Commentary on the Gospel of
The Jesus of today’s gospel is a far cry from the smiling, laughing Jesus that greeted me in many church basements growing up. He is also a far cry from the “family values” Jesus that dominates the discourse of so much modern Christianity, especially in my native America. I even find myself reconsidering a Jesuit motto displayed prominently on our campus here at Creighton – namely Ignatius of Loyola’s counsel to Francis Xavier to “go set the world on fire.” If “setting the world on fire” means “dividing families,” then do we really want to preach on this gospel?
If nothing else, today’s readings remind us that the gospel is not about “niceness.” In fact, God’s prophetic call disrupts the social status quo and can even put us at odds with those closest to us. Jeremiah had been an advisor to King Zedekiah. Yet after just a little lobbying, the king leaves him to his tormentors, largely because of Jeremiah’s unpopular predictions of Jerusalem’s impending fall to Babylon. Like Jeremiah, the Psalmist finds himself in the “pit of destruction” and the “mud of the swamp,” crying out to God in classic lament form: “Lord, come to my aid! O my God, hold not back!” In a similar context of collective suffering, the writer of Hebrews exhorts his community to persevere in running the race of faith, even to the point of shedding blood. In Luke, the refining fire of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God is burning a path right through the nuclear family.
I have recently returned to the USA after spending a year in Uganda, one of the major Christian centers in Africa. The heroes of the local Catholic faith – pictured in nearly every church I visited throughout the country – are the “Uganda Martyrs.” These 22 Catholic teenagers and young adults – along with 23 Anglicans – were killed in 1886 by their king, Kabaka Mwanga, during the initial phase of Christian evangelization. They were brutally tortured and burned on pyres, yet they sang and prayed as they died, echoing Hebrews’ call to “endure the cross for the sake of the joy that lay before them.” After their deaths, tens of thousands of Ugandans embraced the Christian faith; by 1910 Uganda had one of the largest Christian populations in Africa. On their feast day of June 3, my children and I joined two million other pilgrims from across East Africa at their execution site at Namugongo, celebrating the fruits of their costly fidelity.
We should not pray for family division. Nor should we wish for persecution or death. But may we not fear the repercussions of running where God calls us, knowing that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.