Thursday of week 29 of Ordinary Time – Gospel


Commentary on Luke 12:49-53

We have some passionate and disturbing words from Jesus today. First, he expresses his deep desire to cast fire on the earth. In the imagery of the Old Testament, fire is a symbol of God’s powerful presence. We remember Moses at the burning bush, the pillar of fire that accompanied the Israelites by night as they wandered through the desert to the promised land, as well as the tongues of fire that hovered over the disciples at Pentecost. It is this Pentecostal fire that burns men’s hearts and draws them to change the direction of their lives. For Jesus’ wish to be fulfilled we have to play our part in helping to spread some of that fire of God’s love everywhere. Second, he expresses a longing for his baptism to be accomplished. Baptism here refers to his immersion in the terrible suffering and death by which we will be liberated. In fact, the ritual of baptism where the person to be baptised was immersed in the baptismal pool was seen as a parallel to Jesus going down into death and emerging to the new life of the resurrection. Paul speaks about this. Thirdly, Jesus says he has come not to bring peace but division on the earth. At first sight, this is a hard saying and it does not make any sense. Is Jesus not the Prince of Peace? Did Jesus not say at the Last Supper that he was giving his peace to his disciples, a peace that the world could not give and that no one could take away? Did he not say, “Come to me, all you who labour and are burdened and I will give you rest”? Was the final greeting of the Risen Christ to his disciples in the upper room not “Peace [be/is] with you”? Yes, but he also warned his disciples that, after he was gone, they could expect a rough ride. They would be hauled before rulers and governors, they would be beaten and jailed and put to death. People would think they were doing well in ridding the world of them. In that sense, Jesus was certainly not going to bring peace. And, by the time this gospel was written, Jesus’ prophecy had been well borne out and there was a lot more to come. The break-up of families, father against mother, parents against children, in-laws against in-laws, were unfortunately only too common as one or more members in a family decided to follow Christ and be baptised. These must have been very painful experiences which no one wanted. Anyone who is familiar with the history of the Church in China during the Communist persecution knows how many families were torn apart by their accepting Christianity. (In the Gospel, we see it in the story of the blind man who attached himself to Jesus and whose parents, terrified of the authorities, wanted to have nothing to do with. It is surely an image which was quite familiar to converts in the early, not to mention the later, church.) Jesus had warned that those who wanted to follow him had to be ready, if necessary, to leave home and family and enter into a new family of brothers and sisters. To follow the way of truth and love, of freedom and justice is always going to arouse the hostility of those who feel threatened by goodness. But is it right to break up one’s family? We might counter by asking which is the more loving thing to do: to be true to one’s convictions and one’s integrity or to compromise them for the sake of a merely external peace? The one who leaves a family for the sake of Christ and the Gospel shows a greater love for one’s family and will never cease to love them no matter how viciously they may react to the choice the Christian has felt it necessary to make. In the long run, truth and love will prevail. They must. Finally, hostility, division, persecution, provided the Christian is not directly responsible, does not take away the peace that Jesus spoke about. On the contrary, it is only by being true to one’s convictions and one’s integrity, whatever the price that has to be paid, that peace can be experienced.

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