49 “I have come to set fire to the earth! And how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have an immersion to undergo — how pressured I feel till it’s over! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace in the Land? Not peace, I tell you, but division! 52 For from now on, a household of five will be divided, three against two, two against three.
3 Father will be divided against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
Luke sees Jesus as fulfilling a prophecy of Micah which he quotes in verse 53. He interprets the time of Jesus as part of the “end times” when God’s judgement will come upon the world. We should be aware of the boldness, or some would say, craziness of this interpretation which is more or less shared by all the gospel writers, seeing the obscure life and death of an obscure Galilean peasant as the crucial part of the Creator’s judgement on his world. It is not as used to be thought, that the life of Jesus precedes and inaugurates the end times. In himself and his fate, he is the judgement.
That’s why he is divisive, just as much as the shepherd separating the sheep and the goats. But He does not judge. People judge him and are judged by that judgement. In the experience of Luke’s audience there had been painful arguments with and separation from the Jews who were loyal to the synagogue and the Torah, some of them members of their own families; and difficult relationships with those who were prepared to compromise with Roman emperor worship. Jesus had never put his own family first and he warned his disciples that they could not do so. Anyone who imagined that Jesus was committed to strengthening family life was in for a rude awakening.
Nor is he against the natural family or committed to destroying it. He just knows it’s unlikely that everyone in the family will want to follow him. He reckons with the pain and the loss.
Of course Christianity has compromised with family life throughout its history. The Christian family has been a loving cradle for many. But we are not entitled to think that it will always be so. Jesus brings the fire of judgement to his people, a fire in which he is also burnt, a baptism in which he also is overwhelmed. Luke is pointing to his life, teachings, arrest and death and resurrection as the crisis in which human beings choose or reject God’s goodness.