Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time • Year C

Francis E. Chambers, O.S.A.
Villanova University
Villanova, Pennsylvania

Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10
Psalm 40:2, 3, 4, 18
Hebrews 12:1-4
Luke 12:49-53

There is a saying: “the rabbi spoke not to hurt but to heal.”

Our readings for this Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time have some strong and challenging language. Let us sit with the message for us today.

In the Old Testament, a prophet (in Hebrew, nabi, which suggests “madman”), is one who speaks for another and challenges the community in its unfaithfulness.

That is the situation is today’s first reading from the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Called to challenge the community to faithfulness when it has strayed from God’s commands is not a popular message. King Zedekiah wants assurance, not an oracle of doom or defeat, as he would consider it. So the desire to silence the prophet, one way or another, is clear. In this case, it is accomplished by lowering Jeremiah into a cistern. But the prophet must be faithful to the call no matter what, even if it brings rejection and suffering.

Our gospel continues that challenging message by Jesus. We can sense that Jesus himself realizes what lies ahead. His journey to Jerusalem will bring rejection, suffering as a prophet might well encounter, and a violent death at that. However, like the prophet Jeremiah, we can also sense Jesus’ resoluteness to lead others away from slavery, especially to the slavery of sin, by his message. In our gospel, Jesus is no less forgiving in this responsibility to the faithfulness of the message than Jeremiah was. That requires great fortitude and that is what Christ is modeling for us. Christ’s life shows a different way from that of sin and slavery and idolatry, to submission to God’s will.

Fire is a symbol of judgment. But as Jesus makes clear, he didn’t come to create division per se, but to create an acceptance of truth. But here is the rub. What Jesus is trying to instill in his disciples is a passion, a zeal, (the madman?) for truth, to build the kingdom as he did. Jesus is quite honest in noting that faithfulness to the message can, and often does, result in the break-up of close and long established relationships. That is the division to which he refers.

What Jesus is saying is we have to make a decision. How are we living? By what values? Are these values gospel values in imitation of him? Are we building the kingdom of God? Are we serving others? Are we loving others before self?

Of course, here in the United States we know division. In one of his essays, the spiritual writer Ronald Rolheiser states: “We live in a time of bitter division…there are tensions and divisions about politics, religion, and versions of the truth…sadly, these divisions have brought out the worst in us…common civility has broken down to widespread lack of common courtesy, disrespect, demonization and hatred of each other…

The infamous 2017 Charlottesville, VA protests.

Daniel Berrigan affirms that ‘a prophet makes a vow of love, not of alienation’…our dominant tone must be one of love, not anger or hatred…whenever we find ourselves descending to adolescent name-calling, we can be sure we have fallen out of discipleship, out of prophecy.”

Once again in our discipleship we walk a tightrope between faithfulness to the message which may bring division and fire, and respect for others as they come to know the truth. But we must be faithful to the message which has been entrusted to us. We cannot be intimidated by the response of the hearer to the message, we must be mindful of how we speak the message. But we must be faithful to the decision that was made for us in baptism – to live gospel values and to preach them with our lives.

Perhaps our second reading from Hebrews can offer us some solace. We are reminded that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” that is, those who have gone before us with the same challenge, yet were faithful to the message regardless of the cost.

Think for a moment of someone in your own life that modeled this way of living in the world, in addition to Christ.

What can you take from this example? What can you give as an example?