August 14, 2022
‘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.’
He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? ***
Foresters who manage large stands of trees refer to the underbrush as “fuel.” During seasons of dry conditions, this low growth exposed to a lightning struck or spark can set off a raging forest fire.
It seems like the fire danger in the forest of our world is high these days. This moment feels almost ominous, as if we’re living next to a parched forest with ample underbrush. Pollsters and social scientists tell us that Americans can scarcely imagine a time in their lives of wider dissatisfaction and division. Of course, the reasons for this are many. We know partisan animosity runs at historically high levels and conversely our tolerance is low. The two major political parties regard one another more negatively than they have in twenty-five years. Combining the factors of this combustible environment and we live feeling stressed and anxious.
Remember those bubbling test tubes of the mad scientist from old cartoons? That menacing feeling defines the climate between different groups in society. Amidst conflict and disagreement, we have developed phrases to declare allegiance to, or support of varying points of view within our nation’s racial and social politics. Many of these allegiances have labels and phrases and some of them fit nicely on lawn signs: “Black Lives Matter,” “All Lives Matter,” “Pride is for Everyone” or “We Back the Blue.” Yet, we are less optimistic about progress on bringing together the various groups that would ascribe to one of those phrases.
In our own moment of cultural division, when it seems a fire could erupt in the underbrush any time, we encounter this extremely challenging passage from Luke. Here Jesus apparently revels in division. “I have come to bring fire to the earth,” he claims. “I have come” not to bring peace but division. If you are one of those people alienated from a parent or sibling over your differences, you might feel like Jesus is talking about you. “Father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother.” And so on. If our lives resemble the forest underbrush, Jesus brings the match.
Lots of people have turned Jesus’ words into an excuse for their own obnoxious behavior. We have all seen zealots who push their fanatical agendas. When they experience rejection, they gleefully announce that of course the righteous should expect resistance.
The late Fred Phelps, who founded and pastored the Westboro Baptist Church, built his living on this pattern. His church protested many events carrying signs with vile inscriptions: “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Sent the Shooter” as his adherents protested at funerals around the USA. The group has supported itself by filing lawsuits against communities that reject them. Eleven of Phelps’ thirteen children hold law degrees. Conflict does not lead the hyper-righteous to examine themselves. On the contrary, conflict merely bolsters their confidence. Didn’t Jesus say he came to bring division?
It is not uncommon to try to wiggle out of Jesus’ words. Isn’t it Jesus who tells us to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us (Luke 6:27)? Didn’t Luke tell us at the start of the story of Jesus, that he was the one of whom the angels sang, “Peace on earth, good will to all.”
The divisive Jesus in this reading who sets the world alight scarcely resembles the Jesus of our popular piety. But an always-nice Jesus requires that we ignore significant chunks of the Gospels. Jesus does bless those who endure persecution: “Blessed are you when people hate you” (Luke 6:27). He instructs his disciples to shake the dust from their feet when they encounter rejection (Luke 9:5; 10:11). Like it or not, honesty requires that we look this difficult Jesus straight in the eye.
Jesus understood his ministry as God’s dramatic intervention into human history, a decisive moment that changed the trajectory of the world. His ministry was to bring peace, yet he knew in a prophetic, almost apocalyptic fashion, that this peace would ultimately come after intense conflict.
The Gospels are full of conflict stories, in which various groups oppose Jesus and his teaching. The conflict escalates to the point of Jesus’ execution. Jesus indeed saw conflict as an essential part of his ministry — albeit a ministry of peace and reconciliation.
So, Luke like his contemporaries associate Jesus’ ministry with both peace and conflict. The task then is ours to discern how we relate to this tension among Jesus’ teachings.
Today’s reading is a prime example. Jesus calls us to lives of peacemaking, mercy, and justice — a call that sometimes leads us to face rejection. We are to discern when our commitment to follow Jesus requires us to take a firm stand and risk everything, even our relationships with people we love. Hopefully, these are saved for moments of extreme situations.
Martin Luther King Jr. coined the phrase “creative maladjustment.” He meant that we will find ourselves free when we look to those who have figured out a way to creatively respond in actionable ways to the seemingly unbearable oppressive and supposedly ‘normal’ social environments. He called for “creative maladjustment,” so that, “we may be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.”
“Creative maladjustment” does not define Jesus’ followers. We may meet conflict, but we do so in love. Jesus put it this way, be “Lambs in the midst of wolves,” (Luke 10:3). He admonishes his followers to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). By no means are we commissioned to harm others, for the community of Jesus follows the path of reconciliation.
After reading such a text like today’s, we might wish Jesus would settle things for us. We long for a clear word, a decisive saying that would provide the standard for our conduct. But that wouldn’t be Jesus, would it? Instead, Jesus challenges his followers to read the signs: ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat,” and it happens.
If you know how to discern the weather by watching the winds, he says, “why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” In its proper context, Jesus is challenging people to recognize that his ministry has brought them to a decisive moment.
Back to the concerns about the fuel on the forest floor, the world seems to be in another decisive moment with a growing chance of wildfire. As followers of Jesus and with God’s help, it is for us to discern our current moments. So, what does that mean for you, dear reader?
With a bias toward peace, we are once again called to clear, definitive witness.
*How do you cultivate peace within yourself during divisive times?
 From Georgialee Lang in Law, LawDiva blog 3/3/11
 From issuu.com “How Far Have We Come? Dr. King’s Legacy in the 21st Century,” June 20, 2019