Today Jesus makes very strong statements which seem to be at odds with what we think of his message of peace and reconciliation. How are we to reconcile the Jesus who preaches nonviolence in the Sermon on the Mount with the Jesus who says in today’s Gospel Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. And with the Jesus who then promises the most painful kinds of division—within households, even between parents and children.” (Luke 12:49-53)
Those harsh statements remind us of the warning Simeon gave to Jesus’ parents when they took him, as an eight-day old child, to the Temple. He said: this child is destined for the fall and for the rising of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is rejected. (Luke 2:34). And they remind us too that Jesus’ public life was one of constant rejection – from the beginning of his ministry when he aroused opposition in the synagogue at Nazareth (which led him to declare that no prophet is accepted in his own country) to its end with the divided response of the two thieves who were crucified on either side of him.
As we know only two well from current events (Brexit?) households are often divided by passionately held opinions. In the early days of Christianity to take Jesus seriously and follow him meant changing your way of life. It still does. So it is not surprising that this makes some people feel uncomfortable, both then and now. It’s not that by following Jesus you deliberately cut yourself off from your family, as some religious cults require, but, rather, that they may do it to you.
In today’s reading Jesus uses the analogy of fire to describe his mission and its effect on people: he causes fires to break out, arguments to erupt, families to quarrel and become divided.
The First Reading (Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10) gives an earlier example of someone else who suffered for his challenging words. Jeremiah lived before and during the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 576 BC. The Jewish king, Zedekiah, sought Jeremiah’s counsel but could not accept being told they faced military disaster and exile. Jeremiah was proved right but, nevertheless, he suffered for it.
There is no doubt that Jesus saw himself as a prophet who would suffer the same fate of the great prophetic figures in Jewish history – like Elijah and Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel – who also experienced rejection. Hence, his declaration: there is a baptism I must still receive, and how great is my distress till it is over.
Thinking of this ‘baptism’ of suffering that Jesus endured, the author of the Second Reading (Hebrews 12:1-4) asks us to think of the way he (Jesus) stood such opposition from sinners and then you will not give up for the want of courage. Here Jesus is presented as a model for Christian perseverance through tough challenges.
Earlier this year the former Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, reported that the persecution of Christians in parts of the world is at near “genocide” levels. A Report he commissioned last year estimated that one in three people suffer from religious persecution and that Christians are the most persecuted religious group. It warned that Christianity “is at risk of disappearing” in some parts of the world, pointing to figures which claimed Christians in Palestine now represent less than 1.5% of the population, while in Iraq they had fallen from 1.5 million before 2003 to less than 120,000.
We remember and pray in our Mass today for people who are being persecuted for their faith. They are painfully following the same path Jesus trod before them. But as today’s Scriptures remind us, they and we also will endure whatever comes in our own lives if we have the trust in God the Father that Jesus had, for it is this that will sustain us through any and all rejection.
Holy Name, Jesmond
18 August 2019