Luke’s Gospel has been called the most beautiful book ever written. It contains most of what has become the Christmas story, as well as the sermon on the plain, the parables of the good Samaritan and the prodigal son, the story of Zaccheus and much more. Even Luke’s passion narrative portrays Jesus as a brave hero and the best example of his own teachings. Luke may well be the most beautiful book ever written. It is also, however, a challenging book.
The Gospel reading for this Sunday presents three initially puzzling sayings of Jesus. He proclaims that he has come to light a fire on earth, to undergo a baptism of death and to bring division rather than peace. What happened to angels singing about peace on earth and Jesus the prince of peace?
The fire that Jesus came to light was the kingdom of God. Jesus was convinced that in his own person and mission a new phase in God’s plan for the world was beginning. Through his teachings and miracles, and especially in his passion, death and resurrection, Jesus was igniting a fire that will culminate in the fullness of God’s kingdom. The fire that Jesus lit still burns brightly in the people of God.
The word “baptism” can refer to a bath, immersion or even death by drowning. In Christian baptism we first die with Christ and then rise with him. Jesus, of course, had already received John’s baptism. The baptism to which he looked forward was the “baptism” of his death on the cross. Jesus recognized that he was engaged in a controversial and dangerous undertaking. If God is the only real king (as Jesus proclaimed), the Roman emperor cannot be the real king. By his preaching about God’s kingdom and his role in inaugurating it, Jesus was challenging the claims of the religious and political leaders of his time much as Jeremiah did before him. Jesus very likely intuited that his mission would result in his death. In this context his future “baptism” refers to his shameful death on the cross (as today’s reading from Hebrews 12 emphasizes). Nevertheless, he continues his journey toward Jerusalem that would lead to his death.
Jesus’ saying about bringing divisions even in families has been understood against the background of his commitment to proclaim God’s kingdom. Jesus lived in a society in which family ties were very important, much more than in the 21st-century United States. One’s loyalty to the family was primary, and one’s identity and importance were closely linked to one’s place within the family. Against this background Jesus says that he may well bring about division within a family. Why? Because for Jesus God’s kingdom is more important than even one’s family. Family ties, family honor and family obligations are subordinate to God’s kingdom. While these can and should exist in harmony, there may be tensions between them. The saying is not so much an attack on the family as it is an indirect and extreme way of highlighting the supreme importance of God’s kingdom.