Text Study for Luke 12:49-59 (Part Two)

This text creates all sorts of headaches and challenges for preachers. I think the first task for the preacher may be to help the congregants appreciate what we Jesus followers mean when we speak of the “judgment” God. Psalm 82 is helpful in deepening the appreciation. I think that the psalm should be read in the worship service. Perhaps it could be used liturgically as a call to worship and/or a confession of faith.

I think the psalm is helpful because it reminds us that while God’s judgment is without partiality, it is certainly not without priority. When the lesser “gods” noted in the text show favoritism toward the wicked, they are rebuked by the Most High God. This rebuke requires a time of awed reflection, as indicated by the selah after the verse.

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The priority of God’s judgment is to give justice to the weak and the orphan, to maintain the right of the lowly and destitute. The result of that judgment is the rescue of the weak and the lowly from the hand of the wicked. The impartiality of God’s judgment results in salvation for the oppressed and condemnation for the oppressors. The impact of God’s judgment depends on one’s position in the “system” of this world.

Therefore, God’s judgment is bad news for those who benefit from an unjust status quo. And it is good news for those who are oppressed and victimized by that unjust status quo. I don’t think some of our listeners understand that God’s judgment can be good news for at least some people. Perhaps that is because, in most American Christian congregations at least, the majority of our listeners possess power, position, privilege and property out of proportion to their need.

As the psalm reminds us, judgment by God leads to justice for the oppressed. This is not obvious to the “wicked” in the psalm. Those who benefit from oppressing others “have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness” (Psalm 82:5, NRSV). When God’s judgment takes place, the foundations of the earth are indeed shaken for the wicked (and for the oppressed as well, but in a good way). If we find ourselves in the company of the privileged, we perhaps have reasons to fear God’s judgment.

Certainly, this meditation on the nature of God’s judgment can have a deeply personal dimension. I confess that I am in bondage to sin and cannot free myself. I am curved in on myself in sin. I wish to become my own god and displace the love, grace, and mercy of God with my own projects and priorities. Because of those realities, even though I am one of the children of the Most High, on my own I “shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince” (Psalm 82:7, NRSV).

Therefore, I am justifiably afraid of God’s judgment for myself. One function of God’s Law is to make clear to me my own depth of sin and rebellion. If I am willing to be as aware of myself as I am of current weather conditions (to return us to a metaphor in the Gospel reading), then I will clearly see my predicament and my inability to rescue myself.

The Good News of the Gospel is that this bondage to sin and blindness to reality is not the last word in my life. In fact, the fire of God’s judgment will burn away all that which binds me to sin, death, and the devil. While that process is not pain-free, it is also not punishment. It is, rather, the purification which allows me to grow into the fully human person that God created me to be from the beginning. That purification is a daily return to my baptism into Christ in this life, and it will be fulfilled in the new life with God in Christ by the power of the Spirit.

The purifying power of God’s judgment in Christ is not purely a personal matter, however. If we read Psalm 82 in good faith, we see that this judgment re-orders our relationships with ourselves, our neighbors, and all of Creation. Therefore, God’s judgment is always concerned with systemic as well as personal injustice. Those two dimensions of human life cannot be separated and are mutually interdependent.

For example, if I am a person of privilege (and I am), God’s judgment is going to go hard on me from a systemic perspective. Loss of privilege is always experienced as discrimination and even persecution by the person who is losing that privilege. That explains the panic among many White Americans these days, as American society struggles to achieve actual equity for all people, rather the continuing dominance of White Americans over all others. Redressing this inequity is going to be painful for the privileged – and it is.

The price of that privilege, however, is to be people who depend on injustice for our identity. That system cannot be sustained. Jesus longs to free us from our foolishness and to restore us to full humanity – humanity that does not depend on regarding others as subhuman. When God’s judgment is applied to us, we who are privileged face a choice. Will we reject God’s justice and cling to our privilege? Or will we rejoice in God’s justice and take our proper place in the human family?

I think there is an ongoing conversation between our text and the Parable of the Rich Fool. A man comes to Jesus and asks him to “divide” the family inheritance between the man and his brother. Jesus asks the man who made Jesus the arbitrator in this case. The word for “arbitrator” literally means something like the “right divider.” It’s not Jesus who is dividing the man from his brother. It is the man’s lust for possessions which causes the division.

With that, Luke 12 launches into an extended discussion of the power of stuff to divide us from ourselves, from our neighbors, and from Creation. That’s a fundamental theme in this chapter. If we return to the matter of White privilege in America, we can see the divisive power of stuff at work. We White people have been desperate for centuries to protect what we think “belongs to us.” The identified reason for the Civil War, for example (as delineated in articles of secession by several states) was to protect the capital tied up in enslaved human beings.

There are times when division is perhaps necessary. But let us be divided only for a time and for the right reasons. Part of our call is to discern when our call is to draw apart and when our call is to draw together. That’s true for individuals, communities, and churches. We will sometimes differ on that discernment, even within our own households. If what is dividing us is our stuff – our power, privilege, position, and property – this section of Luke is clear that such concerns are not worthy of such division.

I would suggest that the text makes clear that division is not and dare not be the final word. In fact, in the face of judgment, we are best served by settling the case and making peace with our accuser. That’s why I think we must read verses 57-59 as part of our lection. In addition, I would remind us of the text that immediately follows our text. The reminder in Luke 13:1-9 is that there is time to think again, time to repent, time to work things out – even when we think there is no more time.

I hope this is helpful as we grapple with these difficult texts.

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