I have noted before that in order to establish the readings at each Sunday mass the Gospel passage is chosen first and then the remaining texts are selected to anticipate or complement the message of the Gospel. Except for this past Easter season when the Gospel of John took center stage, we have been wending our way through the Gospel of Luke continuously at Sunday masses since last December. Having witnessed him in many other situations, we now meet Jesus as he takes up the theme of opposition to his message.
The point about anticipating the Gospel theme helps to explain why we encounter an otherwise unexpected tone today as we see the prophet Jeremiah thrown into a cistern that he might die there of starvation (though he is eventually rescued). The reading from Jeremiah describing his grim treatment was chosen to foreshadow what happens in the Gospel, where, in the face of persistent misunderstanding and opposition, Jesus speaks some of the most striking words of his ministry — “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” If this “bombshell” from the gentle Good Shepherd were not enough, he drives home his point, adding: There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Luke 12:49, 50-51).
The second reading, from the Epistle to the Hebrews, amplifies this theme, urging disciples of the Lord to “consider how [Jesus] endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb 12:3). The author of Hebrews adds a note underlining our own need to be prepared to face opposition on account of our beliefs: “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood” (12:4). Amid these dire straits hope comes from the Psalmist: “The Lord heard my cry. He drew me out of the pit of destruction, out of the mud of the swamp” (Ps 40:2-3).
The scriptures are telling us that just as the prophet Jeremiah was opposed by his own countrymen, and just as Jesus himself suffered misunderstanding from his own disciples and persecution from many others, so too we can expect opposition as we seek to live our faith in Christ and his Kingdom. What then does Jesus mean by his unusually sharp words regarding “setting the earth on fire” and coming to establish, not peace on the earth, but “division”? These almost certainly refer to the split that would arise between the closest of friends and relatives over the message of the Kingdom of God that Jesus constantly preached.
The words of the Lord himself confirm this: “From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son…a mother against her daughter…a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law” (Luke 12:52-53). We are not defeated when we confront opposition to our faith or misunderstanding of it, however, because we take courage in the advice of the Epistle to the Hebrews and look to Jesus himself as our inspiration: “Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb 12:3).
Like Jeremiah the prophet, like the author of Hebrews and like so many Christians through the centuries, we should not be surprised nor “lose heart” when those close to us reject the Gospel. Rather, we who claim to be disciples of Jesus must live our faith in its fullness, hoping that either our justice or mercy—both manifested humbly—might win back those who have turned away.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Image of Jeremiah from the Cistine Chapel by Michelangelo.