Commentary on the Readings
20th Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 18, 2019 – Year C
The prophets share a unique fate
The ease and speed with which skepticism, mockery or disrepute manage to cool the enthusiasm, to put out the ideals, to render harmless the most noble teaching is surprising.
We 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 dreams. They have adapted to the prevailing conformism, to what they previously considered trivial, ephemeral, and banal. For convenience, for opportunism? Some maybe yes, but others have given up with deep regret the high aspirations and youth projects … because they had been taken first by discouragement and then resignation. They had not taken into account the opposition, resistance, conflicts, difficulties and they did not resist.
Who engages in community expects approval, praise, support for the initiatives that he carries forward, for the time and energy he dedicates. It is an illusion! He will soon have to deal with the adverse criticism, envy, and jealousy. So far we are still within the sphere of normal misunderstandings and disagreements. The contrast becomes more serious when there are decisive ecclesial choices, adherence to the new prospects opened up by the Council, the evangelical proposals incompatible with the logic of this world. Then hostility is openly manifested and assumes all the nuances that go from insult, slander, marginalization and moral lynching.
Who feels thwarted in this way is tempted to get discouraged and to question the choices he has made. The temptation to adapt 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.”
We must fight! We have to dialogue! No, we must not come to terms with the enemy! Who is not wielding the sword, who does not struggle, who is afraid of resorting 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 city is surrounded by the army of Nebuchadnezzar; 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, is aware of the futility of armed resistance and suggests the surrender. His proposal provokes the indignation of the officers 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).
It is the defeat of the prophet who feels abandoned by everyone: by friends, family members, and even by God who even the promised him protection (Jer 1:8).
Here, however, unexpectedly, a righteous and brave man comes forward, one of those they cannot silence in the face of injustice. He is called Ebed Melech. He’s 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 this prophet 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 gotten rid of 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, denounce injustice, theft, dishonesty at work, and reject violence as a means to restore justice. Just think about how those who make evangelical proposals, call for greater transparency in the use of money, the renouncement of privileges, are treated, sometimes even by the brothers of the Christian community.
But the Lord does not abandon his persecuted, isolated, thrown in the mud prophets. He is always at their side, maybe provoking, as in Jeremiah’s time, some simple, honest, courageous persons, as the Ethiopian Ebed Melech.
We have already pointed out last Sunday that the Christians to whom the letter to the Hebrew is addressed were experiencing a very difficult time, as to be tempted to abandon their faith. The difficulties started immediately after their conversion: they had been subjected to abuse. They were attacked, stripped of their possessions, imprisoned (Heb 10:32-34). Then the situation worsened to the point that their lives were in danger.
The author of the letter seeks to encourage them, invites them not to lose heart, not to give in. This—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 the stadium. They are athletes who must demonstrate strength and skill in front of exceptional spectators: the great 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 some load, such as sin.
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 say 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 the necessity of avoiding the judgment before the court have to do in all this discourse (vv. 58-59)? Today’s Gospel combines a series of rather enigmatic sayings of the Lord. Let us grasp the meaning.
Let’s 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 it 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 surely 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 apocalyptics! That one announced by the prophets and lit by Jesus saves, cleanses, 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 that 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). This water has been prepared by his enemies in order to extinguish forever the fire of his word, love, and Spirit. 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 begin.
If this is the fate of the Master, which will be that of the disciples, torchbearers of his fire? They too will provoke—ensures Jesus—dissensions, divisions, hostility and will 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.” An amazing 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 the world, among peoples, in the families harmony or discord?
It’s true, the prophets have promised peace for the messianic times, but also announced conflicts and separations. When Jesus speaks of misunderstandings between generations (young-old people) 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 in a peaceful and painless way and that there would be painful lacerations.
Luke verifies that these breaks 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 to understand why.
The message of Jesus is a fire and—logically—who has the goods to be protected, buildings to be preserved is not keen to see the 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, the frenzy of power.
Who feels threatened by this “fire” does not remain passive. He opposes by all means. He reacts violently because he wants to perpetuate the world of sin. It is at this point that the first misunderstandings burst, then division and conflict, finally persecution and violence.
Union is not always good and should be approved. Union 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, with much love and without offending anyone, healthy divisions.
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 Council of the stupendous 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: They must know when the rains are coming to sow at the right time. They scan the sky, study the wind; they know they cannot go wrong as they risk seeing their own seeds burned by the sun. Why—asks Jesus—are people so attentive to the signs of heat and rain, don’t they know how to recognize the signs of the new world that have appeared? Because—he answers—they are hypocrites. They can see, but do not want to open their eyes. They don’t do it for 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 the actors, the “hypocrites” in fact) not to notice what is happening.
Luke has in mind the situation of his communities in which many are afraid of the consequences of the Gospel and “pretend” not to notice the changes, transformations, and innovations that it is going to introduce.
The Gospel concludes with a parable (vv. 58-59). A man has wronged another and this threatens to take him to court. What to 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 do not care in the least. They will be caught unprepared.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading.