I came to cast fire upon the earth

Sermon Offered August 18th by Mervyn Thomas 

Luke 12: 49 – 56 

When I read today’s Gospel reading, I had a very strong desire to preach  on Hebrews. Great, I thought, just what we need: more conflict anger and  family disruption. But I am resisting that temptation. We have a lectionary  for a purpose – it forces us to engage with all of scripture, not just the bits  we like. If we just read the bits we like, we have a gospel which is no  longer able to challenge us. 

The reading starts with the confronting statement:  

“I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already  kindled!” 

That sounds to our ears very like a threat of judgement and destruction.  The greek word for earth used here is γη; It has the same range of  meanings as our word earth, everything from a handful of soil to our  entire planet. Some scholars have suggested that it is used as a translation  of an aramaic word which means both earth, and an earth oven.  

If that is the case then the meaning is very different from the  eschatological interpretation. Jesus is not saying that he has come to  judge the world, but to start preparing a feast. 

I remain unconvinced by this argument, though it is possibly correct. I find  it more useful to remember that, in the New Testament, fire can be both a  positive and a negative thing. It can be fires of destruction, it can be a  cleansing fire, and we have the image of the disciples receiving tongues of  fire as they are filled with the holy Spirit. 

So which of those meanings do we have here? I don’t know – perhaps all  of them. It does show us how careful we have to be in reading the  scriptures. The meaning of the text may not be as clear cut as we first  think, we have to remain open to multiple readings. 

The reading then continues with a promise of domestic conflict: 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. 

We find almost the same saying in Matthew’s Gospel, but not in Mark.  Remember that most scholars believe that both Luke and Matthew were  written, using Mark as a source, and that they had access to a  hypothetical separate source, usually referred to as Q. The Q text is  believed to have been a sayings Gospel: a collection of Our Lords sayings.  The material we have read today would have come from the Q source. 

It is interesting that we do have one ancient Gospel, the Gospel of  Thomas, which is a sayings Gospel. The Gospel of Thomas is not part of  our scriptures, but it is useful because it provides another, independent  window into the beliefs and traditions of the earliest Christians. These  sayings in our Gospel reading today are matched in the Gospel of  Thomas, where we read Jesus saying “I have cast fire upon the world, and  look, I’m guarding it until it blazes.” So we can be confident that this  material comes from one of the earliest strata of Christian writing. 

Scholars debate whether or not Our Lord actually spoke these words.  Some argue that the evangelist is writing about family division which has  already arisen; when some members of the family have decided to follow  Jesus. Putting these words into Jesus’ mouth becomes a way of  normalising the conflict, and reassuring the community. 

I am not too impressed by that argument, it is far too easy to use it to  dismiss passages of scripture which we dislike or find challenging. I have  more sympathy for other scholars, who argue that Our Lord probably did  speak these words.  

The passage speaks directly to family structure in the Holy Land during the  first century. There is no conflict between fathers or mothers and sons in  law, because married men stayed in their own family, but their wives left  their home to join their husband’s family. 

The conflict here is between generations, rather than between men and  women.  

The family was ruled by the older men; it was deeply patriarchal. This sort  of conflict between father and sons, between mother and daughters  simply shouldn’t happen. As the Scholar John Crossan points out, this isn’t  merely the family conflict we are so depressingly familiar with. Rather it is  a challenge to the normal hierarchical functioning of social relationships.  And that is just the sort of radical challenge to social structures that we  see elsewhere in the Gospel, which is why I believe we are hearing  something very close to Jesus’ own words. 

Whether Jesus spoke these words, or whether they were created by the  very early church, here we have a very different understanding of  Christian Family Values. It seems that Christian family values are not  about a return to a fictional golden age, where children were well  behaved and obedient, and women deferred to their husbands. Rather  Christian family values are a challenge to patriarchal dominance, and a  challenge to hierarchical relationships of power and control. 

Jesus has come to challenge the powerful and the dominant. He has come  to make that challenge at all levels of society, from the family unit to the  Roman governor. Conflict is inevitable, whenever power and dominance  are challenged. Jesus has come to bring justice and liberation; and so he  says: 

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell  you, but rather division! 

I hope that I am not making Jesus sound like Donald Trump. Jesus brings  division because He exposes and confronts injustice, because He speaks  the truth to the powerful. And for that reason he is flogged and crucified.  Trump brings division by blaming the weak and the powerless. He does  not suffer violence, he incites it.

I find this passage challenging. It confronts my comfortable respectability;  it confronts the ease with which I avoid conflict; it confronts my  complacency in the face of injustice. 

And so I pray: 

Lord Jesus Christ fill me with your love for the weak and the exploited;  give me the grace to confront in justice, give me the courage to speak out  in the face of oppression. Let me not be afraid to face division and conflict  for the sake of Your Gospel. 


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