Sunday 18th August
20th Sunday after Ordinary Time
9th Sunday after Trinity
(Weekday readings - Year C)
1st Reading Jeremiah 23:23-29
2nd Reading Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Gospel Luke 12:49-56
Our gospel today appears to run very much against most of what the New Testament says about peace. It is a gospel proclaiming conflict and disunity, whereas the gospel writers almost always recount Jesus preaching a gospel of peace. Amongst the Epistle writers, St Paul in particular empathises that Christian communities should strive constantly for peace in unity What then prompted today’s exceptional gospel from Jesus? It’s difficult to know, but from the looks of the passage, it appears that there might have been some some who were trying to make the Gospel ‘nice’ by damping down all possible controversy surrounding Jesus, and the kingdom he was proclaiming. Maybe there were some who were seeing the stir Jesus was causing with the religious establishment of his day and who were saying, “Can’t we just all get along? Live and let live. We agree on more than we disagree on. We’re all on the same team. So let’s get together—Pharisees, Sadducees, Chief Priests, Jesus, Jesus’ disciples—and all start pulling our oars in the same direction.” Apparently, then as now, it was easy to turn Jesus into the sort of figure in whom you could see whatever you wanted. Some people still talk about Jesus in such terms today. He is here to validate the best and brightest of whoever you are and whatever you want. On this score, following Jesus is mostly about being nice, about getting along, about endorsing any and every viewpoint.
But in contradiction to this, what seems clear, is that on this occasion Jesus is counteracting what he perceived to be a false impression of who he was and what his ministry was about. He did not come to prop up the old ways. He did not come to perpetuate more of the same. The kingdom Jesus proclaims is radical and represents this world turned upside down. Christianity is the only religion which worships the scapegoat, the one who is hated, excluded, spat upon, blamed for everything, ridiculed, shamed, and made expendable. Christianity is the only religion that focuses on imitating the victim and which sees God in the vulnerable, suffering and abused. His kingdom did not fit in neatly with the kingdoms of this world and so a strong measure of disruption simply had to be expected.
There are some important lessons to be learned from this for own day. We live in a culture which scapegoats some people to the benefit of the others and then identifies success and prosperity with the ways of those who have created the scapegoats. The rise of populist politics and the politics of anger which is building in our own time has all the hallmarks of this crude scapegoating, whether the victims be immigrants, refugees, those of different race, so called ‘benefit scroungers’, etc etc.. Our own culture, like every other culture past and present, creates categories of human beings that it deems expendable and then subsequently victimizes them through exclusion, ridicule, and sometimes through actual death. The ones who constitute these categories shift slightly from time to time, but there is always a common denominator in that amongst the scapegoated you will almost always find those who are the weakest. But God is not to be confusedly identified with the myths of success, power, glamour, and popularity. He is on the side of the victim, standing with the one who is shut out, ignored, or abused and oppressed.
Jesus knew that his work and the in-breaking of his kingdom were so radical that they would bring a measure of distress, even to the point of pulling families apart. He certainly was not particularly eager to see such mayhem but what he clearly eager to see was the arrival of the kingdom itself. He expressed a deep desire to see the fire kindled because he knew better than anyone how badly this world needs the fire of renewal that God’s kingdom represents. And if that new kingdom could come in no other way than to cause the conflict Jesus foresees, then that was the way it would have to be. The main thing was that the kingdom will come.
The ways of the world and the ways of the Kingdom are dramatically different. However the problem is that demarcation lines don’t usually run neatly and clearly through our lives. We often can’t see them easily. Rather, differences between the world’s way of doing things and the kingdom’s way of doing things zig-zag through our lives such that each of us sooner or later becomes adept at picking and choosing. We’ll let Jesus have this part of our lives but not that part. We’ll maybe let the kingdom influence our decision-making at home but not so much at work. We’ll let Jesus have our Sunday mornings but not our Saturday nights. Picking and choosing like this makes life easier. It reduces conflict. It helps everyone to get along better with everyone else. Surely even Jesus would want that kind of peace and serenity for our lives, wouldn’t he?
Well this Gospel says perhaps not. In one of our prayers we say that in Jesus ‘Righteousness and peace have kissed each other’ and that is perhaps the key message about peace and conflict. True peace can only ever exist where there is true and righteousness justice. That is something we will never achieve fully in a fallen world, but to try and substitute any lesser peace for it is a sham and a denial of the Kingdom.