A Fiery Grace

“I came to bring fire to the earth. . . .”  Luke 12:49

Any sensible preacher would have planned to take his vacation this Sunday, as today’s gospel text is among the most disturbing of the entire year. If your image of Jesus is of the meek and mild ‘Prince of Peace,’ always turning the other cheek, and spending his days blessing and cuddling up with small children, you are in for a shock this morning. 

The Jesus we meet in our gospel reading today is, in a word, angry. “I came to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were already kindled! . . . . Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, I come to bring division!”

How on earth do we square these words, this picture of an enraged and divisive Jesus, with the more familiar and gentler Jesus we know and love?

            For starters, a text like this is a useful reminder that we always have to place Scripture in its rightful historical context. The first-century world in which Jesus lived and breathed was rather different from the comfortable confines of Manchester-by-the-Sea. His own Jewish people were living at the time under the brutal rule of an occupying Roman Empire. Everything about Roman domination was obnoxious to the Jewish people:  ranging from oppressive taxes to physical abuse by Roman soldiers to the deeply offensive idea that Roman emperors were gods.

            Jesus’ time was also one of overwhelming poverty and economic disparity.  There were essentially just two classes, the very rich and the very poor. The “very rich” consisted of a tiny upper class, comprised of Roman bureaucrats, aristocratic priests, a handful of rich landowners, and successful tax collectors. The rest of the people in first-century Palestine were dirt poor, many to the point of destitution.

            The rabbinic writings of the day speak of bands of homeless poor roaming the countryside, so desperate that when the government distributed a tithe for the poor, the homeless often stampeded like cattle.  Matthew's Gospel describes standing pools of unemployed village workers so desperate for a day's wage that they accepted work without even asking how much they would be paid. And recall the story in the 16th chapter of Luke of the poor man named Lazarus, “covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table.” (Lk 16:19-31)

            There were other gross injustices as well:  Women were denied basic human rights, such as the right to own property in her own name, or to work outside the home, or even to gather or speak freely in public places.  The fate of children was precarious.  Infanticide was practiced widely by the Romans.  For example, a father eager to have a healthy boy to inherit his name and fortune had the legal right to abandon a baby girl or a disabled child and leave them to die from exposure.  And even if a child did survive, often he or she would be sold into slavery as a way of making ends meet.  The children of the underclass had it even worse:  they were often exploited by aristocratic men for their own sexual satisfaction. 

            No wonder Jesus is angry.  The world he finds himself in is a perverse corruption of the beautiful, good, and just place that His Father intended it to be.  Let’s remember, after all, what Jesus said way back in chapter 3 of Luke’s gospel, when as a young rabbi he first stood up to preach in his hometown synagogue.  There, he announced to the world, quoting from Isaiah, that his primary mission is to “bring good news to the poor,” “to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,” and “to let the oppressed go free.” 

            In short, Jesus is angry in our reading today because the powers and principalities of the world have so rebelled against God’s dream for creation that they have left it lying in tatters.  And he is mad, too, at the religious establishment for turning a blind eye to these realities and for abandoning the world’s victims.  “You hypocrites!,” he tells them.  “You can tell whether it is raining or sunny outside, yet you can’t see the plight of your neighbor right under your nose.”

            Our psalm today, Psalm 82, drives this point home:  There, in verses 2 through 4, God demands an accounting from the rulers of the world:  “How long will you judge unjustly, and show favor to the wicked?,” He asks.  Instead, God insists, you should be “sav[ing] the weak and the orphan, defend[ing] the humble and the needy,” and “deliver[ing] them from the power of the wicked.”  Echoing our first lesson from Jeremiah, our psalm reminds us that God is not only a God of endless love and mercy, but also a God of justice and judgment. 

            A basic theological truth that we too often ignore is this:  in order for God to be the source of all goodness, He must be opposed to all forms of evil; in order for God to be the source of all truth, He must be opposed to all forms of deceit; in order for God to be the source of justice, He must be opposed to all forms of oppression.   

            This is why we hear anger in Jesus’ voice today.  What we’re hearing is a righteous anger, a holy anger, an anger that will not allow the evil of our world to defeat the goodness Jesus brings. When Jesus says that “I have a baptism with which to be baptized,” what he is saying is that he is determined to immerse himself in the chaos and madness of our world in order to cleanse it, to redeem it, from all the corruption that we see around us.

So, the real question this morning is not ‘why is Jesus so angry?’ The real question is ‘why aren’t we?’ Today’s world might not be quite as malevolent as first-century Palestine, but we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t believe it is laden still with corruption, inequality, poverty, and violence. And what Jesus is saying in a nutshell is this:  if we claim to be his followers, then we too must be committed to sharing his opposition to evil in all of these manifestations; otherwise, we are no better than the religious hypocrites of his time.

But still, you might ask, what about this business of dividing families?  Fathers against sons, mothers against daughters?  It is a dramatic and unsettling image.  A bit of hyperbole on Jesus’ part, perhaps.  But the underlying message is an important, if difficult, one to hear:  faithfulness to God’s word comes first.  As strong as our bonds to family may be – and Jesus elsewhere urges us to honor our mothers and fathers, and to care for and love our children – these bonds still are secondary to our loyalty to God and his plan for our redemption.   

Every parent knows that when our children make bad choices, and engage in unhealthy behaviors, our love for them often requires that we hold them accountable, even if it means they resent us for it, and even if it results in enduring a period of estrangement. Jesus is saying just this: choosing the good, telling the truth, following God’s way, comes first, even at the risk of straining our closest relationships. The good news, though, is that if we place our trust in Christ’s redeeming work in the world, we can be confident that whatever painful divisions among us may now exist can and will ultimately be overcome if we just faithfully follow his lead.  

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was fond of saying that this is the difference between ‘cheap grace’ and ‘costly grace.’ Cheap grace is the naïve hope that if we just have faith in Christ, He will make our lives easy and happy, answering all our prayers just as we want. This is a childish myth, as the Cross itself reveals. Costly grace, on the other hand, is the mature realization that following Christ is often, perhaps usually, a challenging road, requiring sacrifice and struggle, but faithfulness in the midst of such pain always yields holiness and integrity, even if it is far from easy, and even if our own personal hopes are not met.

The long and short of it is this: every day we are called to choose between our own parochial interests and the urgent call of the greater good, between satisfying our own desires, on the one hand, or meeting the needs of our neighbors and seeking justice in the world, on the other.  And the question Jesus is posing for each of us this morning is this:  Are we giving up enough of ourselves – our time, talent and treasure – to help build up God’s Kingdom? Or do we too often succumb to the complacency of just enjoying what we have and turning a blind eye to our neighbor’s cries?

Jesus’ holy anger in today’s gospel is a sobering reminder that Christ is constantly calling us to join him in the cosmic struggle of good over evil, of justice over oppression, of love over hate. And it is a sobering reminder, too, that we ignore his urgent invitation at our own peril. Today’s Collect captures perfectly this message:  Let us pray – “Almighty God, you have given your only son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life. Amen.”