49“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!50 There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!51Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.52From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three;53a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”
Signs of the Times
Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10, Hebrews 12:1-4
This week I am beholden to the New Testament scholar John J. Pilch. His groundbreaking work on Jesus and the New Testament period sheds fresh light on texts that are otherwise difficult to understand.
“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” These words of Jesus shock us, as well they should. What is he referring to?
In Jesus’s day each family built and maintained a specific kind of earthenware oven in the shape of a half dome. A heat source was kindled inside, and flatbreads were baked on its outer surface. Curiously, the fuel for these earthen ovens was a clever mixture of camel dung and salt, formed into pods or patties and dried in the sun. These early “fuel cells” used salt from the Dead Sea, which contains significant traces of magnesium. This element burns at a very high temperature and makes possible the efficient combustion of the dried camel dung. The fuel was placed in the earthen ovens on blocks of salt. Once the fuel pod was lit, the person tending the oven would occasionally toss more salt on it to make it burn hotter. This common oven is what Jesus is referring to when we read that that he has come to “set the earth on fire.” Jesus has come to turn up the heat.
These “earthen oven” insights also help us understand some related sayings of Jesus. In Luke 14:34–35, Jesus teaches that when salt loses its “taste”—its catalytic capacity—it is “fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out.” Eventually the salt’s ability to increase the heat is used up and it needs to be replaced. And when Jesus in Matthew 5:13 challenges his disciples to be the “salt of the earth” he means that if they are going to follow him they also have to be willing to be used by God until they are spent, like the fuel source of these earthen ovens.
After this initial statement Jesus turns his attention to the baptism he must endure. This is a reference to his death. He speaks of the anguish he will go through until it is accomplished. The heat has been turned up, the oven is blazing! The time for the work he must accomplish on this side of the grave has begun. Jesus wonders why his disciples ever thought he intended to bring peace on the earth (remember the insights of the earthen oven). He does not promise them peace but, shockingly, division.
Let’s take a moment to consider the nature of salt. In Matthew 5:13 Jesus teaches his disciples that if they are going to follow him, they will need to be “salt” for the earth. Many have wondered what this image means. Salt was indeed used in Jesus’s day to preserve fish, but salt as a flavor-enhancing condiment was rarely used in the desert climate of the Middle East.
Do you suppose that we are to carefully preserve ancient teachings and traditions? To “salt” them away for later use? Does Jesus intend us to be agents of flavoring, to make the world taste better for our presence? I think not. But salt in a wound burns. It feels like the wound is on fire. Now we are getting somewhere!
The salt in the camel dung fuel cells and the loose salt added to the fire was a catalytic agent that increased the temperature of the earthen oven. This is what Jesus had in mind. We are to be that kind of salt of the earth. If we are to follow Jesus, we have to be willing to be used by the Lord to make a small flame burn brighter and hotter; and this until we are spent and are no longer salty.
That is a challenge worth our meditation. Are we willing to be the salt that Jesus will use to kindle the fire of faith to a new intensity? Am I willing to be spent in this way? What will I be risking and for how long? How difficult will it be? Reflect also that fire in the biblical world often refers to purification. These considerations can fuel our meditation as we prepare for church this weekend.
We will lean into a prophecy of Micah this week as our prayer response to the Gospel. The prophet knows that an enemy nation is planning an attack, but he decides to stand strong in the midst of fear. This paraphrased prayer for protection (Micah 7:14-15) will be ours this week.
“Oh God, shepherd us with your staff. We are the flock of your heritage. Restore to us lives in the woodland and in the midst of an orchard. Let us feed again in Bashan and Gilead as in the days of old; as in the days when you came from the land of Egypt and showed us wonderful signs.”
“It only takes a spark to get the fire going, and soon all those around can warm up to its glowing. That’s how it is with God’s love. Once you’ve experienced it, you spread his love to everyone. You want to pass it on.”
These words are from a 1969 song called “Pass It On.” Jesus challenges his disciples to be the “salt of the earth” and says he wants to set the world on fire with his message of salvation. We are invited to join the Lord in this work. Where do we begin?
The smallest spark can ignite a great fire. This is a good week to ask yourself where God wants you to share your gifts. Where are the gifts of the Spirit in your life ready to be ignited so that you can spread the love of God to others in your family, your workplace, your neighborhood, and beyond? Where is the oven that needs you as the catalytic agent? Where can God use you to bring light and heat to a world that can be otherwise quite dark and cold? Be ready and open to respond this week.