20th Sunday of the Year – August 18, 1974 – CNR
The sayings of Jesus gathered in the passage of Luke’s Gospel we have just heard, are among the fiercest the Gospels record. They present a Jesus who is the opposite of the figure portrayed in a certain liberal theology of the past as also in those images of Christ today which stress rather the “sweetness-and-light” version of Christianity. The Jesus of these sayings would be, for any generation, an uncomfortable figure to know and to approach.
The sayings effect something of a revolution in Jewish expectation of the Messiah. It had long been expected that the age of the Messiah would be introduced by an age of woe, of violent warfare, which would include the division of a household, father against son, daughter against mother (Mic 7:6). The coming of the Messiah himself, however, would bring these woes to an end, and he would introduce a reign of endless peace.
This is the image Jesus is attacking. The Messiah comes not as the conclusion of this age of division; he himself provokes it by his life and teaching. And furthermore, and this was even harder for the contemporaries of Jesus to comprehend, he himself would be a victim of the division he caused. The fire he came to light would consume him; he would himself be plunged into the baptism of death. For that reason, he demands of any prospective disciple that be consider, whether he can undergo the baptism Jesus would undergo, whether he loves father or mother or children more than Jesus, whether he is ready to leave all things and follow Jesus.
These sayings, and others like them, must at least make us consider on what grounds, for what purposes, at what cost, we are willing to follow after Christ. Does our discipleship involve some sense of the transcendence of his claim? Or does it fit rather smoothly into a general view of the world and of our life shared by contemporaries who show no special interest in Christ? Or do we consider that the sword of division that Jesus claimed to bring no longer falls upon our life, our thoughts, our decisions? What do we mean when we call ourselves his disciples? How far are we willing to follow him, and why?
It is the Jesus who prompts such questions whom we hear speaking today. If there are moments in which we are entitled to draw mainly comfort from his words and deeds, there must also be times when his radical authority to claim all from us is made sharply clear. Otherwise we will be lost–and lose him, too–in a sea of sentiment. The Gospel generally reveals Jesus to have been the least sentimental of men, and we may be grateful that such sayings as we have heard today expose us to the sharp edge of his Word, which heals only because it cuts so deep.
20th Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 19, 2007 – Blessed Sacrament
We have in our second readings been following the Epistle to the Hebrews. Last week we heard a selection from chapter 11, which is a lengthy discussion of faith. It offered something of a definition of faith as “the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things unseen.” But rather than continue a more or less speculative discussion of faith, the author illustrated what faith is by the examples of great figures from the Old Testament. He began with Cain, Enoch and Noah, spent much time on Abraham and Sarah, and Moses and Rahab, before simply listing several other figures, and ended with an evocation of the martyrs in the time of the Maccabees. Faith is what marked all these people, he says, at the dramatic moments of their encounters with God, and especially when they were put to a test.
All of these figures, we have just heard, are “a great cloud of witnesses” that surround Christians, people whose example should support them as they try to “run with perseverance the race that lies before them,” so that they will not “grow weary and lose heart” in a struggle which, the author tells them, could lead to the shedding of their blood. We are still in the early days of Christianity, when persecution and even death was a distinct possibility, a threat that only faith would enable people to resist.
Something of that same test is described in the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel. He describes his own ministry in dramatic terms, as bringing fire on the earth, as a baptism he has to undergo–a baptism of fire he will himself experience. He knows that the effect of his preaching and work will be, not to bring peace, but to create divisions so severe that they can divide families. This is a portrait of Jesus that conflicts with a common view of him, even with other things he says about himself, as, for example, “gentle and humble-of-heart,” as leaving us peace as his farewell gift to us. There is drama here, distress even on his part, what the Epistle calls his enduring the cross, despising the shame, and there is the need for decision on our part. If little of that drama marks our Christian lives, we might ask what kind of decisions, separations even, might be required if we were to take our Christianity more seriously than we do?
This is where that great “cloud of witnesses” come in. We Christians, of course, can invoke a much longer list of heroes and heroines of the faith, from the apostles on to the great saints of the tradition, from the well-known objects of devotion to the largely unknown, from people of long ago to people perhaps of our own acquaintance, who met the tests of their lives–often more challenging than the ones we face–and met them with faith and an unfailing love of God and neighbor. We should be more aware of them than we commonly are. At every Mass we say that we join in the endless hymn of praise the angels and saints are singing to God, and we ought to make real to ourselves that as we are singing the “Holy, holy, holy!” they are here singing it with us, and from the presence of these brothers and sisters we ought to feel ourselves strengthened and supported in our efforts to run our own race.