THE PROPHETS SHARE A UNIQUE FATE
The ease and speed with which skepticism, mockery, or disrepute manage to douse the enthusiasm, dampen the ideals and render harmless the noblest teaching is surprising. We have met young people who, moved by a sincere passion, had pledged to build a new world and a more evangelical church. In the short span of a few years, they have lowered the flags and given up their dreams. They have conformed to the system, to what they previously considered trivial, brief, and banal. Was it for convenience? Are they mere opportunists? Some maybe yes, but others have given up with deep regret the high aspirations of their youth because they were gripped first by discouragement and then by resignation. They were not able to resist the opposition, conflicts, and difficulties.
A person who engages the community expects approval, praise, and support for the initiatives that he carries forward for the time and energy he dedicates. That is an ideal very far from reality. He will soon have to deal with the adverse criticism, envy, and jealousy. The conflict becomes severe with decisive ecclesial choices, adherence to the new prospects opened up by the contentious teachings of the Church, and the evangelical proposals incompatible with the logic of this world. Then hostility is openly manifested and assumes all the nuances, including insult, slander, marginalization, and moral lynching.
Whoever feels thwarted in this way is tempted to get discouraged and to question the choices he has made. The temptation to conform to the prevailing mentality, to the principles and values ??commonly accepted, becomes almost irresistible.
Jesus warned his disciples against this danger: "If the world hates you, remember that the world hated me before you. This would not be so if you belonged to the world because the world loves its own" (Jn 15:18-19). He calmed their perplexed and vacillating spirits, recalling that a dramatic destiny puts together, for always, all the just ones. "Remember, that is how the ancestors of this people treated the prophets. Alas for you when people speak well of you, for that is how the ancestors of these people treated the false prophets" (Lk 6:23,26).
To internalize the message, we repeat:"Lord, let the truth of your prophets be recognized."
First Reading: Jeremiah 38:4-6.8-10
In those days, the princes said to the king: “Jeremiah ought to be put to death; he is demoralizing the soldiers who are left in this city, and all the people, by speakingsuch things to them; he is not interested in the welfare of our people, but in their ruin.” King Zedekiah answered: “He is in your power”; for the king could do nothing with them. And so they took Jeremiah and threw him into the cistern of Prince Malchiah, which was in the quarters of the guard, letting him down with ropes. There was no water in the cistern, only mud, and Jeremiah sank into the mud.
Ebed-melech, a court official, went there from the palace and said to him: “My lord king, these men have been at fault in all they have done to the prophet Jeremiah,casting him into the cistern. He will die of famine on the spot, for there is no more food in the city.” Then the king ordered Ebed-melech the Cushite to take three men along with him, and draw the prophet Jeremiah out of the cistern before he should die. —The Word of the Lord.
We must fight! We have to dialogue! No, we must not come to terms with the enemy! He who does not wield the sword, who does not struggle, is afraid to resort to violence, does not love the people! Each one forwards his proposal and tries to impose it on others.
We are in Jerusalem in the year 586 B.C., and the situation is desperate. The army of Nebuchadnezzar surrounds the city; the people are starving, but the generals want to resist at all costs. King Zedekiah does not dare to oppose their will. It is a dramatic moment, and Jeremiah is the only one who does not lose his head. He is a man of peace; he reflects and is aware of the futility of armed resistance and suggests the surrender. His proposal provokes the officers' indignation, who go to Zedekiah and say, "This man should be put to death because he is weakening the will of the fighting men … . He is not out to save the people but to do harm" (v. 4). The king listens to them and eventually agrees. Jeremiah was imprisoned and thrown into a cistern full of mud (vv. 5-6).
Jeremiah, the prophet, feels abandoned by everyone: by friends, family members, and even by God who promised him protection (Jer 1:8). Here, however, unexpectedly, a righteous and brave man comes forward, the one who stands for justice. He is Ebed Melech, a foreigner, a black man from Ethiopia who has long served at the court of the King. He presents himself to Zedekiah and says, "My lord king! These men have acted wickedly ..." (v. 9). It takes some courage to utter such words, to go against the most influential people in the nation!
The king listens to him and orders to set the prophet free. Ebed Melech takes with him some men; he gets a rope and rags, goes to the cistern, and tells Jeremiah: "Put the pieces of rags and old clothes under your armpits, over the ropes." Jeremiah does as has been suggested to him and is pulled out (Jer 38:11-13).
