20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 14, 2016
4:00pm at Saint Mary Parish, Pylesville
11:00am at Saint Matthew Parish, Baltimore
What Does Jesus Mean?
Today’s gospel is not one of those warm passages of Scripture.
It is very different from Jesus saying, “Come to me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you.” And it is very different from Jesus praying, “I pray that they may be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you.”
And, of course, it is very different from our prayers here at Mass. We don’t say, “May the division of the Lord be with you,” but “May the peace of the Lord be with you.”
This passage can seem out-of-sync, almost contradictory to the rest of the gospel. So, I ask, we can ask: what does Jesus really mean here?
I think the key to understanding this lies in the three images that Jesus uses. 1) Fire, 2) Baptism and 3) Division.
Scripture commentaries say that fire is an image for choice.
So Jesus is saying that sometimes we will have to make a choice to follow his way or not. We will have to discern and choose right from wrong.
This will be true for children who are tempted to go onto the Internet when their parents have told them not to, or for business people in their dealings with customers. The image of fire says that Jesus calls us to make choices.
And then, when Jesus speaks of baptism here, maybe surprisingly, he is not talking about the sacrament.
Scripture experts tell us that this means our willingness to be immersed at times not in water but in suffering. The idea is that some of the choices we have to make will be uncomfortable.
So maybe we’re looked down upon and talked about because we will not participate in a conversation that negatively stereotypes certain people, especially those who are different from us in some way. The image of baptism says that Jesus calls us to accept some suffering as a result of the choices we make.
And then – and here’s the most confusing of the ideas – Jesus says that he has come for division and not for peace.
This also flows from the image of fire or our choice to follow the way of Jesus. The idea is that sometimes our choices will divide us from others.
So our youth who say no to alcohol or drugs or sex may find themselves divided from some of their peers. This is the kind of division that Jesus means.
Who Causes Division?
But notice: it is not Jesus who causes the division.
Jesus never intends, never wants and himself never causes division. Just page through the gospels and look at Jesus’ life.
Jesus never divides himself from anyone. And he never divides anyone else from himself.
His being with those who were isolated and on the margins of society and with those labelled as sinners is clear proof of this. There is no division here.
In fact, this is one of the traits of Jesus that some people choose – they choose to reject. Some of the people of Jesus’ day hold themselves above and beyond certain others and think Jesus should do the same.
So they reject Jesus. They divide themselves from him and, in the end, they precipitate his crucifixion.
This, I suggest, is the division that Jesus foresees. He foresees that his humble, open, embracing way would be hard for some people to accept and that is why he speaks of division.
Still, the example or model that Jesus himself gives is not division but relationship and oneness, no matter how right we think we are and how wrong we think others are. Jesus sees this as the way for everyone to grow closer to God.