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August 14 2016 (C) Twentieth Sunday of Year

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. Reflection & Dialogue: The Church in dialogue with division.

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

First Reading (Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10), You have borne me to be a man of dissension for all the land. This Old Testament reading has been chosen to match the passage in today’s Gospel reading in which Jesus speaks of his mission and of the divisions that will accompany his coming on earth. The prophet Jeremiah was in his time a man of dissention. He proclaimed the prophetic word of God without fear, and his preaching brought about division and persecution on the prophet himself. Jeremiah symbolized the prophetic calling and was a type of Jesus as well. Jeremiah’s activity spanned a long period during the last days of the kingdom of Judah. The Babylonian empire had already taken control of the country and the city of Jerusalem itself was in danger. Jeremiah’s constant message was to submit to Babylonian rule. In God’s plan its kingdom would be short lived – seventy years or so. Egypt, however, for its own political reason was inciting the army of Judah to rebel, and for this the army was willing and ready. The ruling king Zedekiah was weak and had little control over the course of events. It was quite clear that rebellion spelt only one thing: the destruction of the city and the end of Judah as an independent or semi-independent state. The background to this present passage is that it was clear that the Babylonian army would soon besiege the city. The anti-Babylonian army considered the activity of the prophet Jeremiah as demoralizing, and wanted rid of him. The weak king Zedekiah was powerless to intervene. The army leaders did not want to kill Jeremiah directly, but rather to let him die in a well with mud, but no water. The month was most probably August 587-586 B.C., shortly before the Babylonian forces reached the city. Jeremiah was saved by the good offices of the Ethiopian Ebed-Melch, an official in the king’s palace.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 39[4]). Lord, come to my aid.

Second Reading (Hebrews 12:1-4). We shall keep running steadily in the race we have started. The author of this letter of encouragement has just completed listing his great “cloud of witnesses”, from Abel to the prophets and others, who have borne witness to God’s plan over the centuries without having reached the awaited goal, the fulfilment of the promises. In this present reading he turns to the lesson to be drawn for all this by his readers, whose belief in Christ seems to be under pressure. As an image for his message he chooses the race. The Christian life is a race to be run. In this race a handicap, the burden of sin, is to be cast aside and the course finished. This means perseverance, and keeping one’s eye on the goal, Jesus who in this race both leads us in our faith and also brings it to perfection. Jesus is also presented as the one who has, so the speak, run the race and endured the cross, knowing the joy to follow. Jesus, having run the course, is already perfect, and can also bring our faith to perfection. He is the “pioneer”, the forerunner, in the race and sets the example. The author of this letter lays stress on the trials and sufferings Jesus endured during his life and passion. Meditation on these sufferings of Christ should strengthen against faintheartedness and lack of courage in time of trails. At the end of his exhortation the author changes the image from the race to the boxing ring, and the shedding of blood.

           

The Gospel (Luke 12:49-53). I am not here to bring peace, but rather division. The meaning of the first two sentences of this passage is not clear because of the metaphorical language used. It is clear, however, that in them Jesus is speaking of why he came on earth, on the central position of his person in the Father’s plan and of the divisions to arise because of his coming, and of the demands he makes. He came to cast fire on the earth. Fire is a metaphor for judgment and cleansing, Jesus wishes that that fire were already blazing. It would arrive and become active with the coming and work of the Holy Spirit. The baptism he mentions is not the future sacrament, but a metaphor for disaster, the plunging into the passion and the pains of the cross. Jesus had already referred to that baptism to the apostles James and John (Mark 10:38-39). In the early church a connection was seen between that baptism of Jesus in his passion and death and the Christian sacrament, in which the newly baptized believers were plunged into the mystery of the baptism of his passion and death. The “distress”, “constraint”, “tension” felt by Jesus to have his “baptism” over, probably means the same as the desire he felt to have the fire already blazing. He was anxious that his death come and was aware of the consequences to follow, which he said would be division rather than peace. Jesus is the prince of peace. His usual greeting to his own was “Peace be with you”. He left his peace as a heritage with his disciples. But an inevitable consequence of his coming would for a number be division, rather than peace, division between those who would become his followers and those who would reject him and his teaching, division even within the same household. Already in the Temple, with Jesus as a child, Simeon had told he mother that this would be the case. Jesus was set for the falling and rising of many in Israel (Luke 2:34).

B. Reflection & Dialogue: The Church in dialogue with division.

Reflection. Today’s readings give us rich material for reflection. We, present-day Christians, are heirs to a great cloud of witnesses. From the very beginnings of the Church’s history the followers of Christ experienced persecution of one kind or another. Early in his ministry we find Paul and his fellow missioner Barnabas encouraging new converts and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). In the passage from the Letter to the Hebrews read today strong stress is laid on perseverance. The same messages holds true for our own day.

Dialogue. What Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading on the connection between his person and division, even the absence of peace, provides us with a strong invitation for dialogue. Christ is the Prince of Peace who has made a strong plea for unity. All are well aware of his words that he is the good shepherd and that there were other sheep that were not of his fold, sheep that will heed his voice, so that there will be one flock and one shepherd (John 10:14-16). These words are often cited. But this does not permit us to forget the divisions connected with the person of Jesus by reason of the demands he makes and the mystery that is his person, continued in the Church which is his body. And indeed, already after his statement about himself as good shepherd, the Gospel text goes on to say that there was again a division among the Jews because of these words. Jesus came to the world and the world did not know him; he came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. In the early Church there was division between the Jewish and Gentile Christians. Division continued between Christians over the centuries, the major division in the West coming with the Reformation, and remaining with us today.

            The examples we have considered concern divisions among Christian believers. The divisions today between Christ and what he stands for and much of contemporary society run far deeper, between the Christian vision and that of atheism, humanism, liberalism and other movements. For believers, Christ is the saviour of the world, and the Christian vision of personal and public morality covers many aspects of human behaviour. These other ideologies mentioned also have a vision of life and human society which they believe should be governed without any reference to, or influence from, the voice of God or of Jesus. The Church and believers must, as far as possible, engage in dialogue with the new reality.

            It is a question of dialogue, not criticism. Both Christ, the Church and humanism have a rather absolute vision of the world, the human person, and matters relating to them. In the view of philosophical humanism faith is an impediment to human development. For Christ himself and his followers, Christ is the Saviour of the world. This dialogue implies that the arguments of humanism be examined and responded to by the Christian position. Believers should not be afraid of such dialogue. In a sense, fidelity to Christ and the Christian inheritance indicates it.