Proper 15: Jeremiah 23.23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11.29—12.2; Luke 12.49-56
Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray and to give more than either we desire or deserve: pour down upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
ANYONE who followed Jesus on the walk to Jerusalem that Luke describes (Luke 9.51-19.27) would have had to be resilient to complete the course. Repeatedly, in parables and direct warnings and admonitions, Jesus sets out the demands of discipleship, and the real dangers awaiting those who join him.
At first, the risks seem mainly to involve the presiding civil and religious authorities. Sunday’s Gospel reading moves to the more insidious threat of rifts within families (Luke 12.51-53). The list echoes Micah 7.6-7, in which the prophet warns that, in a community no longer faithful to God, no one can be trusted, not even your closest relations. Luke’s Jesus speaks with a different purpose, however, and tracing it means beginning much earlier, with the prophecies of Simeon and John the Baptist.
Simeon had told Mary and Joseph that their infant son would be a contentious “sign”, who would expose “the inner thoughts of many” (Luke 2.34-35). John the Baptist had told those who mistook him for the Messiah that someone more powerful would come, and “baptise [them] with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3.15-16). The Gospel-writer has created a key to Jesus’s statement of his mission: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled” (Luke 12.49).
Commentaries are divided over what this fire symbolises. Is it the coming of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2.1-4), or is it the final judgement? Perhaps it is both, although neither outcome is possible without the “baptism” that Jesus himself must undergo (Luke 12.50). This time, there is, in one sense, no ambiguity: he speaks of his death.
And yet, in another sense, there is much ambiguity around the way he approaches it: “What stress I am under until it is completed” (Luke 12.50). Christopher Evans notes that the Greek word translated here as “under stress” means “hemmed in” or “held in captivity”. He offers two interpretations: either that Jesus was confined by the faithless and disobedient setting in which he found himself, or that he was impatient to fulfil his vocation as Son of God (Saint Luke, SCM Press, 1990).
Read against Jeremiah’s warnings against false prophets and their stratagems for luring God’s people into idolatry (Jeremiah 23.23-29), the first view paints a plausible picture of the frustration of trying to communicate with a wilfully obtuse or gullible audience. The bravura performance that is the roll of honour of the faithful (Hebrews 11.29-12.2) points emphatically to the second view.
Here, an accomplished rhetorician marshals all the technical skills at his disposal to defeat the expectation of the reader or listener. Surely, as the catalogue of achievements, with its carefully crafted repetition of sentence openings (Hebrews 11.29-31) and clauses (11.37), and its recitation of events by apologising for omitting them (11.32-38), reaches its climax, all the heroes should emerge triumphant. They do not. Instead, we learn that, although “commended for their faith, they did not receive what was promised” (11.39).
The writer has teased but not betrayed the audience; for this dismay is only momentary. The delay in receiving the rewards of faithfulness is only so that all God’s faithful people might be perfected together (Hebrews 11.40). That becomes possible only through Jesus, the “pioneer and perfecter”, the beginning and the end (12.2).
It remains to make sense of the multiple time frames that have been introduced on the way to this conclusion. How is the present life of the letter’s recipients to be lived in the light of history, and in the hope of eternity?
That this is a “race” that requires “perseverance” (Hebrews 12.1) is a warning that its runners will not escape suffering. For that reason, they must remember and treasure the stories of earlier heroic believers. At the same time, taking Jesus as the pattern of their faith, they are to fix their gaze on the “joy” of entering the presence of God, together with generations of God’s faithful followers.
This is a much more compelling programme for living in the world and being attentive to its signs than that which the final verses of Sunday’s Gospel offer. Evans regards them as a rather lame appendage, unrelated to what goes before, but felt by the Gospel-writer to deserve inclusion.
They are, nevertheless, a salutary warning against complacency and a false sense of security — a reminder that the call to live as those who believe in the resurrection is a daily challenge. The “Prayers for Readiness to Live in the Light of Eternity” make helpful reading in facing this demand (Common Worship: Pastoral Services, 2000: in the resources part of the funeral section).