The Symbol of Fire

The immediately preceding context, which was also last Sunday’s gospel reading, centered on the end time and the return of Jesus, although in somewhat veiled language. What now follows in Luke’s Gospel seems to also be related to the end time and the expected problems in such a time of turmoil and upheaval. Another possibility: Luke is aware of the persecution of Christians in Rome under the Emperor Nero. This happened in the sixties of the first century. Peter and Paul were martyred in that persecution, as were many other Christians. A Roman author, Tacitus, no lover of Christianity, talks about Christians being burned during that persecution. Some Christians, including the author of Mark’s Gospel, associated the end time with that persecution. Luke may be doing the same at this point in his Gospel.

In words attributed to Jesus, Luke writes, “I have come to cast fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were already burning.” The  statement is exceedingly strange, and even more unusual in view of an incident in Luke 9:54-55.

James and John wanted to call fire from heaven to consume a Samaritan town that refused hospitality to Jesus and Co. because they were en route to Jerusalem. “But he turned and rebuked them, and they went on to another village.”
The fire in this saying should be understood as metaphor. In the Old Testament fire is associated with cleansing, as a purifying agent. Clothes worn by a leper were to be burned. Fire was used to purify metal. In Isaiah 33:14 fire is used figuratively for the consuming presence of God. Fire is also a widespread symbol of justice in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Luke 3:16, the Baptizer speaks of Jesus baptizing (cleansing) “with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” In Acts 2:1-4, the Holy Spirit settles on the gathered Christians in tongues of fire. The best interpretation is some connection of the cleansing of the earth by fire at the end time and the return of Jesus. Even that need not be physical fire, but a symbol of judgment.

The next statement: “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and how I am in anguish until it is accomplished.” Luke may consider this saying fits with end time sayings, but that is doubtful in view of a gospel tradition that speaks of Jesus’ passion and death as a baptism. What an unusual collection of Jesus-sayings Luke has assembled in this chapter of left-overs! He adds a third statement, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” This is the same Jesus of whom the angels sang, “Peace on earth to people of good will.” There were not enough “people of good will.” Therefore the horrendous persecution of Christians in Rome in the sixties under Nero. Persecution then and now is the correct setting for this saying attributed to Jesus.

In the above saying the Lucan Jesus speaks of division. The rest of this peculiar gospel reading describes what is meant by division. “In one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” Luke here reveals as always his knowledge of the Old Testament. The prophet Micah, 701 B.C., has similar thoughts. Godly people are said to be gone from the earth. No one can trust anyone. Micah is distressed by social injustice, moral corruption in civic and private life, a decline in family unity.  In the proverbial saying, “The whole world has gone to hell!”

Luke is certainly aware that the advent of Jesus into the world did not bring the peace that was proclaimed in the song of the angels at Bethlehem. The Christian message did set fire to the earth in the persecution of Christians. We are told by a Roman historian that families were torn apart through betrayal by their own family members. Luke himself says the same in words he attributes to Jesus, “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” Thus the unusual and startling statements of today’s gospel reading are a recognition of what had already happened before Luke composed his Gospel and a warning of what could happen to Christians in the future. Those who live a truly Christian life, who proclaim Jesus by their life, their words, their deeds, are made aware that they may have to endure the same kind of baptism — suffering and death — endured by Jesus.