First reading: Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10
Responsorial Psalm: 39(40):2-4, 18
Second reading: Hebrews 12:1-4
Gospel: Luke 12:49-53
Link to readings
Once again, a very challenging set of readings confronts the preacher today.
The episode told in the First Reading, Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10, occurred when the Babylonians were besieging Jerusalem around the year 588 BCE. The persecution of the prophet Jeremiah stemmed from his opposition to the pro-Egypt policy of powerful advisers of the King Zedekiah.
They sought to gain complete independence for Judah by playing off one leading power (Egypt) against another (Babylon). With prophetic insight Jeremiah saw that this would lead to the destruction of the kingdom at the hands of the Babylonians (which in fact it did). He urged Zedekiah to preserve the nation by coming to terms with the Babylonian king and paying tribute. Adopting this unpopular stance led to his being thrown into the well and left to die there, as described in the reading.
The fate of Jeremiah provides a prophetic precedent and context for Jesus’ words in the Gospel (Luke 12:49-53). Ironically, however, while Jeremiah urged a 'peace' policy (with the Babylonians), Jesus – provocatively – states that he has not come to bring peace. This, of course, conflicts with the announcement of the heavenly host to the shepherds on the night of his birth: “Glory to God in the highest and, on earth, peace to those who enjoy God’s favour” (2:14). However, even in the same Infancy story of the Gospel, the old man Simeon, in the second part of his oracle, had already foretold that “this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed, so that that thoughts out of many hearts would be revealed” (2:34-35).
CONVERSION OF THE HEART
This gives us the clue to resolve the apparent contradiction. The “peace” that Jesus brings is not a facile thing. It only becomes effective in the context of true conversion of heart. Jesus’ message does not leave the depths of human beings untouched. Probing beneath a superficial pleasantness and acceptance, it brings deep-seated prejudice, narrowness, and selfishness to the surface, where such negative qualities can be confronted and healed. But many resist challenge and healing at this level. They react negatively – violently even (the scene in the synagogue at Nazareth, 4:16-30, is the perfect illustration). So what should be a message of peace ends up as a violent confrontation.
This pattern is the background to Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel. The increasing hostility to his message that he encountering will come to a climax as he approaches Jerusalem, the city of destiny. This leads him to see himself as a person who provokes prophetic hostility rather than peace.
It seems best to understand the 'fire' that Jesus says he has come to bring to the earth as the gift of the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist had prophesied that, whereas he himself baptised with water, the coming One would baptise 'with the Holy Spirit and fire' (3:16). And indeed at Pentecost the gathered disciples will received the Spirit in the visible form of 'tongues as if of fire' (Acts 2:3). But the Spirit cannot be given until Jesus has faced and gone through the destiny that awaits him in Jerusalem.
This painful destiny Jesus describes as a 'baptism' with which he is stressed until it be 'accomplished'. He is not using the word 'baptism' with reference to the Christian sacrament of Baptism. The Greek word baptizo refers to being dipped in water. Jesus is speaking of 'baptism' according to a biblical usage where being immersed in water out of control is a standard image for being overwhelmed by troubles and hostility (e.g., Pss 42:7; 69:1-2; 88:7, 16-17). 'Baptism', then, refers to the suffering and death that awaits him in Jerusalem.
What we have, then, is a glimpse of the anguish afflicting Jesus at this point of his mission. On the one hand, his passionate desire is to communicate to people a sense of the divine love that drives his mission and which is the essence of the experience of the Spirit. On the other hand, this communication of the Spirit cannot take place until he has personally confronted and overcome, through death and resurrection, the hostility to divine love lurking in the human heart. He is caught in a terrible tension between the reality of God’s love and the reality of the world to which, in his own person, that divine love reaches out.
This tension affects also the hearts of those to whom his summons is directed, reaching back into inter-family relationships as well. Hence the startling message in the concluding words of the Gospel. Families are the best nurturing ground for human beings and indeed for religious values. But families can often hold people in prejudices and captivities resistant to the gospel and the following of Jesus. “Peace” is the fruit of conversion.