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In three short passages Jesus characterizes the times. Things are not going to go smoothly. Jesus' ministry will bring division (vv. 49-53). But anyone who is observant can read the times and know that God is at work (vv. 54-56). Most important, the disciples had better settle their spiritual debts with God. A failure to pay up will mean one will pay every last penny (vv. 57-59). This final remark sets up the discussion on repentance in 13:1-5. The theme of all these statements is the need to understand the time that encompasses Jesus' ministry. He is not one of many options for knowing God; he is the way.
Jesus came to do God's will. In his first statement he shows how ready he is to get the job done: "I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!" This is one of several mission statements Jesus makes ("I have come to . . .": 5:32; 7:34; Jn 3:2; 5:43; 7:28; 12:27, 47; 16:28; 18:37). The reference to fire appears to suggest judgment (Lk 3:9, 17; 9:54; 17:29). In the Old Testament fire often refers to the stinging word that came through the prophets (Jer 5:14; 23:29). Division is clearly the result, as the following verses show. Sometimes the truth is painful and divides.
Jesus speaks of the baptism he must face before he can finish his work. This must be a reference to his approaching death (Mk 10:38-39). So Jesus fully anticipates that the opposition forming about him will lead to his death. More specifically, baptism probably alludes to the "inundation of the waters of divine judgment" (Oepke 1964a:538-39; Job 9:28-30; the "floods of persecution," Ps 18:4, 16; Is 8:7-8). So Jesus understands that he will bear the force of judgment, a judgment that will be propelled by persecution and rejection. Luke later will portray Jesus as "accursed" in his death by hanging on a tree (Acts 5:30-31; 10:39-43). God's plan and the Spirit's judging work cannot come until Jesus dies.
The judgment work of separation will split families; it will not bring peace. "There will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three." Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, mothers-in-laws and daughters-in-law will stand on opposite sides of the divide. Jesus forces choices about what God is doing, and family members will choose differently. The imagery is from Micah 7:6. Jesus' point is simple: "Expect division. Opposition to me is a given."
As Jesus speaks of his ministry, he asks the multitudes to think of a weather forecast. Unlike meteorologists today, who work with satellite images and Doppler radar, the ancients had one weather tool, their eyes. They could predict the weather in Palestine by making a few simple observations. A westerly wind meant that moisture from the Mediterranean was riding in and clouds and rain would follow. Southwesterly breezes meant that heat from the desert was on the way and a rise in temperature could be anticipated. The signs of the times were indicated by the breezes.
Such meteorological expertise is common among the people Jesus addresses. But they cannot tell what breezes are blowing through their lives from Jesus' ministry. Or as Jesus says, "Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky. How is it you don't know how to interpret this present time?" The signs of the time are everywhere, and so was spiritual blindness. Not reading this weather correctly is dangerous—more dangerous than missing a hurricane.
Having issued warnings of approaching division and the nature of the times, Jesus calls on the multitudes to make one other judgment. He actually calls for their reflection: "Why don't you judge for yourselves what is right?" The picture is a simple one. The judgment in view is a legal, civil dispute, since Jesus mentions settling accounts before a praktor (NIV officer), a tax collector and general financial official. In this context the official figure is a sort of bailiff in charge of the debtors' prison (Maurer 1968:642; Rengstorf 1972:539). Jesus' advice is simple: better settle up accounts and avoid prison. In fact, his imagery is graphic, for those who fail to settle accounts and are found guilty will be "dragged away" to prison. The warning of shame is obvious. Jesus closes by assuring them that negligent debtors will certainly have to pay the debt, down to the very last copper coin. The use of the Greek double negative ou me makes his statement emphatic—you will never get out without payment. A lepton (NIV penny) was the smallest coin in circulation, worth only a fraction of a penny. In the ancient world, family members had to pay the full debt before a jailed debtor could be released.
Such a prospect is painful and embarrassing, though of course the comparison is not exact. The point is our accountability before God—at least this interpretation makes the most sense contextually. Jesus is not talking about relationships with other people here but about our relationship with God. Having warned about division and failing to read the sign of the time correctly, he warns of the need to repent. We all have debts before God that need paying. To settle accounts with God, we must come to grips with Jesus. His presence forces choices and brings the potential for division. We need to look at the ledger. Bankruptcy and debtors' prison will be the results of rejecting God. Only Jesus can pay our debt.