20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading 1. Jeremiah 38: 4-6, 8-10
Reading II. Hebrews 12: 1-4
Gospel. Luke 12: 49-53 (to set the earth on fire).
In today's first reading from the Book of Jeremiah, we find the prophet in deep trouble. Now we must remember that the Old Testament prophets were not fortune tellers speaking of future events. For the most part they pointed out and complained of improper behaviors on the part of the people. Not only were such behaviors bad in themselves, they were bringing all kinds of hardships upon the people. Of course, no one likes to hear such criticism, especially the leaders of society.
Jeremiah was perhaps the most outspoken of all the prophets. We still use the word "Jeremiad" today to indicate a particularly outspoken and critical speech. Is it any wonder that Jeremiah was taken by the leaders of the city and thrown into a cistern to be left for dead? After all, the city was at war and Jeremiah was blaming their bad fortune on their immoral and unjust behavior.
Today's Gospel presents us with a picture of our Lord in a Jeremiah mode. It is one of the hardest passages in scripture to read and comprehend for it shows our Lord in a way that jars our sensibilities. It seems to be so uncharacteristic. He says,
I have come to set the earth on fire,
and how I wish it were already blazing!
Then He says.
Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?
No, I tell you, but rather division.
How can this be? All along, we have thought that His mission was exactly to bring peace on the earth. Isn't our goal unity, rather than division? From this passage alone it will be very difficult to answer these questions. It might help us to go back and read the entire 12th chapter of St. Luke's gospel.
The Gospel of St. Luke is basically an account of our Lord's journey to Jerusalem where he will be arrested, tortured, and put to a cruel and humiliating death on a cross. In chapter 12, however, the teachings and healings of Jesus have attracted large crowds. He warns his disciples that this popularity is not necessarily a good thing. The leaders of society will plot against Him just as they did against Jeremiah. They too can also expect to be drawn before the magistrates and be persecuted. But He also tells them not to worry because their heavenly Father will be with them.
Jesus tells them, "do not be anxious for your life, what you shall eat; nor yet for your body, what you shall put on." He reminds them of the "lilies of the field." "Consider how the lilies grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed like one of these." Finally, He says,
Sell what you have and give alms. Make for yourselves purses that do not grow old, a treasure unfailing in heaven, where neither thief draws near or moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be."
Characteristically, Peter interjects, "Lord, dost thou speak this parable for us or for all alike?" Of course, He is speaking to all of us. He is urging us to get our priorities in order. Are we paying too much attention to the things of this world? Here we are in America, the richest country in the whole history of the world, and we seem to be so profoundly unhappy. We have so much food that our most serious illness is obesity. We spend hours shopping for clothes but will never think we look good enough. Every day we seem to agonize over the gyrations of the stock market, the real estate market, or the energy market. And still He tells us not to worry or be afraid.
Is it any wonder that many will not be able to accept such teaching or follow such an example? The teaching seems so impractical. How can we not care about food, clothing, money, jobs, and careers? I don't think that Jesus was asking us to shirk our responsibilities but He was urging us to get our priorities straight. As individuals we will all have to decide what brings true happiness.
Our choices can divide us from our families, friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens. The teaching of Jesus was really counter-cultural in His time, and it is still counter-cultural in our time. His disciples suffered and died to follow His teaching. Martyrs, both known and unknown, have suffered and died ever since. Most of us will not be asked to die for our Faith but all of us will experience some degree of suffering in just leading our daily lives. Someone once said that everyone in church is there for a reason.
In our second reading today from the letter to the Hebrews we are told to take Jesus as an example.
Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners,
in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.
In your struggle against sin
you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.