What happened to Jeremiah is not an isolated incident. All those who proclaim the Word of God are always treated equally. Their message, sooner or later, clashes with the interests of the powerful, and they begin to persecute them. They make every effort to silence them or even eliminate them. In ancient times, they resorted to physical violence (so Jesus and many of his disciples were removed in this manner). Today the methods are different but no less brutal: exclusion, contempt, denigration, and threats. Just think about what happens to those who dare to criticize the improper conduct of those in power, those who denounce injustice, theft, and dishonesty at work, and reject violence to restore justice. Just think about how those who make evangelical proposals call for greater transparency in the use of money and renounce privileges are treated, sometimes even by those within the Christian community.
But the Lord does not abandon his persecuted, isolated, and thrown in the mud prophets. He is always by their side, maybe giving rise to some simple, honest, courageous persons like the Ethiopian Ebed Melech in Jeremiah's time.
Second Reading: Hebrews 12:1-4
Brothers and sisters: Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in runningthe race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood. —The Word of the Lord.
We have already pointed out last Sunday that the Christians to whom the letter to the Hebrews is addressed were experiencing the temptation to abandon their faith. The difficulties started immediately after their conversion: they had been subjected to abuse. They were attacked, stripped of their possessions, and were imprisoned (Heb 10:32-34). Then the situation worsened to the point that their lives were in danger.
The letter's author seeks to encourage them, invites them not to lose heart or give in. The crisis—he says—is a special occasion because it allows them to show to Christ their love and fidelity. The reading compares the condition of those Christians in difficulty to the challenge in a stadium. They are athletes who must demonstrate strength and skill in front of exceptional spectators: the significant figures of the past, from Abraham until the last of the prophets (Heb 11). The goal to reach is Christ. The disciples have to run like the Master has done. The prize they will receive is the crown of glory from the Father. Of course, one cannot run fast if he drags along some heavy load such as sin.
Gospel: Luke 12:49-57
Jesus said to his disciples: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and howgreat is my anguish until it is accomplished! 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; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” —The Gospel of the Lord.
What is the fire that Jesus came to bring on earth (v. 49)? What is the baptism that he must receive (v. 50)? Why does he speak of not coming to bring peace but rather division (v. 51)? What are the signs of the time that the hypocrites cannot recognize (v. 56)? What does the parable on settling a conflict outside the court do with all this discourse (vv. 58-59)? Today's Gospel combines a series of somewhat enigmatic sayings of the Lord. Let us grasp the meaning.
Let us start with the images of fire and baptism (vv. 49-50). After the flood, the rainbow appears in the sky, a symbol of peace restored between heaven and earth. God swears: "Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth" (Gen 9:11). From this promise, a conviction is born and spreads in Israel that, to cleanse the world of iniquity, God would no longer use water but fire: "For by fire will the Lord execute judgment … against all mortals" (Is 66:16). The Baptist also announced the coming of the Messiah with threatening words: "He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire ... . The chaff he will burn in everlasting fire" (Mt 3:11-12). Jesus also speaks of fire and, after him, almost all the authors of the New Testament.
What is this fire all about? It is natural to think of the final judgment and eternal punishment that awaits the wicked. Not so fast! Maybe the Baptist and the disciple James and John imagined it so. The two brothers wanted to call down fire from heaven against the Samaritans (Lk 9:54), but indeed not Jesus. The fire of God is not intended to destroy or torture those who made mistakes. It is the instrument with which he wants to destroy evil and purify us from sin.
It is better to let the fire punish the fundamentalist and fanatic preachers of the seven apocalyptic events! The fire announced by the prophets and lit by Jesus saves, cleanses, and heals: it is the fire of his Word; it is his message of salvation; it is his Spirit, that Spirit who, on the day of Pentecost, descended like tongues of fire on the disciples (Acts 2:3-11) and has begun to spread around the world like a beneficial and renewing blaze.
Now we can make sense of the exclamation of Jesus: “How I wish it were already kindled!” (v. 49). It is the expression of his burning desire to see the weeds of the world soon destroyed. Malachi announced: "The day already comes, flaming as a furnace. On that day all the proud and evildoers will be burned like straw in the fire" (Mal 3:19). Jesus looks forward to the realization of this prophecy. He already sees the rising of the new world wherein there will be no more space for the wicked. These will disappear, destroyed by the irresistible flame of his love.
