by Dan Loch
Here we go again, more “hard sayings” of Jesus which Luke yokes together in his Gospel: “I have come to set the earth on fire” and “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Fathers fighting sons, daughters fighting mothers, everybody fighting the in-laws. Where’s the “peace on earth to men of good will”? Where did this angry guy come from?
Another angry guy is the prophet Jeremiah in the First Reading. “Angry” and “prophet” seem to go together. The job of a prophet is to get people thinking. Prophets create crisis, because crisis is that edge where change is possible. Jeremiah does not say what people want to hear, just as Jesus does in the Gospel by telling us he hasn’t come to leave things the way they are. The princes throw Jeremiah into a well, but Jeremiah has a champion, Ebed-melech, who pulls Jeremiah out.
The past two Sundays we’ve been hearing Luke’s Chapter 12, a collection of stories about Jesus — warnings, the Rich Fool, watchfulness. Jesus is on his journey to Jerusalem and the Cross, teaching us what following him means. This Sunday, Jesus, like Jerimiah, tells us what we don’t want to hear. His words seem sharp and threatening. Is this angry prophet safe? Maybe Jesus is frustrated that His followers don’t seem to be getting it and time’s nearly up. As a mother once said, “Before I had kids, I never knew I could love so much, or that anyone could make me so
First, Jesus faces his own crisis, the “baptism… with which I must be baptized,” His sacrifice on the Cross, which He chooses because He is faithful to what His Father tasked Him to do, even though — a glimpse into the emotional life of Jesus — He is in “great…anguish until it is accomplished!”
But what about setting the earth on fire?! The fire of Divine Wrath? Hmm, what else does fire bring to mind? Fire is not just a sign of danger or anger, it also is a sign of transformation. Think God appearing as fire, the Burning Bush Moses saw, and its theological meaning as fire that burned, but did not destroy. Think of the fire that refines precious metals. Fire attracts us to its warmth and power. It lights the darkness and gives guidance. Fire in a forest clears out undergrowth that smothers soil and prevents new growth. The ashes create fertile soil. Pine cones need fire to cast their seeds. Think the Pentecost fire of the Holy Spirit and us as pine cone seeds, needing fire to be set free.
Ok, but what about fathers fighting sons, daughters fighting mothers? In the ancient world, especially in Jewish culture, family meant everything. Families depended on one another for survival. Young men were identified by who their father was. Extended families held society together. Fights over faith in Jesus divided families, villages, cities, and the Jewish religion.
Truth can have a sting to it, like hydrogen peroxide in a cut. When Jesus said that his message would tear families apart, it meant that all of society would be transformed by the fire of His message. The Kingdom of God ignites new fire into pine cone-bound lives. But transformation by fire can be painful. Families would be divided over whether Jesus was worth following, meaning giving up everything that was once considered most important in life, possessions, money, security, shelter, and significant competing responsibilities. Families can hold people captive to prejudices, can try to smother the spark Jesus wants to ignite. Following Jesus can mean conflict with family members and friends.
But we can catch the fire. In the Second Reading we learn that just as athletes are cheered on by people in the stands, so too Christians catch fire to run the race by those who have come before them. Jesus, our champion, as Ebed-melech was to Jeremiah, ran the race, and now is at the right hand of God. Jesus is our model.
Jesus wishes His fire “were already blazing” on earth . . . and in me. My words and actions should always have some fire in them. My faith should “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” Sunday’s Gospel tells us conflict is part of Christian life, but conflict that itself sheds light on the Kingdom of God: Christians disagree with charity, listening, and compassion. As in today’s Second Reading, we can hear the cheers of the fans in the stands.