Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C - August 14, 2016
The Scripture readings for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time invite us to consider the implications of our commitments, our lifestyles, and our relationships with others. In the first reading from Jeremiah (Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10), the biblical prophet is called to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. Jesus will experience the prophet’s fate.
In the second reading from the letter to the Hebrews (12:1-4), we learn once again that Jesus, the great architect of the Christian faith, had himself to endure the Cross before receiving the glory of his triumph. Reflection on his sufferings gives us the courage to continue the struggle, if necessary even to the shedding of our blood. We must regard our own sufferings as the affectionate correction of the Lord, who loves us as a father loves his children.
In today’s Gospel (Luke 12:49-53), Jesus reminds the crowd that those who commit to him will find that it affects the way they relate to friends and family members. A serious commitment to Jesus forces us to change the way we live our lives, and this can put strains on our relationships. We don’t expect to hear such difficult words from Jesus in the Gospels. But it is good to be reminded once in a while that the decision to do the right thing, the good thing, and the best thing, is not always easy or without conflict. Jesus himself did not make easy decisions or avoid conflict. Jesus reminds his followers to be prepared for difficult decisions and conflict as well.
Jesus demands a decision for or against his message
The baptism referred to in today’s Gospel is actually Christ’s Passion and death. He longs for this event to take place (Luke 12:50). Family members are divided against one another; the harsh reality is that the Church’s mission of conversion will not be a total success. Jesus demands a decision either for or against his message: “I came to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were already kindled” (Luke 12:49). Jesus did not sit on the fence, resisting hard decisions for fear of not being accepted. He did not seek harmony or the middle way in every dispute. He walked into the midst of great conflicts of his time and was unafraid of making tough decisions.
Let us reflect for a moment on our own lack of courage and conviction in the many decisions we must face in life. Many of us hold a view that Christians should always seek harmony and a “middle way.” We can be tricked into assuming that tension and conflict are worse evils than injustice and oppression. We place a very high premium on being liked and accepted by everyone! And we are often very afraid of revealing who we really are and what we really believe even to those we consider our friends! We fear rejection!
Those who are afraid of conflict or confrontation, even when it is non-violent, usually resist the need for change. The deeper question is this: what is authentic reconciliation? Many would like to believe that Jesus brought a message of peace and reconciliation. It is of course true that one of the things Jesus wanted to hand on to his disciples was his peace, and that he proclaimed: “Blessed are the peacemakers,” but this must be understood in the context of an more provocative saying of Jesus in two of the Gospels: “Do you suppose that I am here to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather dissension. For from now on a household will be divided: Three against two and two against three; the father divided against the son, son against father, mother against daughter, daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law” (Luke 12:51-53; Matthew 10:34-36).
Jesus used this biblical quote from the prophet Micah not to show us that he was a divisive personality or teacher, or that he desired to bring dissension and conflict for their own sake. Nor did he wish to “lord” over others his intimate knowledge of the law and the prophets of Israel’s ancient traditions. Instead Jesus wanted to teach his disciples that his uncompromising stance inevitably divided the people into those who were for him and those who were against him. He was never engaged in a popularity contest.
Furthermore, in the ongoing saga of conflict between the Pharisees and the so-called “sinners,” Jesus of Nazareth sided with the sinners, prostitutes, and tax collectors against the Pharisees. In the conflict between the rich and the poor he sided with the poor. Jesus did not treat each side as equally right and wrong, nor did he try to tell people that they simply needed to overcome their difficulties and misunderstandings, shake hands, and make up! Jesus condemned the Pharisees and the rich unequivocally, and he forgave sinners and blessed the poor without reserve. He always entered smack into the middle of conflict with Pharisees and the rich to such an extent that they set out to discredit him, arrest him, charge him, and execute him.
Jesus never compromised himself and his convictions with the powers that be for the sake of a false irenicism (peacefulness and unity). For Jesus it was never a question of preserving peace and unity at all costs, even at the cost of truth and justice. Rather it was a matter of promoting truth and justice at all costs, even at the cost of creating conflict and dissension along the way.
There are many times in the Scriptures when Jesus strives to reconcile people who have been at odds with one another (Jews and Samaritans, Zealots, tax collectors, some individual Pharisees and sinners or the poor, etc.). Because of his actions with these people, he was recognized as a man of peace. However Jesus always made a distinction between the peace that God wants, and the peace that the world wants (John 14:27). The peace that God wants is a peace that is based on truth, justice, and love. The peace that the world offers is a superficial peace and unity that compromises the truth, covers over injustices, and is usually settled on for thoroughly selfish reasons. Jesus destroys this false peace and even highlights conflict in order to promote a true and lasting peace.
Peace is the ultimate end of the Kingdom of God, but peace has a price. Jesus is warning the crowd that wherever the Word of God is heard and acted upon, division occurs.
Comforting the afflicted in a Brazilian Favela
Shortly after his election to the papacy, Pope Francis called for a “Church that is poor and for the poor.” During his momentous visit to Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day 2013 in Brazil, Pope Francis visited the community of Varginha in the favela of Manguinhos. The slum-like neighborhood was once blighted with violence, drug crime, and gang fighting. This community offers a vivid example of the crushing poverty, uneven development, and profound class divisions that plague Brazil even as it attempts to turn itself around. Pope Francis spoke to a huge crowd of favela residents who gathered in a football field of the violent slum. Portions of Pope Francis’ address to them give flesh and blood to today’s Gospel:
The Brazilian people, particularly the humblest among you, can offer the world a valuable lesson in solidarity, a word that is too often forgotten or silenced, because it is uncomfortable. I would like to make an appeal to those in possession of greater resources, to public authorities, and to all people of good will who are working for social justice: never tire of working for a more just world, marked by greater solidarity! No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world! Everybody, according to his or her particular opportunities and responsibilities, should be able to make a personal contribution to putting an end to so many social injustices. The culture of selfishness and individualism that often prevails in our society is not what builds up and leads to a more habitable world: it is the culture of solidarity that does so, seeing others not as rivals or statistics, but brothers and sisters.
I would like to encourage the efforts that Brazilian society is making to integrate all its members, including those who suffer most and are in greatest need, through the fight against hunger and deprivation. No amount of “peace-building” will be able to last, nor will harmony and happiness be attained in a society that ignores, pushes to the margins, or excludes a part of itself. A society of that kind simply impoverishes itself, it loses something essential. Let us always remember this: only when we are able to share do we become truly rich; everything that is shared is multiplied! The measure of the greatness of a society is found in the way it treats those most in need, those who have nothing apart from their poverty!
There is neither real promotion of the common good nor real human development when there is ignorance of the fundamental pillars that govern a nation, its non-material goods: life, which is a gift of God, a value always to be protected and promoted; the family, the foundation of coexistence and a remedy against social fragmentation; integral education, which cannot be reduced to the mere transmission of information for purposes of generating profit; health, which must seek the integral well-being of the person, including the spiritual dimension, essential for human balance and healthy coexistence; security, in the conviction that violence can be overcome only by changing human hearts.
Pope Francis, like Jesus, demands a decision either for or against his message. The Bishop of Rome does not seek harmony and a middle way in every situation of extreme poverty, injustice, and violence. He is not afraid to enter into the midst of great conflicts of our time and he is willing to make tough decisions for the sake of authentic reconciliation, true justice, and a lasting peace among peoples. Let us learn from the example of Jesus of Nazareth and Francis of Buenos Aires.
[The readings for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10; Hebrews 12:1-4; and Luke 12:49-53
(Image: Pope Francis visits the Varginhas community of Brazil in 2013; CNS Photo/Paul Haring)