The second image, that of baptism, is linked to the previous one. Jesus says that to unleash this fire, he must first be baptized. To baptize means to submerge, and Jesus refers to his immersion in the waters of death (cf. Mk 10:38-39). His enemies have prepared this water to extinguish the fire of his word, love, and Spirit forever. It instead gets the opposite effect: it communicates to this fire an uncontrollable force. Jesus ‘looks with anguish’ at the passion that awaits him. The prospect that he faces is dramatic: he will be overwhelmed by the waves of humiliation, suffering, and death; but he knows that coming out of these dark waters, on Easter Sunday, the new world will be inaugurated
If this is the fate of the Master, what will be that of the disciples, the torchbearers of his fire? They too will provoke—ensures Jesus—dissensions, divisions, and hostility and have to reckon with painful lacerations within their own families (vv. 51-53).
"Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division." A baffling statement because in the books of the prophets, it is written that the Messiah would be "the prince of peace"; during his reign, "peace will have no end" (Is 9:5-6); "The wolf will dwell with the lamb, the leopard will rest beside the kid, and the calf and the lion cub will feed together" (Is 11:6-9); "The warrior’s bow shall be broken, when he dictates peace to the nations. He will reign from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth" (Zec 9:10). In Bethlehem, the angels sing: "Peace on earth!" (Lk 2:14), and Paul writes: "He is our peace" (Eph 2:14). Will the proclamation of the Gospel bring into the world, among peoples, in the families, harmony or discord?
It is true, the prophets promised peace for the messianic times but also announced conflicts and separations. When Jesus speaks of misunderstandings between generations (young and old) and among those living in the same house, he does nothing but quotes a passage from the prophet Micah (Mic 7:6). The prophet had understood that the birth of the new world would not have occurred peacefully and painlessly and that there would be painful lacerations.
Luke verifies that these conflicts occurred in his communities. In the light of the Master’s words, he understands that these were inevitable, and the context in which these words are placed helps us know why. The message of Jesus is a fire, and—logically—the person that has goods to be protected, buildings to be preserved is not keen to see arsonists. The Gospel is a burning torch that wants to reduce to an immense fire all the unjust structures, the inhuman situations, discrimination, greed of money, and the frenzy of power.
Whoever feels threatened by this ‘fire’ does not remain passive. He opposes the fire by all means. He reacts violently because he wants to perpetuate the world of sin. At this point, the first misunderstandings burst, then division and conflict, finally persecution and violence. Unity may not always be good. Unity must be sought from the Word of God, from the truth. Peace founded on lies and injustice cannot be favored. It must at times provoke healthy divisions with much love and without offending anyone.
One must not confuse hatred, violence, offensive, and arrogant words—which are incompatible with the Christian choice—with the honest challenge, disagreements that arise from new, evangelical proposals. These are needed, even if painful, especially when involving members of the same family.
We heard so much after the Vatican Council II of the stunning image of the ‘signs of the times.’ It appears on the lips of Jesus in the third part of today's Gospel (vv. 54-57). For the farmers, it is important to recognize the changes in the weather: to sow at the right time, they must know when the rains are coming. They scan the sky, study the wind; they do not want to risk the seeds burned by the sun. Why—asks Jesus—are people so attentive to the signs of heat and rain, do they not know how to recognize the signs of the new world that haveappeared? Because—he answers—they are hypocrites. They can see but do not want to open their eyes. They do not do it from ignorance but for ill will. The new reality introduced by his Word disturbs them, makes them uncomfortable. They want the old world to continue and pretend (as do actors, the "hypocrites" in fact) not to notice what is happening.
Luke has in mind the situation of his communities. Many are afraid of the consequences of the Gospel and "pretend" not to notice the changes, transformations, and innovations it will introduce.
The Gospel concludes with a parable (vv. 58-59). A man has wronged another and is threatened to be taken to court. What can he do? The culprit has no time to lose: he must immediately seek an agreement with his opponent. Otherwise, he could be sentenced. What is the meaning of this parable? Jesus says: the time of judgment is coming—the new world is going to rise. The signs of the great fire that will renew the face of the earth are obvious: “the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the dead are raised and the good news is announced to the poor” (Mt 11:5), and yet, there are people who care the least. They will be caught unprepared.