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.

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

I’ve often said that once I see something I can’t “unsee it.” I know from experience how true this is. But I also know that I am quite able to refuse to continue seeing something I find uncomfortable, challenging, or demanding. In fact, this temptation to refuse to continue seeing is an expected part of a process of coming to a deeper and fuller vision of things.

For example, in her book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, Beverly Daniel Tatum quotes the work of Janet Helms on the developmental psychology behind “the abandonment of individual racism and the recognition of and opposition to institutional and cultural racism.” That psychology unfolds as a process of six “states of mind,” according to Helms: contact, disintegration, reintegration, pseudo-independent, immersion/emersion, and autonomy” (see Tatum, pages 186-187).

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I want to focus on the state of mind that Helms calls “reintegration.” That’s a stage in this identity-formation process where White people might succumb to the temptation to refuse to continue to see. Disintegration happens when I as a White person begin to grow in my awareness of racism and White privilege. That awareness can happen in a variety of ways. Regardless, that’s when I begin to see what I can no longer “unsee.”

That new awareness, however, produces deep discomfort, anxiety, and distress. It can and does result in changes in my relationships with other White people, some of whom are quite dear to me. The temptation is to retreat from the disintegration of my comfortable White-dominant worldview and to reintegrate comfortably into a White-dominant world. Reintegration can be marked by fear and anger directed toward people of color and/or the temptation “to slip back into collusion and silence” (see Tatum, pages 194-195).

I cannot unsee something once I’ve seen it. But I can refuse to continue to see it. I can pretend I haven’t really seen anything new or different. I can return to my comfortable assumptions about a world where I haven’t seen. Of course, the cost of that is a level of self-deception that is destructive to me and to those around me. It’s no wonder that in this disintegration state of mind I will be tempted to blame Black and Brown people for my discomfort and to further victimize the victims of my oppression.

I mention this set of ideas because of Jesus’ words in Luke 12:56 – “Hypocrites! You know how to discern the appearance of the earth and the sky, but not how to discern this present moment?” In the narrative flow, these words are addressed to the crowds (in addition to the disciples). Why does Jesus call them “hypocrites”?

The basic meaning of the Greek word for “hypocrite” is “one who wears a mask.” It’s a word from the world of Greek theater. In that theater, players often wore masks to represent the characters which they portrayed. Acting was regarded as a dishonorable profession because the players gave over their bodies to the “control” of their characters. Since they could be so “dishonest” as to portray someone else, how could such folks be trusted to be honest in other matters? At least, that’s how the cultural logic of the time went.

In the gospels, Jesus directs the label in most cases to the religious leaders who oppose him and his program of reform and renewal. Perhaps some of those leaders are in the crowds that Jesus addresses. After all, those leaders would be the ones tasked and trusted with helping the people to discern the signs of the times. I think Jesus accuses the religious leaders of refusing to continue to see. The evidence of Jesus’ authority is obvious in the gospel accounts, and the leaders have seen that evidence. They can only refuse to continue to see. Thus, they and those who follow them are pretending not to see. I think this is the basis of the label, “Hypocrites!”

Faced with the evidence of their senses, these leaders choose not to discern the time and then act like they cannot. I think it’s important to remind our listeners of the word for “time” Jesus uses in this verse. It’s not “chronos,” ordinary clock and calendar time. Instead, it is “kairos.” This is the time of fulfillment, of completion, of decision. Kairos is time pregnant with meaning and purpose. This is an inflection point in history, a moment of choice, a time of ultimate urgency. That’s the time to be discerned.

Is it any wonder the guardians of the status quo would refuse to see and pretend the inability to respond? After all, Jesus has just described to his disciples how his mission will turn the world upside down and inside out. He has come to bring the refining fire of God’s justice. This new regime will divide people, even in the most important social unit of the time, the family. If I refuse to see what has been revealed, perhaps it will just go away on its own. Then I can get back to business as usual.

You might think that I’m putting a bit too much weight on this paragraph as an address to the religious leaders charged with community discernment. But notice something about verse 53. In at least some editions of the Greek New Testament, that verse is shown to be a bit of poetry. That poetic citation may be an allusion to Micah 7:6, at least according to some of the critical apparatus in the text. I think that’s a helpful connection and worth pursuing a bit.

If Luke 12:53 is, in fact, an allusion to Micah 7:6, then we have an example of the “little text, big context” rule of interpretation. We are invited to use scripture to interpret scripture. Take a look at Micah 7:1-6 to see that bigger context. Micah’s oracle of judgment in that passage is addressed to the people as a whole. But there is particular condemnation for those who have leadership responsibilities among the people – the official and the judge are more interested in bribes than in truth.

What divides the people from one another is not so much an inconvenient truth as it is the desire to exploit one another for personal gain. Even the very best of the people are thorny stems, prickly and not safe to deal with up close. Friends cannot be trusted. Lovers might spill your secrets for personal gain. Family members regard one another with contempt. Enemies share households together.

Jesus’ brief allusion takes us to that place. Once we see it, perhaps we cannot unsee it. But it is so distressing that we might want to go back to a place of willful and comfortable blindness. It’s not that we cannot see. It’s that seeing asks so much of us – and we may refuse to pay that price for honesty and truth. But that level of self-delusion is unsustainable. Reality will not be denied.

For a moment, perhaps, we find ourselves back with the Rich Fool. There he is, enjoying his obscene abundance. But that very night, his life was required of him. Eating, drinking, and merry-making were self-deceptive distractions – nothing more.

This line of exegesis demands, I think, that we should read verses 57-59 as part of our pericope. Jesus gives another way of thinking about the urgency of the moment. As you head toward the trial of your life, that is not the time to pretend that all is well, and nothing needs to be done. That sort of pretending will simply land you in jail for life. The only thing to do is to deal with the reality in front of you and see what you really do see.

This is part of the law in the text, the word of the Lord that calls us to account. This is the theology of the cross at work as well. The theology of the cross always calls a thing what it is and not other than it is. The theology of glory always wants to call good evil and evil good. The theology of the cross is that power which will not let us “unsee” things. The theology of glory is that human temptation to refuse seeing so we may continue on a comfortable path at the expense of others.

I think this text challenges us to name those things we refuse to see. We might name things in our personal lives, in our church, in our world. Any refusal to see always protects some power, privilege, position, or property we might hold dear. But at some point, our very lives will be required of us, and our hypocrisy will be unveiled.

The law always leads us to the gospel. That which is veiled shall be unveiled. That which has been seen shall be brought to light. That which was constructed (such as White Christian supremacy and nationalism) can be dismantled. That which binds and burdens us can be removed. That which chokes and challenges us can be burned away…if only we will allow it?