Forty-sixth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10; Hebrews 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53
“Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?” That is the question that Jesus, the Incarnation of Love itself, poses to His disciples – both then and now – in the Gospel reading today. After the parables He’s shared with us over the last few weeks, from the overly complacent rich man who died without sharing his wealth to the servants making ready for their master’s return, comes this direct and passionate plea for action on the part of those who wish to do God’s will. Being “merciful like the Father” – being an impartial minister of reconciliation – cannot be a passive act any more than our Redemption was. When Jesus answers His own question by saying He has come to bring not peace “but rather division,” He is merely stating in unambiguous terms the outcome of actively seeking to work God’s will in our lives and in this world: conflict, sometimes bloody but always messy.
Jeremiah the prophet found out just how messy, both literally and figuratively, this task can be in our First Reading. After proclaiming the impending raid on Judah by Babylon, the chief officials of the people became uncomfortable with Jeremiah and sought permission from the king to kill him. “He is not interested in the welfare of our people,” they said, “but in their ruin.” Since the king knew he could do nothing to persuade the princes otherwise – and truly, all governments do bow before the loudness of the mob – he allowed them to do as they wished. So they threw him into a deep, muddy well to starve and slowly die. That would have been the end for Jeremiah if not for one court official, and a foreigner at that, who petitioned the king to rescue the prophet. “These men have been at fault,” he says of the princes. This court official may not have liked Jeremiah’s message, either – in fact, no one did! – but that did not make the princes’ course of action right. And it took one man of lower rank from another country to do what even the king would not.
This is the fire and baptism of which Jesus speaks in the Gospel: heavenly discipleship in earthly action. And such discipleship will naturally bring us into conflict with the powers and order of this world, which always seeks to live by its own rules. Jesus even uses the analogy of a household divided, with father and son, mother and daughter at odds, “three against two and two against three.” I’m sure most of us can sympathize with the idea that, even in the loving security of the family dinner table, there are certain things we just don’t talk about – if for no other reason that we don’t want the argument. (“How’s school?” “Fine.”) (“Is there something wrong with Uncle Bill?” “Mind your business.”) (“I saw Grace again last night…” “Can we not, please?”) But the challenge of living a Christ-like life is to have the argument – not to go out looking for it, necessarily, but not backing away from it either. And just as happened with Jesus, once we start the conversation we don’t have to go looking for the argument; it has a tendency to find us.
Now: if you think the conversation is tough, what about the Cross? The author of the Letter to the Hebrews, in our Second Reading today, reminds his audience – which includes us – that whatever our burdens and difficulties and struggles and discomforts in following God’s example, most of us “have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.” That is what Christ did. Like the pelican that wounds herself so that her hatchlings can at least feed off her blood rather than go hungry, so Jesus has done for us. “He endured the cross, despising its shame,” bearing the full weight of whatever burden we carry so that we might carry it more easily, “in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.” The author is talking to you – yes, you, dear reader – and to me too, and to the saints and martyrs who’ve suffered in witness since this letter was written, from Stephen the deacon and the Apostles in the 1st century all the way to Jacques Hamel and the 21 Copts in our own time – and to all in between who suffer the “silent martyrdom” of humiliation, abuse and mental illness. Jesus didn’t come to bring us peace; He is our peace.
The world is watching us. Now is the time to act. If we’re going to “persevere in running the race that lies before us” within “so great a cloud of witnesses,” we can’t be watching them back. Like the world-class athletes in the Olympic Games at the time of this writing, we need to have our eyes on the goal. In order to do that, we may have to run past people and things we love. Be ready for it, and accept it, but don’t forget to invite them along for the run in the first place. And please – for the love of God! – don’t forget to tell them why you’re running.
“I have come to set the earth on fire,
and how I wish it were already blazing!”