First Reading: Jeremiah 38:4–6, 8–10; Psalm: 40:2–4, 18; Second Reading: Hebrews 12:1–4; Gospel: Luke 12:49–53
Psalm 40:2–4, 18
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord.
As for me, I am poor and needy,
but the Lord takes thought for me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
do not delay, O my God.
Reading the Word
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.
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 a daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
Hearing the Word
Today’s readings present three examples of deep divisions caused by the presence of God’s representative in society, but far from being destructive, these divisions ultimately served a salvific purpose.
The events described in the first reading took place in the tragic and chaotic days of the last king of Judah – Zedekiah. Judah was under the authority of the Babylonian empire with Zedekiah entrusted with ruling the country on behalf of his masters in Babylon. This situation displeased many Israelites. Various political groups emerged putting pressure on the king to rebel against Babylon and seek independence. These people believed that God did not want his beloved city, and the Temple, to be ruled by the hated foreigners, and would always protect it from destruction.
Jeremiah opposed such views. He was keenly aware that Zedekiah, the Israelite leadership and the majority of the people were not holding on to God’s covenant by obeying its laws. The prophet was also keenly aware that Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, would mercilessly and cruelly punish all who opposed his authority. These factors combined would inevitably lead to the destruction of Jerusalem. Sadly, the prophet was right.
The pro-war and pro-independence party prevailed upon the weak king, persuading him to begin the rebellion. In response, the Babylonian army quickly surrounded Jerusalem, starved the city and, after a two-year siege, utterly destroyed it.
During the siege, Jeremiah was in the city advocating immediate surrender and submission to Nebuchadnezzar as the only way to save Jerusalem and the Temple from destruction. He prophesied that everyone who continued the fight against the Babylonians would ultimately die in the city, and the city itself would be destroyed (Jer 37:6-10). This message was seen as treachery and betrayal by the officials who wanted to continue the hopeless fight, believing in God’s help. Thus, the leaders of the rebellion moved to get rid of the tiresome prophet by throwing him into an empty underground water tank, a cistern, where he would eventually die of starvation. With the agreement of the king, those Israelite leaders sought to silence the voice of God in their midst and follow their own plans. But God’s voice would not be silenced. Jeremiah was saved by another of the king’s officials who was, ironically, a foreigner. Ebed-Melech, an Ethiopian, recognizing Jeremiah as a true prophet of God persuaded King to free Isaiah saving him from certain death.
Jeremiah advocated surrender because he knew that God would not protect the city and the people who had abandoned God and did not live by God’s covenant. He knew that the nation needed a deeply religious and moral restoration before any dream of political independence could be pursued. Jeremiah’s message was deeply divisive because he spoke an unpopular truth which his opponents saw as a betrayal of the nation and of God. Ironically, it was God’s voice showing them the way to survive the Babylonian aggression which their own misguided beliefs and practices had brought upon the nation. The division Jeremiah created had salvific potential. Sadly, nobody in authority listened to him.
The Letter to the Hebrews was written to motivate believers to adhere to Christian ways while resisting the temptation to complacency, and the pressures from the opponents of this new faith. To do so, the author uses motivating examples of uncompromising adherence to faith.
First, in Hebrews 11:1-40, the author recalls a great number of the heroes of faith from the Old Testament who persevered in their faith while facing overwhelming challenges and even death. These ancient heroes are called “a great cloud of witnesses” who, like spectators in an athletic contest, are now watching the Christians who face similar struggles. Like ancient athletes who competed naked, Christians are admonished to strip themselves of every moral depravity and sin which burden them. Thus prepared, they are called to run a race which is like a contest to persevere in the faith. The whole scene presents Christians as contestants engaged in a great competition with the power of sin, which seeks to overtake them.
The second example is Jesus, who was engaged in a contest of his own. By embracing the cross as the means to redeem humankind, and by offering the ultimate sacrifice of his own life, Jesus won a decisive victory over sin and death. However, he first had to endure the “shame” of public execution, enduring the hostility and humiliation inflicted upon him by his opponents. By remaining faithful, and committed to his mission and purpose, Jesus prevailed in this contest. For this reason, the author of Hebrews calls him the pioneer and perfecter of the faith – he is the ultimate model and example of faith. Enthroned on the right hand of God Jesus is like a supreme athlete who had contested in the challenge of faith and had prevailed. Imitating him, Christians are asked to face hostility from sinners, courageously and with determination, even to the point of shedding their blood.
Ultimately, the author calls believers to stand apart from the rest of society which the author sees as sinful and corrupt. As morally impeccable and God-fearing followers of Christ, Christians are to represent the values and behaviour that many in their society would reject and oppose. Their distinctiveness would make their presence in society divisive. For some it would be an example to follow, for others, it would be a sign to be opposed. In either case, their firm stand and commitment to Christian ways would be a powerful point of reference for those who seek to live righteous lives.
