“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Luke 12:34
There was a time when artists preached sermons far more powerful than any words a poor cleric might manage. The medieval pictures of Jesus bringing fire on the earth, the Last Day, the Dies Irae, the Day of Wrath, the great judgment day, would have frightened uneducated, unsophisticated peasant populations. Some of the greatest artists of former centuries, the foremost among them being Hieronymus Bosch, painted great canvases with the Last Judgment depicted in lurid detail.
The medieval church used to use terrifying judgment scenes to frighten people into church attendance, into outward expressions of belief, even if there was no inward faith. Faith meant not just believing, it meant believing in a precisely right way, failure to do so meant that you would burn forever in hellfire. We can read James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and almost smile as poor Stephen Dedalus, the central character, listens to the Jesuit preacher striking fear into the hearts of teenage boys with visions of hell, but such preaching is still common in many places.
Looking back on times when religious conformity was enforced with threats of being burned at the stake, it seems strange that preachers of one religious tradition would suggest that the ordinary people of the opposing religious tradition would be sent to eternal punishment because they feared to believe anything other than what their rulers enforced. What sort of God made such rules? What sort of God punished working people because they obeyed what they were told? What sort of God punished the poor for believing the stories told to them by the rich and the educated? The Last Judgment, as preached by the church through the centuries, seemed to have more to do with the control of people than with the love of God.
A God who judged people on obscure points of theological doctrine, rewarding the rich and the comfortable, while turning his back on common folk, seems not much of a God.
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Jesus’ words about coming in power and in judgement and in bringing division in families would have inspired medieval artists to see depict a coming Last Day in the most terrifying of terms. In their defence they might have pointed out that on repeated occasions Jesus talks about the coming judgment as a disaster falling from heaven.
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! ” What do we make of such words? We cannot read the Gospels with integrity if we simply skip over all the awkward bit, all the bits that cause us discomfort.
Jesus uses the teaching styles, ideas and stories of the people of his time. Jesus wasn’t the only person telling stories like this; he warns against ‘false messiahs’, the wandering preachers threatening people with impending doom and disaster. There was no shortage of terrifying words to prompt fear and trembling in the hearts of listeners.
How do we reconcile the image of a terrifying deity worthy of medieval art with the Jesus we encounter in the broken body and shed blood of the Holy Communion?
Why does Jesus uses such language? Why conjure up these pictures in people’s minds? Perhaps not to frighten people, but to tell them about justice.
If we believe in justice, then, I think, we have to believe in judgment. If God is to be a God who means anything, then he must be a God who keeps his word. Time and time again throughout the Bible he promises justice for his people; but how shall there be justice, if there is no judgment?
In the book of Revelation, another of those parts of the Bible that can discomfit us Anglicans, Chapter 20 says, “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books”.
“The dead were judged according to what they had done”. Perhaps Heaven is reached not through being born in the right place, or the right community; not through being able to recite the right words; not through being able to claim a particular experience; but through struggling for a better world; through struggling to love one’s neighbour as oneself; through struggling to keep Jesus’ commandments because he is the only one who promises to be there at the end.
There needs to be judgment. As someone who travels to Rwanda each year, if I thought that at the end a child murdered with a machete, and the child’s killer, both receive the same reward, then I would have to ask what meaning or purpose there is in Scripture or in the whole of God’s dealings with his people. Why would we try to lead good and faithful lives if our actions have no consequence?
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Jesus is promising a day of judgment, not frighten, but to say that there is meaning in life, that our lives have consequences. Jesus is promising that there will be Last Day, not in order that we might be terrified, but so that we might believe that God is a God of justice.
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” May we be on the right side of that division.