20th Sunday Year C – Lectio divina on Lk 12,49-57
It might seem that this gospel passage, which is surprisingly radical, presents an unusual image of Jesus. It is not the gentle inoffensive Jesus we are well used to. It is not the Jesus, meek and humble of heart, that we like to remember. But it is an image of Jesus we should get used to, one that we would do well to remember. The harshness with which Jesus expresses himself in this gospel passage is a fair reflection of his person and his thought, the reason for his life and the demands he makes on those who follow him.
This image of Jesus who came to cast fire on the earth and to divide families may seem exaggerated and may make us downright uncomfortable, but it not false. It is one we would never invent. It is the truth. Who ever said that living with Jesus was going to be easy?
At that time: Jesus said to his disciples, 49 “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished! 51 Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division; 52 for hence-forth in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” 54 He also said to the multitudes, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, `A shower is coming'; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, `There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. 56 You hypo-crites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky; but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? 57 And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?
I. READ: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says is
This Gospel passage is in two parts, very different in content and addressed to very different people. It is actually made up of two short sayings of Jesus. In the first of these (Lk 12,49-53), Jesus discloses his own intimate identity to his disciples, revealing the awareness he has of who he is and in what his mission consists. In the second part (Lk 12,54 -57), Jesus is speaking to the people. He urges them to discern what is happening and to draw their own conclusions.
To all his followers, Jesus reveals the passion that consumes him as he journeys towards his passion. He uses the image of fire to describe the rapid and irresistible evangelizing force that drives his personal mission. He came to cast fire on the earth and he longs for the mission to be completed. We are surprised at the severity of the words he speaks to his disciples: his personal mission is to set fire to the earth, and his fervent wish is that it be burnt up as quickly as possible.
Fire spreads quickly and its power is unstoppable. It is a good image of the passion that is burning in Jesus for the accomplishment of the task he has been given. Likewise, baptism by immersion is an image of the death that will overtake him. The image of fire refers to the mission he has received. The trials of baptism indicate the personal price he will have to pay. He acknowledges that the price is very high – a baptism of blood. The knowledge of it fills him with anguish from which he will be freed only when it is accomplished. He wants all his followers to know that they will not escape unscathed. Following a master who is impassioned is bound to create passion and division, even in the best of families. This tragic prediction probably reflects the situation of the early Christians whose faith in Christ caused deep divisions among family members. The people listening to Jesus were farmers, well capable of foretelling what was going to happen. Jesus tells them to use that skill to understand what was going on around them. They were able to interpret what was happening in the sky, reading the signs of the clouds and the wind, and so they were prepared for the next day’s weather. But they did not capture the deep, hidden meaning of what was happening day by day – the passing of God in their midst. Of what use is it if he gives judgement, and they do not recognise that his judgment is right?
II. MEDITATION: apply what the text says to life
As he was going up to Jerusalem, Jesus foresaw the tragic end that awaited him and he was overcome with the presentiment of a violent death, his baptism of blood, an end that will affect all his followers. He foretells his death and tells all his followers that they will not escape untouched by it. He knows that this is happening so that the judgement of God, in the form of fire and division, may be realized, and he longs for it to happen as soon as possible, but he does not hide the fact that he will have to pay a heavy price. The divine intervention is inevitable, and so also is man’s reaction.
The fact that Jesus is preaching this means there is time to prepare for it. The anguish he feels does not diminish the consequences of the decision that will be taken, but shows the gravity of the moment and makes the personal implications all the more dramatic.
Even the strongest human relationships will be affected by the decisions taken in his regard. Divisions will arise even among those who love each other. We cannot remain neutral in regard to Jesus. Being on his side implies sharing his destiny.
It is hard to know whether we should marvel more at the foresight with which Jesus predicts his end or his determination and haste in facing it. Jesus becomes the friend of his disciples, revealing to them the mission that guides his life and his desire to accomplish it. The disciples who are closest to him are the ones who know his secret best and the passion that drives him.
If Jesus shares his most intimate convictions with his followers, it is to encourage them to remain faithful in following him. Closeness to him and sharing his secrets is already a reward. The closer they follow him the greater familiarity they have with him. It is worth being close to him, despite the suffering it brings. By having Jesus as their daily companion they get to know the passion he has for God.
We might like to forget the danger, but this does not make it any less real. Certainly if we tried to understand it, his extreme radicalism would seem a bit less strange. We would become captivated and prisoners of his powerful personality. If we remember when those extraordinary words were spoken, it will help us to understand them.
Jesus was undertaking a journey to Jerusalem, one which he knew would cost him his life. The tragic end makes the journey not less worthwhile but more so. He is not worried that his life will be taken. His desire is to give his life. He came with a mission and he is anxious that it be fulfilled. It is not that he does not see the danger, or that he underestimates the consequences. He declares his anxiety that all be fulfilled. He is suffering because he knows he will suffer, and he suffers until that moment comes.
Neither the final fear nor his understandable anxiety will separate him from his mission. Foreseeing his end and conscious of his fears, he does what God wants of him – he goes up to Jerusalem to meet his destiny.
When we get over our admiration at contemplating how very human Jesus is, and how very determined, it would be good for us to try to understand the reason for this attitude of his. If we discover his secret, who can stop us from following his example? It is easy to guess the secret: only someone who is completely passionate could speak in such a radical manner and with such disregard for his own interests.
And this is precisely what Jesus was all though his life, a man with only one passion. He came from the father and he lived only for God. He had no other task in life than getting to know God and bringing God near to all who had need of him, especially those who were furthest away and most vulnerable.
So urgent was his mission that he tolerated no delay and no excuses. So important was it that he did not share it with anyone, and so important that he was totally dedicated to it. There was nothing unusual in this for one for whose whole life was dedicated to God and his kingdom, with no other dreams and no other concerns. Is it unreasonable for one who burns with passion to want to conquer the world?
If we compare ourselves to Christ who was so passionate, even extreme, we would have to admit that the Christians of today are not just reasonable but downright mediocre. We are convinced, as a result of our many small betrayals of our conscience, that to be good Christians it is enough not to be altogether bad, or to want to be better.
We always desire from God more than he gives us, and for that reason our relationship with him is never easy and we are never completely satisfied. We bargain with him and we find it hard to give him what he asks of us. We are incapable of living with a single passion, living only for God, and we fall victim to other passions. Jesus teaches us that we can be happy by doing God’s will even if it means suffering.
It would be good, then, for us to ask ourselves, in his presence, if we really want to follow this Jesus who turns our beliefs and our way of living upside down. There is no doubt that those who follow him will not escape untouched by his zeal. His passion will eventually touch our lives too.
Jesus himself told this to the disciples who were with him on the way to Jerusalem. Once Jesus reveals his unconditional passion for God and his kingdom, it stands to reason that he will not tolerate indifference or delay on the part of those who want to be his companions for life.
Those who come too close to the fire get burnt. Jesus is the fire that burns, the passion that touches those who come near. In saying this to his disciples, Jesus is warning them. He knows that they do not yet feel the same zeal that he does for the kingdom, but he wants them to know that if they are to follow him, they must have that zeal and passion. They may still be lukewarm, but he is confident that their being close to him will change them, and he hopes that his fire and passion for God will be kindled in them.
We can see better how radical the conditions for following him are from the consequences he foretells. It is inevitable that families will be divided because of him. Not only that, but he has come to sow the seeds of discord. It had not yet been said that his mission would involve disunity among families. The passion for God can – and in the plan of Jesus, must – create jealousy and divisions within the home and the family, among the people who are nearest and dearest.