Now it's time to check out some commentaries. I have two to consult: the Anchor Bible commentary on Luke, by Joseph Fitzmyer, and the Eerdmans New International Commentary on the New Testament — the volume on Luke is written by Joel Green.
Fitzmyer lifts up the same apocalyptic tone I had noticed in my own study of the text. Referring to the second part of the lection, he writes, "There is no hint in this passage about a delay; rather 'the season that is here' is precisely the time for repentance and conversion." This passage indicates that now is the moment of crisis, the apocalyptic turning point, and there is no time to lose. Jesus speaks to the crowds: "As weatherwise Palestinian farmers, they have learned to read the face of nature, with its clouds and winds. They should, then, be able to assess the critical moment in which they exist. [Jesus] thus contrasts the people's 'meteorological sensitiveness' with their 'religious sensitiveness'."
Regarding the first part of the lection, Fitzmyer draws out the tension and contrast in Luke regarding the purpose of Jesus' ministry. The same Jesus who was hailed at the beginning of the gospel as bringing "peace on earth" (Luke 2:14) now says that his ministry brings discord. "Though peace is an important effect of the Christ-event in the Lucan view, the evangelist has here retained from 'Q' an interpretation of Jesus' ministry in terms of its opposite. Yet even that effect of his ministry has been foreshadowed in the infancy narrative: Jesus was a child set 'for the fall and rise of many in Israel' (2:34). . . Even in his own family the Lucan Jesus' career brought a 'sword' to pierce his mother's 'own soul' (2:35)."
Green similarly lifts up the apocalyptic character of the text, showing that it is part of the "overarching theme of vigilance in the face of eschatological crisis." Prior to this section of Luke, Jesus has made numerous references to making ready - "Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes" (12:37); "You also must be ready, for the Son of man is coming at an unexpected hour" (12:40); "Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives" (12:43). Green writes, "From those images of future judgment, Jesus now turns to the reality of judgment already at work in his ministry. The division accompanying his mission is itself both integral to his purpose for coming (vv 49-53) and a portent of eschatological judgment (vv 54-59)."
Regarding the prediction of division within households, Green stresses the importance of family groups in 1st century culture. For Jesus to predict the breaking down of family ties, as an integral part of his ministry, would have been quite shocking. However, "the dissolution of family bonds (which, in the Lukan narrative, has as its consequence the formation of a new kinship group around Jesus) should be taken as confirmation that he is God's agent and that he is bringing to fruition the purpose of God."
Green comments on Jesus' use of the term "hypocrites" in reference to the crowd. For Luke, "hypocrite" does not mean someone who says one thing and does another. Rather, Jesus "regards the crowds not as deceivers or phonies but as people who 'do not know.' His question, then, is not why they say one thing and do another, but why they have joined the Pharisees in living lives that are not determined by God."
I'm trying to decide on what focus I want to take for this sermon. I find apocalyptic themes difficult to preach on. The issues are so complex, and the thinking among Christians so diverse, that it seems quite daunting. However, I don't think I can ignore or gloss over the apocalyptic aspects of this text. It would not be fair to the text or to the congregation to whom I'll be preaching. On the other hand, it would appear that the plain sense of the text - that the final judgment was imminent - is simply incorrect. On top of that, I personally think it very dangerous to encourage apocalyptic thinking - every generation has believed it was the last. An unexamined belief in the imminent destruction of the world works against faithful stewardship, ecology, and efforts at peace and mutual understanding (all of which I happen to favor). So how does one preach on an apocalyptic text without preaching apocalypticism?
Time to find out, I suppose.