Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Alvin D. Paligutan, O.S.A.
Villanova Preparatory School
Ojai, California

Jer 38: 4-6, 8-10
Ps 40: 2-4, 18
Heb 12: 1-4
Lk 12: 49-53

Fire is an important element in our world. Our lighted candles here in the church, for example, give us light and are symbols of God’s presence in our lives. Burning fire in our fireplaces makes us warm on a cold winter day. But fires can also be deadly, as we know from the yearly wildfires we get here in California in the summer and the fall.

In Luke’s Gospel this morning, Jesus shocked his disciples when he said that he would cast fire and cause division rather than peace on earth. What kind of fire did Jesus have in mind? Fire during the time of the Bible was associated with God, with God’s actions in the world and in the lives of his people. God sometimes made his presence known through fire, such as the burning bush which was not consumed when God spoke to Moses, in the book of Exodus. The image of fire also symbolized God’s glory, his protective presence, God’s holiness and anger against sin. God’s fire both purifies and cleanses, and it inspires a reverent fear of God and of his word in us.

What does it mean to be on fire for God? It means loving God above all else, loving our neighbors, forgiving our enemies and helping each other. It means living God’s word, the words we hear in these readings and in the Gospel every week. Being on fire for God means being “for” God, rather than being against him. The letter to the Hebrews, our second reading, gives us good advice, by saying “let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies ahead.” That race is our very lives ahead of us, our journeys to get to God. While living our lives, we are invited, we are called to “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader of our faith.”

Jesus says that even family loyalties would be challenged on the basis of whether people accepted the kingdom of God or not. The point or essence of Christianity is loyalty to Jesus Christ, a loyalty that takes precedence over every other relationship. The love of God compels us to choose who will be first in our lives. To place any relationship (or anything else, such as money, power, our jobs and other people) above God is really a form of idolatry or dishonesty. We are not being true to ourselves if we put these other relationships above God. God is the source of true happiness and if we love God first, we will be able to love other people in our lives. The love we have for our families, our friends and the people in our lives flows from the love of God.

Jesus therefore challenges his disciples, challenges us to examine who we love first and foremost. A true disciple loves God before all else and is willing to forsake all for Jesus Christ. This sounds tough, not an easy thing to do (as if only the saints can do it), and it will take a lifetime of working on our relationships with God, a lifetime of loving God and loving and forgiving our neighbors. But then again, this is not impossible; it is actually very possible, my dear sisters and brothers, and it is our calling, our response to God’s never-ending love for us. It is our response to God’s faithfulness to us and generosity in our lives, even before we were born.

Jesus insists that his disciples, all of us, give him the loyalty which is only due to God, a loyalty which is higher than spouse or kin. It is possible that family and friends can become our enemies, if they keep us from loving God and our neighbors and if they keep us from doing what we know God wants us to do.

We need to pray that God’s love can consume us and transform our lives so that we can be more open, more willing to love God and love our neighbors. We need to pray for the strength, the courage, wisdom and faithfulness necessary to keep up our loving relationships with God and with one another.