Some years ago, I developed a Bible study with the intentionally provocative title, “Seven Things I Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said.” Some of these sayings are difficult, some are disturbing, some are counter-intuitive. I have used this material several times since then (including in at least a couple of sermons), and the general theme of the discussion always comes down to this: He didn’t really mean it the way it sounds. Please do not assume that I am talking about intellectually sloppy students who simply want to tame the voice of Jesus into saying words that are gentle, meek, and mild. On the contrary, I have led this discussion with college students, church members, and fellow clergy—and the general drift is always the same. The reason the drift is the same is that there are very good reasons—scholarly sound, theologically robust, and intellectually honest reasons—why we do often conclude that Jesus didn’t really mean something the way it sounds to us.
There are, to begin with, some technical linguistic problems in translating words from Biblical Hebrew (for the Old Testament) and Biblical Greek (for the New Testament) that are not easily resolved. There are, for example, some words in the Greek New Testament that are not found in other Greek texts of the same period (which means we cannot really be sure exactly how they were used at the time), particularly matters of nuance, emphasis, and even humor.
Then there is the wide gulf between the culture of first century Palestine and twenty-first-century North America. What exactly, for example, did it mean for Joseph and Mary to be “betrothed?” Certainly not what it means for a modern couple who have lived together for three years and got engaged on a vacation to Paris.
Another problem is that the words of Jesus are often lifted out of the context in which they appear and treated as formal theological propositions—which they almost certainly were not. Whatever else Jesus was, he was not a Systematic Theologian. And finally, we know that much of the Bible circulated in oral form for a long time before it was written down, and we can expect that some of the texts were strongly influenced by those repeated tellings in many settings.
All of which is to say that it would not be unreasonable to come to today’s text with the expectation that He didn’t really mean it the way it sounds.
Let me suggest an alternative: He didn’t really mean it the way we have usually heard it. We hear the word fire, and we think of the destruction of forests or homes or the loss of lives. We hear the word baptism, and we are yanked back to the idea that without baptism there is no salvation. We hear the word division, and we are brought abruptly into our present circumstances, with all of its meanness and acrimony, with all of its injustices and peace-less-ness.
After the scripture reading each week, the reader asks that we be granted “insight and a generous understanding.” I believe these words of Jesus deserve a generous understanding—not because Jesus is reported to have said them, but because the words and phrases in this passage have richer and deeper and wider meanings than we usually hear.
Fire. God’s appearance to Moses in the bush that was burning but not consumed. The Holy Spirit’s descent on Pentecost as tongues of fire. Lamps burning for eight nights using only one night’s worth of oil. The candles we light every Sunday, and the candles we pray over on Good Friday and the Longest Night. Our faith brings us stories and rituals in which fire is a sign of God’s presence. We also know that fire can be deadly. In the small town where I first served as a minister, hardly a winter went by without a tragic fire—usually in an unsafe house or a re-purposed trailer with a wood stove. All over the globe, as our climate changes, forest fires have damaged vast swaths of the landscape. Injuries from fires can cause intense pain and unrepairable injuries. So it is no small thing for Jesus to speak of bringing fire to the earth. And it is no simple thing. Fire has many faces.
Baptism. Jesus at the River Jordan with John the Baptizer. The baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch by Philip, described in the book of Acts. The baptism of your children or grandchildren. Your baptism. Baptism, too, has many faces. In our congregation we often celebrate the arrival of a child, welcoming the young one into the fellowship and faith of the community. Other Christian traditions celebrate the coming of a mature faith, with Believer’s Baptism. Still others (notably the Quakers) do not practice Baptism at all. It is easy to forget that Baptism is a radical act, and that those of us who are baptized have been called into faith and service. Baptism brings responsibility, and in this passage, Jesus confesses stress about meeting that responsibility. I can’t help hoping that all of us feel that stress; that sense of urgency to live with compassion, and stewardship, and justice. In the familiar words of Micah, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Baptism is no small thing; it is no simple thing.
Peace and Division. Adam and Eve evicted from the Garden. Sarah and Hagar feuding. Joseph cast out by his brothers, and later reunited with his family. Followers of Paul and followers of Apollos. Disagreements between first-century Jewish and Greek Christians. Wars fought over theological distinctions. Wars between adherents of different religions, wars fought within many religions. No wonder that we are so grateful to welcome the Prince of Peace every Christmas. No wonder we are shocked and dismayed to hear Jesus say that he has not come to bring peace, but rather to bring division. Even in our families. As if we couldn’t do that ourselves.
And yet. And yet we know that Jesus did profoundly disturb the peace. Jesus had a prophetic eye for what was going on around him, and he knew the dangers that would face people who chose to follow him. He was, after all, challenging both the military rule of Rome and the religious leaders of the Temple. He was profoundly disturbing the kind of governmental peace that depends upon corruption and military power. He was profoundly disturbing the kind of popular peace that relies on the support of religious leaders.
He profoundly disturbed the peace, and I believe he knew that persons who chose to follow him in disturbing the peace would bring conflict to their families. Parents and children would disagree about the prudence of following a religious leader who challenged so many aspects of their common life. The question of family division over conversion to Christianity would be a dilemma for the first-century church. Family division over politics and sexual identity and religion and economics continue to be dilemmas for the twenty-first-century church.
Peace and division are not small things. Peace and division are not simple things.
Now we have an entirely different reason to put this passage on the list of “Things I wish Jesus hadn’t said.” Originally, I didn’t like these words because they seemed harsh and oppositional. And I didn’t like them because they challenged my conventional understanding of who Jesus is and what he asks of us. I wanted them to be the product of mis-translation, or historical cultural differences, or out of context, or distorted by being hand-copied over hundreds of years.
Now I am tempted to put them on the list because their prophetic power pokes at me. It pokes me to discern whether the fire of zeal is a sign of God’s presence, or a threat to safety. It pokes me to remember my baptism—though I don’t remember the actual event—and to take seriously my welcome from the church and my place as one of God’s children. It pokes me to remember that following Jesus may reform some relationships that I would rather not disturb.
Nonetheless, here’s what takes this reading off my list: Jesus is telling the truth. He is telling the truth in the way of Biblical Prophets. Not predicting the future or scolding those who have behaved badly, but discerning a truth that is, as we say, hidden in plain sight. May God bless us with insight and a generous understanding of these truths.