20th Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 18, 2019
St. Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS
Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10; Psalm 40:2-4, 18; Hebrews 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53
It is strange to hear these words about division and the absence of peace come out of Jesus’ mouth. Because Jesus is supposed to be a nice guy, the one who brings peace, the Prince of Peace (c.f., Is. 9:6). Right? When he was born, the angels proclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace.” So what’s all of this business about division? The answer is pretty simple.
As with any prophetic figure, as with anyone who brings an unpopular message, division naturally ensues. There are those who accept the message and those who don’t, those who agree with you and those who don’t. With our readings today, we see displayed in full form what I call the “Cycle of Prophetic Perseverance.” The prophet arrives with the message of God, with the divine vision; the prophet announces the divine message. Then the people either accept or reject the message of God—this is where the division lies. For those who accept it, life doesn’t necessarily get better right away, but they do enter the path of life, the path to the fullness of life, to their own flourishing. But for those who reject the message from the prophet, they fight back, dismiss the prophet, try to get rid of the prophet, sometimes kill the prophet. But then, because of the reckless love of God, the endless love of God, the message returns, and the cycle begins again: the prophet perseveres.
The division comes in our response to the Word of God, to the message of the prophet. And time and time again, we see that we reject this message not because we don’t see the value in it, not because we don’t believe it, and not because we don’t agree that it’s good for us. We reject it because at some level we see it as a threat to our own flourishing.
Take this passage from Jeremiah in our first reading. All we hear in our reading is, “Jeremiah ought to be put to death; he is demoralizing the soldiers…and all the people, by speaking such things to them; he is not interested in the welfare of our people, but in their ruin” (Jer. 38:4). What’s going on? Just what did Jeremiah say? Well, the Babylonians are moving toward Jerusalem to capture it, and Jeremiah, just being the prophet that he is, delivers the word of the Lord to the people. Jeremiah says, “If you try to fight, you will die. But if you surrender, you will live. But either way, the Babylonians are going to capture the city” (c.f., Jer. 38:2-3). Not a real William Wallace, pump-up-the-men-and-rally-the-troops moment. Kind of a downer, Jeremiah. But this is the message of the Lord! The message of the Lord, short and sweet, was, “Surrender.” But instead of seeing this message as something for their good, instead of accepting the message, the people rejected it. And they reject it because they saw it as a threat to their own flourishing, as a message “not interested in the welfare of the people, but in their ruin,” in their destruction. And so what did they do? They say, “Jeremiah ought to be put to death.” They try to kill the messenger. And they almost do. You have to feel for him, I mean, this was Jeremiah’s life in a nutshell: people just didn’t listen to him. But Jeremiah is freed from the cistern, and in great perseverance comes back to deliver the message again.
And so we see it, this “Cycle of Prophetic Perseverance.” The prophet arrives with the message of God and announces it; the people reject the message of God; they try to get rid of the prophet, in this case kill him; but then, the message returns, and the cycle begins again: the prophet perseveres.
Ok, now look at our Gospel again. Jesus arrives on the scene, the message of the Lord arrives. Jesus, more than just the bringer of the word of the Lord, more than just a prophet, Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, the embodiment of the Word of the Lord. And the message of Jesus, the word of the Lord, is simple: “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). Through discipleship to Christ, in following Christ, by listening to Christ, we come to possess the fullness of life, life to the full, genuine and authentic human flourishing (c.f., John 10:10). And Jesus says as much in our Gospel today! “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” (Luke 12:49). Jesus sets the world on fire: a purifying fire as we hear about in the prophets (c.f., Zech 13:9, Mal 3:3), but also a life giving fire, a fire that burns within. With any message from the Lord, some people will accept it and some will reject it.
And why do we reject God’s message? Why does anyone reject God’s message? Again, look to our first reading, it hasn’t changed in three thousand years. We reject God’s message because we think that it is a threat to our flourishing, to our happiness, to our well being.
