49 “I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished! 51 Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; 52 for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
John the Baptist called Jesus the one who would baptize with water and fire. On the day of Pentecost, the disciples had what appeared to be tongues of fire over their head, signifying the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Fire is energy that can bring life (in the form of heat and warmth) or death. The dichotomy is present in the rest of Christ’s words in this passage outlining a division and war within households over Him.
The gospel and the Holy Spirit that would spread like fire over the world would bring new life to some, but would also bring destruction to the traditional and cultural bonds that some of the new disciples had previously shared with those friends and family that rejected the message of Christ.
This was reality within the early church community and fits in line with what I’ve noticed of Luke using his gospel to both tell the story of Christ, but to make it relevant to some of the contemporary events that the church was or had experienced and put them into context.
54 And He was also saying to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘A shower is coming,’ and so it turns out. 55 And when you see a south wind blowing, you say, ‘It will be a hot day,’ and it turns out that way. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to analyze the appearance of the earth and the sky, but why do you not analyze this present time?
This last section ties back to the idea of being ready. The crowds, in a mostly fishing or agrarian town, were quite familiar with the local weather patterns to the point where they could predict the day’s weather based on certain meteorological events. That was, in some cases, life to them. Their lives or livelihoods could depend on it.
Jesus’ point is that they were so focused on the present and the temporal that they had neglected to discern more important events that were also of life and death importance to them.
57 “And why do you not even on your own initiative judge what is right? 58 For while you are going with your opponent to appear before the magistrate, on your way there make an effort to settle with him, so that he may not drag you before the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison. 59 I say to you, you will not get out of there until you have paid the very last cent.”
Matthew places this in the Sermon on the Mount, Luke adds it here. Perhaps he felt that it tied into the opening of this section, wherein one brother was quarreling with another over their father’s inheritance. Perhaps Luke wanted to place this here as an exhortation and reminder to Christians of the behavior expected of them when it came to personal or legal conflicts with one another. There was to be a spirit of Charity between them, so that the matter should never escalate to the courts and civic punishment, but each was to treat his brother’s interests as higher than his own.
As a companion of St. Paul, Luke would have been familiar with Paul’s writings on legal matters to the Corinthians, so this clearly was a problem within the early church as these new followers of Christ were trying to work out how they should behave with one another and with the world in the context of Christ’s teachings and civic and cultural law.
Christ’s appeal here is for the disciples to discern what is right on their own before it goes to the courts. That requires stepping back and analyzing the situation dispassionately. It requires a willingness to let go of our own interests and empathize with our adversary’s point of view. It requires a willingness to admit the possibility that we are in the wrong. It requires humility.
It’s also practical advice. Even if the Christian finds empathy or Charity towards his adversary a difficult thing, there is the practical advantage to trying to find a resolution before dragging the matter to the courts and that is the greater expenses involved and possible greater consequences if the court finds you in the wrong.