The gospel passage cites the troubling words of Jesus who speaks of himself as a bringer of fire and division, not of peace. The fire symbolizes judgment upon those who reject God by rejecting Jesus as the Messiah and God’s Son. The baptism which Jesus is to undergo is his own death on the cross (cf. Mark 10:38-39). Finally, Jesus’ presence divides families depending on whether their members accept or reject Jesus as the Messiah. For the early Christians, the division on account of adherence to Jesus was a daily experience. Becoming a Christian often meant exclusion from the family and expulsion from a particular religious and social group. Yes, Jesus did come to bring peace to earth, however, his message and his presence are intrinsically divisive, a division depending on whether there is acceptance or rejection of Jesus and his message. Those who choose God will experience peace and blessing, those who reject God will face judgment. In this sense, Jesus’ presence in the world was truly divisive.
Today’s readings show that adherence to God often brings divisions. Jeremiah’s message was divisive because of his firm opposition to armed rebellion and his advocacy for the return to God through repentance and moral reforms as the way to survival. The author of Hebrews insisted that Christians must be separated from the world by their adherence to the Christian faith and moral norms. Jesus’ presence brought divisions that often ran through the very heart of the family and society. Thus, the divisions caused by God’s messengers and adherents had salvific potential because they called for reflection on, and re-examination of, life, in hope that, in the words of the Psalmist, “many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.”
Listening to the Word of God
The message of today’s liturgy is challenging and difficult. We are used to thinking about Christianity as a religion of peace. This is certainly true. However, it must be acknowledged that, in its two-thousand-year-long history, this faith has brought numerous divisions into the world.
When speaking about divisions we must carefully distinguish between the damaging divisions caused by human malice in various forms and that division which emerge as a result of standing up for what is right and true. Divisions which Christianity and its adherents bring into the world should always be of the second kind.
A story comes to mind of a certain religious sister working with a native tribal group in a remote rural area. This particular group’s land was being taken over by settlers who happened to come from the same region as the sister, they were her people. The sister would go and stay among the native people and her presence quickly became divisive. Many of those intending to size the land branded her a traitor and even threatened her with death. Others acknowledged their wrongs and sided with her. The settler’s community became fiercely divided. Eventually, it all ended well, and a settlement was reached. The sister’s divisive presence eventually led to peace.
However, many counterexamples can also be cited. We all know of individuals and leaders in the community who bring division because of their selfish ambitions and vices. They divide communities by claiming the allegiance of the members and then manipulate them to serve their purposes. This is an example of the divisions which must be eradicated from Christian communities because when such divisions occur the community is doomed to internal destruction.
Generally, all Christians are called to be a divisive presence in the world, but not by bringing conflict, but by the counter-cultural example of their lives. In today’s world with its lack of moral norms and guidelines, a world where everything is permissible, Christians need to demonstrate a well-focused and clear moral life in the face of laxity and dissolution. Standing up and refusing to partake in corruption, abuse of resources, manipulation and many other practices that go against the teaching of Jesus is a way of standing up against “the sin of the world”. This will surely create divisions around such persons as some will admire them and some will respond with ridicule and harassment. However, the divisions caused by a positive example always carry a salvific potential because of their influence that could be life-changing.
Jesus did bring divisions into the world. His adherents and followers were often singled out for persecution because of their faith and life, as happens to this day. Yet, the divisions Jesus brought were not based on the abuse of power but rather on a peaceful but powerful testimony to the truth about God and the right way to live. As his disciples, we are called to oppose society so often divided by greed and the struggle for power. This opposition takes the form of a visible example of Christian life and values, even if those are unpopular or unfashionable. As spiritual descendants of the early Christians and inspired by the examples of Jeremiah and Jesus, we must firmly stand up for our faith and moral standards, even if doing so brings divisions and opposition. Today’s liturgy assures us that such divisions are ultimately salvific.
“Truth is only visible to those who are able to question what they have been told to believe”.
When was the last time I stood up against something that was wrong or unjust? What was the occasion?
Did I ever oppose someone who was acting justly and correctly because of my own ill will or dislike for that person? What can I do to atone for that?
Response to God
In my daily prayer, I will ardently request God for the clarity of mind to know right from wrong and truth from falsehood and to have the strength to stand for these.
Response to your World
I will identify a piece of behaviour I should challenge or oppose in my Christian community as contrary to Jesus’ teaching and the Christian faith. I will take appropriate action.
As a group, we will discuss in what way we could imitate Jeremiah and address some of the wrongs or errors of the leadership in our community. We will decide on the best way to address these concerns in the spirit of the peaceful but firm challenge.
Lord God, who sent the prophets, and your own Son, into the world to testify to the truth, lead me to a sound understanding of what is right and true so that by my life and by my words I may reveal it to the world. Even if I should become a sign that is opposed and a divisive presence, give me the wisdom to ensure that what I do and say ultimately brings your salvation closer to this world. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, © 1989, 1993. Used with permission.