon them because of their commitment to him. John 15:18 says as much: “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you”.
Have Christians down the ages shown themselves capable of being as violent as other human beings? There is no denying that. The crusades, the repeated persecution of the Jews and the violence towards “heretics” are horrible examples of violence. But there is no basis whatever in the life and teaching of Jesus to justify such wicked behaviour.