Parents, you have played the role of the prophet before I’m sure. Classic example is curfew. You tell your kid, “Alright, you can go. But the word of your Father says you will be home by 10:30.” And then your kids accepts it or rejects it. If they reject it, they fight back and try to get rid of the messenger. They tell you how unfair you are, how this rule is such a constraint on their freedom, how everyone else has a later curfew. But then the message returns, “No, 10:30.” And if you are a good parent, you persevere in this, you don’t give in to their desire just because they want it. And as parents, why do give this rule, this message? Not because you are trying to cramp their style, not because you are mean and oppressive, no. The curfew, the message, is meant to lead to their good, to their flourishing. Nothing good happens with a bunch of teenagers hanging out in the late hours of the night and early hours of the morning, and the curfew is meant to help them.
Another example is kids and the use of smartphones and tablets. I wrote about this in the bulletin article this weekend. The scientific data is crystal clear! Even though you may not be able to see it now, even though your kid may have good grades, even though they may behave well, even if they seem the perfect child—excessive time with a smartphone or tablet is physically and psychologically harming your child. It’s scary when you start to read the studies; the worst damage happens invisibly, in a way you can’t see until it’s too late. And so you, the prophetic parent, should deliver the message of rules and expectations for your children and their use of smartphones and tablets. And I won’t bore you with specifics now—you can go read the bulletin, I gave five very simple, very practical things you should do—but I can guarantee you that they will reject it! They tell you how unfair you are, how this rule is such a constraint on their freedom, how you are not concerned for their well-being but only in punishing them. But again, as a good, prophetic parent, you will persevere in this message, in enforcing these rules.
I was talking to my friend Fr. Michael Kerschen about this, and he said that no one disagrees about these things, parents know that they need to have rules for their kids, they know that with smartphones and tablets they need to have these restrictions. The problem is not with the message, the problem is with the perseverance. The first two weeks are easy. But after a while of fighting your children on it, it is easier to give up and give in. But look at the prophets and look at Christ himself. They were ready to stand behind the message, even to the point to death. As we hear in the second reading, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood” (Heb 12:4). The problem isn’t that we don’t believe the message; it’s that persevering in the message is hard.
Now, put yourself on the other side. With the message of Christ, we are put in the position of the child. We hear the message, and we are faced with the option of accepting or rejecting it. It is easy to reject, because we can’t see the Word of God, the message of Jesus, the truths that the Church teaches, as being good for us, as leading to our flourishing. Sometimes it just seems like God is trying to control us, or the Church doesn’t know what she’s talking about. God, Jesus, the truths of the Church are threats to my freedom and happiness and flourishing! Think of any teaching of the Church you disagree with, think of any one of your sins that you don’t think is that bad. And then imagine someone looking you in the face and telling you: you can’t do that. How do you react? Do you accept or reject it?
When we accept the message of the Lord, when we hear his teaching and his truth, when we following him as the path to life, we discover that the Lord is only concerned with giving us the fullness of life, life to the full, genuine and authentic human flourishing. “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” And yes, in accepting the word of God, in accepting the truth, in becoming a disciple of Christ, life doesn’t necessarily get better right away. Sometimes we have to undergo the fire of purification; we have to painfully let go of habits and sins and things that hold us back. But at the same time, we are on the path of life, the path to the fullness of life, to our own flourishing. In a life of discipleship, we are like the burning bush: on fire, but not consumed; burning, but not destroyed. As a disciple, we live the fullness of life. God is not a threat to us!
This, too, calls for perseverance. We will be imperfect in accepting the path of discipleship, we will slip back into rejection. But the Lord continues to persevere in his search for us. You are not the first to oppose him or reject him. But, “in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb 12:3), Jesus persevered, to the point of shedding blood, to the point of death. And even to this day, it is that same Jesus who continues to pour out his blood on this altar, so that we may be nourished, so that we may not grow weary and lose heart. He continues to offer himself as the path to life, the fullness of life.