Proper 15 • Luke 12:49–53 (54–56) • August 14, 2016
Jeffrey A. Oschwald
As if the themes of this Gospel weren’t challenge enough, two significant exegetical/translational questions must also be addressed.
Luke 12:49b is “a passage of well-known difficulty, the translation of which remains doubtful.”1 Just presents the case for the translation “How I wish that it were already kindled,” but the parallels are not exact for the whole expression, nor the examples numerous.2 Plummer paraphrases: “What more have I to desire, if it be already kindled.”3 Arndt also finds Plummer’s translation “the most plausible” option. Arndt translates: “and what do I wish for if now at length it is kindled?”4
In support, Plummer adds, “The next verse does not imply that it is not kindled; and the history of Christ’s ministry shows that it was kindled, although not to the full extent.”5 Arndt, too, interprets the statement as referring to “the actual results of [Jesus’s] message.” We are “to think here of the clashes caused by the Gospel, some people rejecting others accepting it . . .”6 This reading, which the Greek does allow,7 would seem to provide the best progression of thought to the following verse. There is no wish to extinguish the fire that his preaching has kindled, for this is the purpose for which he came. Now that his work has begun, he longs to see it reach its end (τέλος; cf. τελεσθῇ in 12:50) in the baptism that awaits him. Overall, this seems preferable to taking 12:49 as a contrary-to-fact condition: “would that it were kindled (but it is not).”8
The second question is the ἀλλ’ ἢ of 12:51. Despite differing proposals for the completion of the apostrophized ἀλλ’, there is no disagreement on the force of the combination. It means “except” in the sense “no other thing than,” “nothing but.” Such a strong expression of a negative alternative does not allow us to read the verse as an example of dialectical negation; that is, “not peace, but division” = “not (only) peace, but (also) division.” The text allows no softening of its force, no easing of the tension.
Our Lord came to cast fire upon the earth. This fire, in keeping with his desire to carry out his Father’s purpose, has already been kindled. His ministry cannot but lead to a baptism for him, and he is hard pressed, oppressed, greatly distressed, until it be accomplished. This is the way it will be from now on 9: division will strike the very places where his people live and sunder the closest of family ties. Jesus brings no peace that comes apart from the word he proclaims, apart from the baptism he must undergo. Jeremiah’s picture of the word that blazes like fire and smashes like a hammer (23:29; breaking in two the family hearth? splintering the dining room table?) is well in line with the picture in Luke 12: “The world is lit up with flames, and Christ is bathed in blood.”10
The sermon might develop these points:
A future perfect? This text uses a rare Greek verb form: the future perfect. But is this the perfect future we imagine for ourselves? We see here a Jesus we cannot recognize, whose purpose is to burn and destroy. Set for the rise and fall of many (Lk 2:34), He comes with axe (Lk 3:9) and hammer (Jer 23:29) in hand. The fire he kindled still roars in our world.
A perfect future can only come about through the perfect completion of the work for which he came. That means a fiery word for the world and a bloody baptism for himself. He has set his face toward Jerusalem; he will not turn aside.
Though we long for the day when division will cease, we will not settle for a “dreamy” peace (Jer 23:26–27) that comes from distorting or silencing the divisive Word of God (Hebrews 4:12). Our hearts break as our homes are divided, but we know that this, too, means the word is at work.
Lent comes from the word lengthen, referring to the lengthening days of springtime. But, oh, how long the days seem as we wait for the perfect future God has prepared for us in Christ. Christ’s baptism now stands completed, so we, too, need to know “what time it is” as we wait for our Lord to return and say: “Peace be with you.”
1 Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke, International Critical Commentary, 5th ed. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1922), 334. First published 1896.
2 Arthur Just, Luke 9:51–24:53, Concordia Commentary (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1997), 520.
3 Plummer, 334.
4 William F. Arndt, Bible Commentary: The Gospel according to St. Luke (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1956), 323.
5 Plummer, 334.
6 Arndt, 323.
7 Cf. Fitzmyer’s “literal” translation of the line. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (X– XXIV) The Anchor Bible, Vol. 28A; (New York: Doubleday, 1985), 996.
8 Note how closely the reading favored by Plummer and Arndt parallels John 12:27 (28–33).
9 Note the rather rare future perfect used here: you will have been divided and continue in a state of division.
10 Plummer, 334.