Sunday of Week 20 of Ordinary Time


Commentary on Jeremiah 38:4-6,8-10; Hebrews 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53

Three Statements
Jesus makes three important statements in today’s Gospel. The first is:

I have come to bring fire on the earth.”

This is not the fire of destruction or the fire that ravages forests every year.

-It is the fire of heat and light.
-It is the fire that cleanses and purifies.
-It is the fire of God’s presence:

-as in the burning bush that Moses saw,
-as in the pillar of fire that accompanied the Israelites in the desert,
-as in the tongues of fire at Pentecost where the bringing of fire was mandated to the disciples, to the Church, to all of us.

As a purifying fire, it can also bring pain and purification but it ultimately leads to conversion and liberation.

His second statement:

There is a baptism I must receive and great is my distress till it is over.

This does not mean that Jesus is to be re-baptised in the Jordan. The word baptism implies total immersion (the way sacramental baptism was carried out in the early church and in some churches today). There is a close link between the catechumen being “buried” in water and rising with Christ and Jesus being “baptised”, immersed in his suffering and death on the way to resurrection. Jesus does not look forward to his “baptism” for the pain it brings, but for the salutary effects it produces for all of us.

Jesus’ third statement:

I have come not to bring peace but division.

This is a statement that critics of religion would cynically agree with. Religion is seen by some as a major source of division, suffering, and war in our world.

But to others it is a very puzzling, even alarming, statement. It seems to contradict the whole message of the Gospel. At the Last Supper. Jesus told his disciples that he was giving them peace, a peace that the world could not give, a peace that no one could take away from them. We call Jesus the Prince of Peace. In the Beatitudes we read, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God”. They especially are the ones who do the work of God – and of Jesus. In the letter to the Ephesians, Jesus is called our peace, breaking down the walls that divide peoples. “By this will all know that you are my disciples, that you have love one for another.”

Painful words
It is especially painful to hear the Gospel speak of families being broken up because of Jesus. But this is less a prophecy or an expression of God’s will than a description of the Church’s very real experience from the time the Gospels were being written down to our own day.

In many countries, both Christian individuals and Christian communities are seen as a threat to governments, various power groups and other religious groups.

Yet, in the long history of the Church, how many families have suffered because members became Christians? Most of us – especially those who have lived in non-Christian or anti-Christian societies – probably have met someone who was rejected by their family for becoming an active Christian. And, not infrequently, persecution comes even from other Christians, from within the Church itself.

It is significant in the First Reading that Jeremiah is dumped into a cistern, not by outsiders, but by his own people who did not like the message from God that he was bringing. And how many people realise that there have been more martyrs for the faith in our supposedly advanced and civilised “modern times” than in all the preceding centuries of the past!

Non-violence
The Christian message is non-violent. It brings love, compassion, harmony, peace. It brings people together so that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female. But it also, of its nature, challenges injustice, corruption, discrimination, abuse, dishonesty and all attacks on human dignity. The role of the evangeliser is “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”

Vested interests – the rich, the powerful inside and outside the Church – will do anything to keep what they have. When the Church preaches and lives the Gospel, conflict is inevitable – even though in no way wished or intended.

So, in one way, religion should never divide. It is only a false Christianity and religion that deliberately creates division (“them and us”). It is not Christianity or any other religion as such which has brought so much suffering but certain people who call themselves “Christians” (or Muslims, Hindus or Jews).

At the same time, true Christianity in defending truth, justice, human dignity and freedom will inevitably meet opposition and be attacked. The passage which says that the peacemakers are blessed also says that those who are persecuted in the name of the Gospel are equally blessed. Strangely enough, both go together.

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