Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 14 August 2016 (Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10; Psalm 40:2-4, 18; Hebrews 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53 Find the readings here.
In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks of fire on the earth, a distressing baptism, and causing divisions within families. It doesn’t sound like Good News! That is a difficulty that those who speak for God have had over the centuries – truth is often disruptive and met with huge resistance. Unfortunately, those who preach peace and prosperity are more often than not false prophets. Jeremiah, the prophet in our first reading says as much elsewhere (Jer 28:8-9). A message that all is well and all will be well addressed to the comfortable in an unjust society is a voice in support of a status quo that violates the values of God’s kingdom. It is a lie.The prophet Jeremiah during a time of great national crisis did not give the encouraging message that those in power wanted to hear. He warned that things were even worse than they thought. That led to the accusation: “The fellow does not have the welfare of this people at heart so much as their ruin.” Jeremiah ended up waist-deep in mud in a deep, dark cistern where he was left to die. Jesus knew that his own journey would entail great difficulty. He anticipates with distress a ‘baptism’ (literally ‘immersion’), an experience which would engulf him in suffering. Those who follow him faithfully should be prepared for the same.
But how can the way of God’s messiah, the prophet of love and inclusion, bring division, especially in families? Jesus’ followers are not to set out to create discord, but they are to be prepared for the likelihood of opposition even from those closest to them. This opposition is a lived reality for many Christians throughout the world today, as it was in the Early Church. Families can be a place of love and nurturing and growth – that is what they should be. But that ideal is not always realised. It is often those nearest and dearest to us who will vehemently oppose a change in us, especially one that radically alters our values and our life commitments. This picture of opposition within the family, the basic building block of society, points to the way in which the coming of the Kingdom of God overturns the status quo. Jesus’ life and mission issue a fundamental challenge to the way in which the world does things
Jesus’ ‘baptism’, which culminates in his death by crucifixion, was the absorption of great violence – the violence of the political and religious systems that were challenged by Jesus’ radical gospel. Where the Gospel is authentically preached, unjust systems will be challenged and react. These disturbing readings confront us again with an uncomfortable aspect of the Christian message. We are called to love not to hate, but that love can call forth a very violent reaction.
We, like Jesus, are called to keep running steadily the race we started, to fix our eyes on Jesus and not to lose heart. We are an Easter people, and so we know that death and destruction do not have the last word. Crucifixion is followed by resurrection. Jeremiah was pulled out of the cistern and placed back on solid ground. The psalmist too. The fire that Jesus brings upon the earth is ultimately a purifying, energising fire. Love will triumph. In the words of Teilhard de Chardin:
“Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”