Aug. 17, 2019

TWENTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2019

IS JESUS REALLY SETTING THE WORLD ON FIRE?

Readings: 1st- Jer. 38:4-6, 8-10; 2nd- Heb. 12:1-4; Gospel- Lk. 12:49-53

The gospel of today presents a scary side of Jesus’ mission as he declares, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” (Lk. 12:49). What exactly does Jesus mean? Isn’t Satan identified with hell-fire? Is Jesus signifying a different fire here?

Fire is defined as a chemical process of combustion, releasing heat, light, and sometimes causing destruction. That means that the fire that Jesus speaks about will produce similar elements such as heat, light, and perhaps cause destruction. Jesus speaks of the baptism with which he must be baptized, and which produces anguish in him. That’s his passion, suffering, and death. It is a form of baptism, an immersion. Often, we describe an experience of suffering as “baptism of fire”. Jesus’ journey to Calvary was a form of “baptism of fire.” His passing from death to life will also set the world on fire, the fire that purifies and separates but also destroys.

Jesus’ fire will cause family division in one sense. Those who do not believe in God will always oppose believers in that family. Those who see God as an obstacle will always feel uncomfortable. The fire of the Holy Spirit will in turn strengthen those who profess their faith in Christ. Resistance and opposition characterize are trials against faith. Jesus declares that a household will divide: three against two and two against three; father against son and son against father, mother and daughter against each other, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law against each other. By this, Jesus warns against compromise and lukewarm attitude to faith. The light of faith will illumine and purify on another end. Its fire will also frighten, destroy and consume those who stand in the way of the gospel.

The prophet Jeremiah reinforced this message in the first reading. In the 7th Century, when the King Zedekiah and the princes of the kingdom failed to defend truth and justice, the prophet set the entire kingdom on spiritual fire. Jeremiah proclaimed a message that enraged the king and his princes. Contrary to their expectations, Jeremiah had announced that the city would be overrun by the king and that Babylon would capture it in the process. His message conflicted with the military strategy put in place by the princes. Seen as sabotage, the princes set the prophet Jeremiah up before the king. They accused Jeremiah of demoralizing the soldiers and the people. The king succumbed to their conspiracy and had Jeremiah cast into the cistern. Jeremiah is humiliated and shamed but not discouraged.

A foreign court official named Ebed-melech warned the king against Jeremiah’s torture and requested that he be freed from the muddy cistern. The weak and unstable king Zedekiah agreed. Jeremiah’s experience is also a form of “baptism by fire.” Jeremiah faced persecution. He’s thrown into a cistern with mud. He was purified in the process. King Zedekiah, on the other hand, is a symbol of weakness to be destroyed by fire on the last day.

The Hebrews author invites us to persevere in running the race that lies before us, the race of faith. He admonishes us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus who is the author and perfecter of our faith. Jesus’ example is that he endured the cross focusing on the joy that lay ahead. The invitation is therefore to shun sin and to keep Jesus in view all the time. We are invited to be courageous and steadfast in our struggle to do good. The writer concludes, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood” (Heb. 12:4). Isn’t that an invitation to our baptism of fire?

What strikes me is the positive power of the fire that Jesus has come to ignite. His fire cleanses the heart ready to convert. It strengthens the weary hand. It supports the troubled soul. But this fire burns any obstacle on the way of the gospel message. It consumes those caught in the darkness of evil and iniquity. I give you an example: Put a Christian music, a praise and worship song in the room of an unbeliever. Let he music play on and on for a while. The person becomes restless. The song itches her/him. The fire in that music sets the unbeliever ablaze. The kingdom of darkness is miserable by the presence of Light. In the gospel we read, “In him was life; and the life was the light of men.  And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not” (Jn. 1:4-5).

Any family that houses good and evil would always experience conflict. Light and darkness do not stay together. Truth and falsehood do not stay together. Love and hatred do not stay together. Peace and violence do not stay together. However, Jesus encourages us, “But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believed in his name, who were born not from human stock or human desire or human will but from God himself” (Jn. 1:13).

To the answer whether Jesus is setting the world on fire, the answer is yes and no. He is setting the world on fire of God’s love, fire of the Holy Spirit to enkindle the hearts of believers. He is setting the world on fire to be purified and sanctified from sin and shame. Jesus is also setting the world on fire to destroy the powers of darkness. He is setting the world on fire to separate the good from the bad, the kind-hearted from the wicked. That’s how the household of five will be divided three against two, two against three. To be purified by this fire, you must be ready to undergo the baptism of fire just like Jeremiah in the Old Testament reading of today.

May the Heart of Jesus in the Most Blessed Sacrament be praised, adored and glorified at every moment, in all the tabernacles of the world, even till the end of time. Amen.