Connections 08.18.2019: Division

Luke 12:49-59

Jesus says that his coming causes division. He highlights the divisions that occur in families.

By the time Luke’s Gospel was written, such division over Jesus was certainly happening in families. Those who believed in and followed Jesus became alienated from family members who didn’t. Such divisions still happen, particularly in cultures where another religion dominates.

These days, we have divisions in the family of faith. Christians are divided against each other.

Some such divisions have been around so long that we hardly think about them. Some of them are official and formalized, as in the existence of multiple denominations and branches of denominations.

We’re accustomed to some of these divisions to the point of being good-natured about them. People in one denomination might give those in another a hard time, but they’re usually just kidding.

Divisions within denominations, on the other hand, are no laughing matter, and many denominations have faced, are facing, and will face them.

These days we face serious divisions within the larger family of faith. I’m thinking especially of the church in the United States.

In our current political and social climate, Christians have taken up opposing positions. Put too simply, on one side are the evangelicals and on the other side are the progressives.

(As I said, that’s putting it too simply—far, far too simply. But it would take a very long essay to cover the needed caveats, explanations, and exceptions. So we’ll have to settle for the general terms.)

When Jesus talked about the divisions that his coming would produce, he meant divisions between those who follow him and those who don’t.

We are dealing with divisions between people who all believe they are following Jesus.

I’ve had people say to me, “I don’t see how you can be a Christian and take that position.” My response to them is, “Back atcha.”

This is a difficult situation. It is difficult because both sides can’t be right. It is also difficult because once we become convinced that we’re the ones who are truly on Jesus’ side (and that he is on ours), we become entrenched and defensive.

The line between righteousness and self-righteousness can be a fine one.

There are some calls that should be easy, though. For example, people who embrace racism, sexism, and misogyny are wrong, and those who embrace equality, justice, and respect are right. People who act out of hate and fear are wrong, and those who act out of love and hope are right.

How can we move toward being people who truly follow Jesus and thus truly represent him in the current situation and in future ones? How can we be as sure as we can be that we are really following Jesus?

First, we can keep our minds open. There is always more to learn about who Jesus is and who Jesus would have us be. Once we let our perspectives and opinions become set in stone, we get awfully attached to our monuments.

Second, we can keep our hearts humble. We all have a long way to go. It’s best to keep that in mind. Besides, it’s not about being right. It’s about being a follower of Jesus, wherever that takes us. We live and serve by the grace of God. We must take care that we not become proud of it.

Third, we can continually read and study the Gospels. We are blessed to have them. They contain what the Spirit and the early church’s teachers, preachers, writers, compilers, and editors determined we need to know about Jesus. I’d suggest we read at least a chapter a day. We should do so prayerfully, asking God to help us know how we can best follow and bear witness to Jesus.

Fourth, we can think, speak, and act in love, grace, and mercy. If we find ourselves about to adopt an attitude, make a statement, or perform an action that doesn’t demonstrate Jesus’ love, grace, and mercy, we need to stop. Then we need to move on toward attitudes, statements, and actions that do.

Faithfulness to Jesus can create division. We need to do all we can to make sure we are following Jesus as best we can, including in the ways we deal with our sisters and brothers we find ourselves divided from.

Discussion

  1. What risk is there in too easily accepting division in the Christian family? What risk is there in wanting unity at any cost?
  2. How can allegiance to Christ cause division between Christians and other people? What kinds of division can it bring about? What kinds of division is acceptable? What kinds aren’t?
  3. How can looking for Christ to return inspire and empower us to live fully in the present?
  4. What does it mean for a Christian to live responsibility in this day and time?

Reference Shelf

The final section in this cluster begins with the question of discernment: “Why can you [all] not judge righteousness for yourselves?” Some commentators believe that 12:58-59 is a parable, while others treat them as straightforward advice. In either case, the setting is a dispute between two parties, rather than an arrest, and so “judge” in v. 57 is a bit of a pun or irony—judge for yourselves what is right, or else the judge may throw you in the pokey. What is right is reconciliation (the verb apallasso had the root meaning of “release,” and used in the passive it can mean “to settle a matter with an adversary”) rather than insisting on one’s day in court.

Does this advice to settle matters, to compromise, pull in the opposite direction from the two previous sections depicting Jesus as a no-compromise fire-thrower? Perhaps; one could understand it as a pragmatic section balancing the two idealistic sections that came first. Throw the fire and endure the division, because the time is close and the day of judgment at hand. But in real life, one has to negotiate and compromise—maybe that was it. Or maybe correctly interpreting “this time,” as v. 56 urges the reader to do, also means knowing who the Judge is in v. 58. Some suggest that the advice in vv. 58-59 is “Get right with God now, while you are still on the road, because there will come a point when it is too late.”

These are both plausible attempts to connect these verses to their context. A third would reach back into the chapter and notice all the ways the author considers possessions a danger to the believer:

  • 12:13-21: The rich fool—life is more than piling up possessions, and those who are not rich toward God are acting like fools.
  • 12:22-31: Don’t worry about possessions; consider the lilies and the crows, and trust God to give you what you need.
  • 12:32-34: What you need is the kingdom of God; sell everything else and sell out for the kingdom.
  • 12:41-48: The faithful and unfaithful overseer—don’t get cocky, acting like a rich man, but remember that you are a slave awaiting the return of your owner.

The little narrative in vv. 58-59 imagines a court case involving debts or damages; the verdict goes against the accused, who is imprisoned until he can hand over “the last penny” (a lepton was 1/128th of a denarius). The accused cannot or will not pay, but the fact that he is jailed, rather than sold into slavery, implies that there are assets to be sold or relatives or a patron with deep pockets who can step forward and pay his way out of jail. [Debt-slavery] This passage then—whether we consider it a parable or non-parabolic teaching—imagines the audience in the position of a person of means that he will not admit, involved in a lawsuit that he will not settle, facing the consequences of holding out for a victory that he will not gain. All the advice of the chapter is relevant: sell your pos- sessions and seek the kingdom; recognize that the kingdom is very close and that your only real hope is to rely on God’s mercy; when you are arrested, rely on the Holy Spirit and not on the courts. What if the man, on his way to court, simply gave the accuser what he was asking for? His possessions would take a hit, but what does that matter to the disciple who is living according to Jesus’ teachings?

…Luke’s audience, we suspect, is no more excited about the prospects of jail than we would be, and is likely to have resisted selling pos- sessions, arguing that doing so makes life unacceptably insecure. The chapter’s final vignette can then function both as a warning— if you want to hold on to your money, you may be jailed anyway—and as an exhortation—make up your mind that you will rely only on God, not on your money or your wealthy patrons.

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008), 438-40.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan and Isabella. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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