Jer 3:4-6,8-10; Heb 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53
Some of you are familiar with St. Thomas More. He was not only a famous scholar and writer; he was also a public servant, a judge, a diplomat, a member of the King of England’s private Council and king’s favorite. Above all, he was a person whose fidelity to God and commitment to justice and truth could not be compromised even under threat of death.
In 1527, King Henry VIII who was legally married to Catherine of Aragon decided to marry Ann Bolyn. In March 1534, he coerced the parliament to pass a bill stating that what he did was right and all those who were asked to do so must publicly declare that it was right. Thomas, a godly man and a prominent public figure was told to make the declaration. He insisted and publicly disobeyed the King’s manipulation. He was executed.
Jesus uses strong words in today’s gospel: “I have come to set the earth on fire…Do you think that I have come to establish peace on earth? No, but rather division.”
“Fire!” Fire can do many different kinds of things. Fire can make something strong; that is why we put pots on fire. Fire can make something soft; that is why we put a piece of iron into the fire, it turns red and then you can bend it. Fire gives us light… as in candle, kerosene lamp or electric bulb. Fire takes away pain. If you have sprained ankle or swollen hand, heat helps the pain to go away. But do not play on fire it can destroy you and your property.
The message of Jesus is like a fire because it changes, it purifies and refines us. This message of Jesus makes us loyal to Him.
When we come to Jesus, we do not expect fire. But this is what we get in today’s gospel. When we come to Jesus, we expect consolation and peace but Jesus’ words today are words of conflict and division. What’s going on here? First of all, it is important to note that when Jesus says he has come to set the world on fire, he is not speaking prescriptively but descriptively. That is, he is not prescribing or decreeing that there should be divisions on earth. He is rather describing what will happen in this world when we follow him.
In the imperfect and often unjust world in which we live, speaking the truth, standing up for what is right, is not always welcome. It often causes fire. You just said no to your teenager. “No, you’re not going to the mall with your friends, when there’s work to be done here at home. No, you’re not going to an unsupervised party, even if everyone else is.” There’s an angry comment, a slam of the bedroom door, and silence. You have done the right thing, but now there’s fire.
You are out with some friends, maybe at a party or at lunch period at school. One of them speaks up and cruelly demeans another person, because of their religion, race, or their sexual orientation. For a minute you think you will let it slip, but then you speak out against the comment. The people around you are surprised. Some of them hear what you are saying but others dismiss you as a hopeless fool. You have said the right thing, but you have also caused division.
How wonderful it would be if following Jesus was easy. When we stand for what is right or speak the truth, how great it would be to be greeted by applause. But this is not the world in which we live. So Jesus is telling us today that if we wish to assist him in building the kingdom of God, if we wish to contribute to making the world better and more just, then we cannot be afraid of fire.
In this sense maybe the words of Jesus are comforting after all. Often when we think of being a disciple or trying to be holy we imagine ourselves as being docile or peaceful. So, when we do or say things that get people upset or angry, we can begin to worry whether we are really doing what we should. Jesus comforts us in today’s Gospel. He tells us that speaking the truth and standing for what is right, even if it causes division, is not only compatible with the gospel but essential to it.
None of us wants to anger or upset people. But avoiding these things cannot be our top priority. Our fundamental obligation is to speak the truth and to make choices which are right. If we do this, we will be following Jesus—even if we set things on fire.