18th August, 2013. 20th Sunday of Year C.
Jer 38:4-6, 8-10. Jeremiah, dropped into a well to die, is saved by a foreigner.
Heb 12:1-4. Persevere, for we are surrounded by “a cloud of witnesses.”
Lk 12:49-53. Christ calls for total loyalty, even if it causes dissension.
Theme: Moral courage is always in short supply. It is the fashion to keep our heads down and go with the herd; but this is not the way to follow Christ.
First Reading: Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10
Then the officials said to the king, “This man ought to be put to death, because he is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city, and all the people, by speaking such words to them. For this man is not seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm.” King Zedekiah said, “Here he is; he is in your hands; for the king is powerless against you.” So they took Jeremiah and threw him into the cistern of Malchiah, the king’s son, which was in the court of the guard, letting Jeremiah down by ropes. Now there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud.
Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, a eunuch in the king’s house, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the cistern. The king happened to be sitting at the Benjamin Gate, So Ebed-melech left the king’s house and spoke to the king, “My lord king, these men have acted wickedly in all they did to the prophet Jeremiah by throwing him into the cistern to die there of hunger, for there is no bread left in the city.” Then the king commanded Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, “Take three men with you from here, and pull the prophet Jeremiah up from the cistern before he dies.”
Second Reading: Hebrews 12:1-4
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
Gospel: Luke 12:49-53
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No,I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
“Oh all you who pass by, see if there is any sorrow like unto my sorrow.” These words are often applied to Jesus, but they were not said BY him. They are from the Lamentations of Jeremiah (1:12), an Old Testament prophet whose life bears close resemblance to that of Jesus. Jeremiah lived in the 6th century B.C., an age of great upheaval which saw the collapse of the Assyrian empire, and the emergence of an even greater one in Babylon. After being subject to Assyria for some time, the Israelites’ faith in God and their forms of worship were tainted by pagan practices.
Jeremiah’s role was to condemn idolatry and help his people rebuild their faith. But the ruling elite blocked all his efforts and even wanted to kill him, trying to make it seem that he died of the general famine afflicting the country. As a shy young man, Jeremiah’s whole being shuddered before the vocation he felt, which was “to tear up and to knock down, to destroy and to overthrow” (1:10). In his own descriptions we see him on the verge of despair. “The word of the Lord has brought on me insult and derision all day long” (20:8).
Jeremiah inner struggle was intense. “Why is my suffering endless, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?” (15:18). He even goes so far as to say, “Cursed be the day when I was born” (20:18). He was going through what St John of the Cross would later call “the dark night of the soul,” when someone specially chosen by God seems abandoned by him. By such suffering the heart of Jeremiah was purified, making him a mighty prophet.
Instead of preaching externals like Law, circumcision, sacrifice andTemple, Jeremiah preached a religion that was inward, a more personal relationship with God. Deep within his people’s psyche God would plant his Law, writing it on their hearts (Jer 31:33). A thousand years later, St Augustine was of similar mind. “Seek God within” was his motto. “Enter into yourselves, for truth dwells within you.” The focus on interior, personal religion is what makes Jeremiah dear to so many Christians. He foresaw a new covenant between God and the people, the first time such an idea is found in Judaism. The consecration over the chalice in every Mass mentions “the new and everlasting covenant.”
Both Jesus and Jeremiah had obvious love for the common people, and a burning desire for their welfare, and both were rejected by the powers-that-be of their time. What Caiphas said of Jesus, “It is better for one man to die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed” (Jn 11:50) echoes what the leading men in Jerusalem said of the prophet Jeremiah, “This fellow does not have the welfare of the people at heart, but its ruin”. When they plotted to kill Jeremiah, he was only saved by an Egyptian, who helped draw him out of the muddy well into which he had been thrown. The only person to help Jesus on his way to Calvary, Simon of Cyrene, was also a foreigner, a Libyan. In God’s wise providence, help can come from the most unexpected quarters.
Peace and Division
“Do you think that I am come to bring peace on earth?” Quite honestly, we would hope so. We’ve come to equate Jesus with peace; is he not the Prince of Peace? The Communion Rite links him with peace; the discourse at the Last Supper is peppered with the word. Yet, when he answers his own question, he confuses us. “No. I tell you, but rather division.”
We look at the life of Jesus for clues as to how “peace” and “division” can be reconciled. One approach is to find Jesus exercising options in his life; facing moments when he has a choice of two roads – the easy pliant one of the prevailing culture or the lonely reforming one. His decisions cause divisions. Some of the division and turmoil is within himself (the garden scene.) some between himself and others – his mother and relatives. Peter on the road to Jerusalem, the final divisiveness of the cross of scandal.
Each time Jesus decides to follow the Father’s will, that has two effects. It divides him off from those who won’t take the step with him, and it moves him deeper into the peace that comes from being true to who you are. The peace Jesus talks about has a shape to it. It is not the wishy-washy, compromising, anything-for-a-quiet-life kind of peace we often settle for. When he mentions “division” in the same breath, we begin to see division as almost the price of authentic peace. We could spend time going through the decisions of Jesus. He reached out; he had compassion; he suffered along with people; he understood their pain; he broke bread with the hungry; he befriended the poor and sinners; he was at ease with the little, working poor people who lived in the shadow of the powerful elite.
The problem is, we’ve read and heard these scenes a thousand times… but we’ve lost sight of how disruptive and unconventional Jesus was. He talked of Samaritans saving Jewish lives! He praised the father who embraced the son who shamed him! You were to share your cloak and tunic, all you wore, literally! The soldier in the occupying army was to be accompanied not just the one mile but another mile, unbidden.
Jesus parted company the self-centred behind, not because he wished to but because they did. His open-handed approach to others provoked a clench-fisted reaction in them. They would have to be rid of this challenging presence. The crucifixion was meant to silence him for good. Instead, it gave him the final, supreme option. It not only capped his life of sacrifice but raised up a symbol to disturb us over the centuries. The sacrificed life of Jesus indicates the price to be paid if we are to reach the peace he calls us to.