“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!… Do you think I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”
—Luke 12:49, 51
Throughout the season of Ordinary Time, the First Reading and the Gospel of each Sunday work together as a pair, with the First Reading serving to expand or develop our perspective on the teachings and actions of Jesus presented. This Sunday is certainly no exception as we reflect on the reality of divisions and conflict within the Church and within our own homes and hearts.
In our First Reading, the Prophet Jeremiah feels the wrath of those who were seeking comfort and not the truth. Jeremiah had been sent to deliver a harsh message to the people of Jerusalem and the king’s officials decreed that, because of his message, he should die. Ultimately, Jeremiah is saved from a death of dehydration and starvation after being thrown into an empty cistern, but, as John W. Martens has observed, “the episode points to the reality of life. Speaking the truth of God and following the truth of God do not always lead to sweetness and light.”
We don’t like bad news. Sometimes this is because the darkness is more than we can process or bigger than we can imagine, as in the case of those who deny the looming destruction of climate change or the terrors of the Holocaust or Armenian Genocide. Sometimes, however, we refuse to accept dire news or predictions because of the demands they can place upon us: acceptance might mean that we have to change our attitudes or behaviors.
As we see in this Sunday’s First Reading, one way to respond to an unwanted prophet is to try to destroy or discredit them. Because of their fear of change and the loss of their power, the king’s officials have their way with Jeremiah, but there is, as Sr. Barbara Reid, O.P., notes, a kind of tug of war in the reading: “Some heed the prophet’s words and welcome his warning, while others resist the threat to their power, privilege, and status that Jeremiah’s message poses.” This tension, the “tug of war,” is what Jesus is referring to when he speaks of division in this Sunday’s Gospel.
Throughout the gospel, Jesus is calling his disciples to build up the Kingdom of God through works of charity, mercy, peace, and justice. He’s calling for a commitment to a new way of life that places demands on his followers. Jesus isn’t looking for admirers. His hope is to ignite a flame within the disciples that will set the world ablaze with the fire of love. And many welcome this call. But, as was the case with Jeremiah, there were those who resisted his invitation, hoping to extinguish that fire before it ever began to spread. And it’s understandable. Accepting Jesus’ message would mean that his “fire” would consume them and their comfortable, familiar lives; we can be just as resistant to change as we are to bad news.
Sadly, these different perspectives and sets of values have led to divisions within the Church (e.g. the Great Schism and Protestant Reformation), within nations (including our own in these tense and divided pre-election days), parishes, and even families. And yet, this Sunday, we have Jesus reminding us that we can’t be dismayed or disheartened when these divisions and conflicts rise up. This is because, as Reid also observes, “the way toward genuine peace is not a gentle, easy road. It is a path that entails struggle. Injustice does not die without heavy resistance.”
For those of us who are committed to a life rooted in gospel values, the Holy Spirit—working through the grace of Baptism and Confirmation—empowers us to continue a mission of healing divisions, allowing the fire of Christ to burn away those behaviors and attitudes that divide us and which provide an unhealthy sense of security and comfort. In the end, it is that refining fire of the love of Christ that can fuse our divided and conflicted hearts and minds into a new reality grounded in the Good News of God’s mercy, peace, and justice.
What prophetic voices have challenged you to change your attitudes and behaviors through the years?
What fears, perspectives, values, or prejudices prevent you from being consumed by the fire of Christ’s love?
How is the Holy Spirit calling and empowering you to heal divisions within your family, your community, and the Church?
Words of Wisdom: “Divisions between Christ’s followers are clearly contrary to his will… We must not be resigned to these divisions, but must join our prayer to that of Jesus in imploring among all his followers constant openness to dialogue and appreciation of the gifts of others. In loving the Lord and sharing the riches of his love, we will better see what unites us rather than what separates us.”—Pope Francis