“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already ablaze…Do you think that I have come to establish peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Luke 12: 49-53
The gospel-readings of the last few Sundays and for a few more to come make it clear that the closer Jesus came to Jerusalem, the more nervous he became about the destiny he was convinced awaited him. It had become increasingly clear to him that his calls for a change of heart and his invitations to people to involve themselves in working for justice, peace and compassion were not only falling on deaf ears but were being actively opposed by the religious leaders who had a set on him. Jesus sensed that the kind of treatment meted out to the prophet Jeremiah awaited him.
Today’s first reading recounts the opposition served up to Jeremiah, and explains that it was retribution for trying to upset the status quo: “This man must be put to death,” the princes said to the king; “he demoralises 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.” (Jeremiah 38: 4) The second reading from Hebrews reminds us of how Jesus was treated: “Think of what Jesus went through; how he put up with so much hatred from sinners.” (Hebrews 12: 4)
The gospel-reading from Luke proceeds to give us an insight into the anguish that Jesus experienced as he tried to deal with the fate he was convinced awaited him. That gives us opportunity to reflect on how we cope with opposition when it comes our way. We know that opposition in one shape or another has already crossed our path. What’s more, if we dare to look at how we dealt with it, we will probably congratulate, and even justify, ourselves for giving back more than we received.
But first, let’s not forget that, very early in his Gospel, Luke had predicted that opposition would play a particular role in Jesus’ life. When Mary and Joseph presented him in the Temple, the prophet Simeon, on blessing them, said: “This child is destined to be the downfall and the rise of many in Israel, a sign that will be opposed…” (Luke 2: 24) This is confirmed by all the Gospel writers who were unanimous in pointing out that Jesus was dogged by opposition from the religious leaders for the entirety of his public ministry. Yet, it is equally clear that Jesus had made up his mind to be true to himself, to preserve his personal integrity no matter how intense the opposition served up to him. Even though he was persecuted, he did not take it out on others. He seemed to have a capacity to absorb the opposition without responding with harping criticism against those who were the source of the opposition. It is true that he did confront those who opposed him and called them names to their face but there was nothing sneaky about his retorts. And in the end, he alone was the target of his enemies, he alone was the one who was executed.
That gives us cause to look at ourselves and how we deal with opposition, for any one of us who chooses to walk in the footsteps of Jesus will inevitably meet criticism, ridicule and opposition when we elect to live with integrity and resist compromise. Do we not catch ourselves wanting to be vindictive, to get even with those who oppose us? We even develop hit and run tactics in our efforts to settle the score, and sometimes hope that our long-running wars will not come to a hasty end and deprive us from getting our own back.
The opposition that Jesus offered was born of love and care for the people he confronted. The message he proclaimed was a call to all who heard him to a change of mind and heart. That meant letting go of things like adherence to the letter of the law rather than to its spirit. Legalism breeds comfort and certainty, and blocks the way to compassion, sensitivity and tolerance.
Despite our coming to some understanding of how Jesus dealt with opposition, there is still some confusion or ambiguity about his assertion at the beginning of today’s gospel-reading: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already ablaze! I have a baptism to receive. What anguish I feel till it is over!” (Luke 12: 49-50) Jesus is hardly talking about the fire of destruction that James and John wanted to call down on the inhospitable Samarians (Luke 9: 52-56). But it may have something to do with letting loose the Spirit of God in a world that needed to be turned upside down. Surely Jesus was using “fire” metaphorically as an agent of purification. Moreover, when Jesus was baptised in the Jordan, John the Baptist asserted that Jesus would one day “baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3: 16). I suggest that the urgency in Jesus as he proclaimed that he had come “to bring fire to the earth” arose from the fact that he had discovered a world that was scarred and broken, a world built on systems that had kept people oppressed by poverty and injustice. He had come not to disturb a world of peace and contentment but one that had settled into systems that abused and exploited people. In the long run, it is context that makes it clear that his intent was to fire up the inhabitants of the world, especially their leaders, to claim their responsibility and dignity as sisters and brothers to one another, and set their minds and hearts on justice, equality, compassion and all the other values that would identify them as truly human.
In this context, it is worth recalling the personal transformation that took place in Moses when he was confronted by the fire of God in the burning bush. He was drawn into conflict with the Pharaoh not for the sake of a fight with the ruler of Egypt but because he was fired with the urgency to bring liberation and self-determination to a people oppressed by servitude. Jesus’ integrity demanded that he shake and disturb a world of abuse and oppression that was keeping people locked in by a religious system that was moribund and self-serving. He was calling humanity to open their minds and hearts to the fire of God’s Spirit. There’s a wake-up call to us, too!