Luke 12: 49-59
“I have come to cast fire on the earth and how I wish it were already kindled. It is a baptism that I am to be baptised with and how I am exercised until it has been brought about. Might you suspect that I have come to bestow peace? Not at all, I tell you. Much rather this involves divisive distribution, an allocation that will prove divisive. For from henceforth, there will be five in one household with three against two [here] and two against three [there]. The divisive allocation will pit 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 her mother-in-law.”
And then he said to the crowds:
“When you see a cloud rising in the west, you can immediately say, a storm is coming and so it is. And when there is a south wind you say that it is going to be hot – and so it is. Hypocrites – you know how to test the appearance of the earth and the heavens [to tell the weather], but why then do you not know how to test the time [in which you are living]?
“Why are you so incapable of judging what is right?
“For instance: [At the time] when you go with your opponent to the magistrate you will take pains [to get him off your back] by getting him to reconcile with you, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge delivers you to the court police, and the court police to then throw you into prison. I tell you [as you well know] you will not get out of there until you have paid your very last cent!”
In reading Luke 12 we have assumed the author’s effort to maintain a sense of continuity in Jesus’ teaching for Theophilus. Jesus is presented as discussing his relationship with his disciples, those willing to follow him, those from the crowds who have taken up his challenge to “take up the cross”. How should they be understanding their place in God’s household, as recipients of their inheritance in the Kingdom of God? Their question then when Jesus walked the roads of Galilee and Judaea on his way eventually to Jerusalem is also our question now, even with our different “context”.
There are parables which invite our active interpretation and thus have ongoing significance for the way Theophilus and ourselves walk on this path following Christ Jesus. It should not be forgotten that there is also clarification about the context in which this teaching was initially given.
Following the parable of the returning householder, we come to what seems like three separate records that Luke places in his narrative at this point. At least that is how our (English) Bible present the material.
The first documents Jesus’ awareness that his coming portends a fire that will consume, a fire that may also cleanse, a baptism that he will undergo that will bring deep opposition, confirming deep, embedded antagonism to God’s rule. The distribution of benefits from an inheritance that he will confer will irrevocably divide households. He may not have been the public trustee for that man’s estate, but he is the Person whose task it is to reveal just how broken and deeply fractured human families have become. He has come in confirmation that the generations of human, male-and-female, image-bearers have become deeply antagonistic to God’s Kingdom. Presumably this full revelation of human apostasy would not have been possible without His coming! That requires our sustained reflection and consideration.
The passage begins with what reads as another of Jesus’ musing aloud. His disciples are made privy to what he has been prayerfully saying to himself. It is a statement meditating on Micah 7:6. He concludes as their Teacher by encouraging his students to consider what their allegiance is already doing in their own family circles. Can they see it? Are they willing to name it up?
Well, Luke then gives us a statement about how Jesus confronted the blindness of his generation, the inherent myopia in their way of life. Here is not only diagnosis but also therapy. Even his disciples, those chosen to be immersed in his “intensives”, were not immune to this malady of short-sightedness. Had they taken note of the time in which they lived? Perhaps, we might say, they needed to be challenged to see “the big picture”. He is clearly suggesting that he has brought the full picture to them.
So, what is it that prevents your ability to make right judgements? You can interpret sky and land to predict the weather later today or tomorrow. You can identify the season, you can look around to identify which way the wind is blowing, but why then are you so lacking in expertise to discern the times in which you live? Why can’t you make judgements about the state of your way of life before God?
We need to be alert to the manner in which paragraph breaks can infuse the text with our own inferred interpretation. In this case it is perhaps too easy to assume that Luke is giving us separate reports rather than a continuous account of Jesus’ teaching. The statement
Why are you so incapable of judging what is right?
seems to conclude the discussion of historical myopia but it also leads on to a third saying. Let us read Jesus’ interpretation of a possible future state of affairs for the individual disciple. He notes that “going to court”, litigation, is part of everyday life in the world. But here he suggests that a disciple will need to give all due attention to mitigate the litigant’s opposition, to get the opponent off his back, before it happens, before the conflict breaks out. This reads not so much as an instruction about what to do should a suit be raised in any particular case, but as a command to be alert to consequences, to be alert to reckon who is friend and who is opponent, to take note and busily anticipate the consequences of one’s mistakes, failures as well as the breakdown in justice. Don’t we come across a parallel here between Jesus’ alerting his disciples to the long-range (perhaps cunning) anticipation that is required if one is to avoid going to court and the service rendered by the Good Steward in anticipation of the Householder’s service to him when he returns?
We might read it as:
Since you are quite capable of anticipating the consequences of your own negligence, how come you can’t cast your vision across a wider vista? How come your world-view is perpetually narrowed down to your own level of personal anxiety?
And read in this way:
Why are you so incapable of judging what is right?
leads us to read it as still further exposition of the instructions cited earlier that they/we consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, Jesus’ teaching about how our Heavenly Father deals so intimately with us to ensure our needs are fully met. And as such, read in this way, Luke prepares us for the further discussion of wider contextual matters, alerting us to how Jesus’ teaching gives us his response to an atrocity perpetrated by the Roman Governor (13:1-9).
It is not all politics; Jesus teaching clearly demonstrates that. Luke’s Gospel is not a 19th century political tract, nor is it the presumptuous post-modern “speaking truth to justice” of the hyper-individualistic early 21st century. But our human mandate as God’s image-bearers certainly includes our political responsibilities, however we are placed historically and culturally in relation to civil governance.
So Luke fulfils a task for us, a much needed task, bringing God’s word to us. It is a record of how Israel’s Messiah prepared his disciples to serve in their entire lives, across all their responsibilities, as those sent on their way by the Saviour of the world, also going on their way to confront the political powers in the name of the Prince of all princes. Here is background to what Paul would some years teach when he warned that other Roman Governor, the trembling Felix, about the One who requires “right standing, self-criticism and justice” (Acts 24:24-25).