When I first looked at our Gospel reading, I said to myself, “I don’t want to preach on this!” That is because Jesus says, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three.” As I have gone on in my life, I have believed that part of living out my vocation was to help bring people together. I have viewed the divisions in our country and around the world with sadness and a desire for healing, and here Jesus tells His disciples that He has come to bring division!
So, what should I think about Jesus’ words? I know there are some who would relish Jesus’ words. They see the situation in the world and in our country as a battle to be waged against the forces of evil. I know that evil exists, but I’m not sure that everyone who disagrees with me is an enemy. I also know that there are some who believe religion has been the source of most, if not all the conflict in our world. I know that people throughout history have killed others in the name of God, but I don’t see that as being true to our faith.
Is Jesus really giving us a license to hate, or to demonize, or to do violence to each other? I can’t get myself to believe that. What I do see Jesus saying is that He would prefer honest conflict rather than a false peace. To follow Jesus is to take a stand for life, for justice, and for love. As I shared some weeks ago, to follow Jesus is to be unsatisfied with what is. We hear this in Jesus’ words: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” The Gospel message goes against the grain of worldly wisdom, and it can give rise to conflict. People are still being persecuted for their faith today.
Is it possible, though, to have conflict without violence? In our first reading from Jeremiah, the answer would seem to be “No.” In that reading, the princes, the ruling class, have decided they can’t take any more of what Jeremiah is saying: “…he is demoralizing the soldiers who are left in this city, and all the people, by speaking such things to them; he is not interested in the welfare of our people, but in their ruin.” They want to do away with him because they won’t listen to the truth. The king, Zedekiah, is helpless to stop them, so they throw the prophet into a cistern to die. A court official, Ebed-melech, however, takes some men, with permission from the king, and rescues Jeremiah from the cistern. Jesus was treated similarly. He was put on the cross because He spoke the truth, and yet, He did not return violence with more violence. As we hear in our second reading from Hebrews: “Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.” For me, Jesus shows that it is possible to have conflict without perpetuating violence. But are we too willing to resort to violence? Are we too willing to dehumanize the “other?”
I think violence and the dehumanization of those who are different are good criteria to help us discern between true prophets and false ones. Which best exemplifies love of God and love of neighbor? Which best follows Jesus’ life of sacrifice and reconciliation? Each of us may see our favorite politician or leader in the role of Jeremiah as an ill-treated prophet. I would say that those who promote dehumanization and violence are the false prophets.
To put this another way, I believe Jesus did not come to bring peace borne out of fear (“We can’t rock the boat” or apathy or complacency (“I’ve got mine, and that’s all that matters”). Rather, He brought us a commitment to love that remains even in conflict and disagreement; A love that gives rise to reconciliation and justice and thereby a real peace. Jesus presents us with a choice. If we choose to love as He does, we will be in some kind of conflict with the wisdom of the world. May we stand with Jesus, and work for justice and a real peace.
Fr. Phil, CP