Browsing Homilies

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jer 38:4-6, 8-10 | Ps 40 | Heb 12:1-4 | Lk 12:49-53

Many times, Jesus’ words can have different meanings. So, it’s always important for us to understand what he says in light of his whole teaching. Today’s gospel is no exception.

What does Jesus mean when he says, “I have come to set the earth on fire?”

One way we could understand it is that Jesus came to set people’s hearts on fire with love of God and others. We often describe passion as a consuming fire. When we fall in love, we might say that we have a “burning” passion for that person. So, we can understand Jesus’ words to mean that he has come to earth to ignite passionate love in the hearts of those who believe in him.

Jesus wants our hearts to be on fire with love for him. He doesn’t want us to live our faith as a bunch of rules to follow and ceremonies to get through. Rather, he wants us to see our faith as a love affair with God and to be passionate about it. He wants to set our souls ablaze with a love that will both consume us and make us shine brightly with the radiance of his own goodness. That is the fire that Jesus came to earth to ignite - the fire of his own love that transforms us into passionate believers.

There is another meaning to his words, however, which he makes reference to later on in the reading. The fire that he came to set on the earth is also a destructive inferno. It is meant to burn down structures that are unjust, that promote sinfulness, and that trample over the rights of the most vulnerable among us. Mary speaks of this in her great song of praise when she visits her cousin Elizabeth. She says that God, “has cast down the mighty from their thrones…and sent the rich away empty.” Also, when she brings him as an infant to the Temple in Jerusalem, the prophet Simeon tells her, “This child will be for the downfall…of many in Israel.” So, even from his birth, Jesus stood for the poor and marginalized and stood against anyone who tried to exploit them.

It is up to us now to continue his work of “lifting up the lowly” and “filling the hungry with good things.” We must have a heart on fire for those whose rights are being denied them. Without question, the most vulnerable among us are the unborn who have fewer rights than endangered species. We must never fail to be their voice and to work tirelessly to ensure that fathers own their responsibility, and that their mothers have everything they need to welcome them into the world and raise them. There are certainly many other instances in our society of those who are taken advantage of and treated as worthless. Our status as baptized daughters and sons of God makes it imperative that we not only work to bring those unjust structures tumbling down but that we build up a culture of life and love open to every human person.

But, we cannot expect everyone to go along with us. When we speak up for the most vulnerable members of society, we will be opposed. There are so many powerful interests working to keep those unjust structures in place. They will not go away quietly or without a fight. Our work for justice and peace will cause divisions.

Does Jesus want division among peoples? Not at all. He is the Prince of Peace. Before dying on the cross, he prayed that we all might be one (Jn 17:21). During the years of his ministry, he reached out to Samaritans, lepers, and even pagans to let them know that no one was outside of God’s love. But by doing so, he created many enemies. Though he wanted unity, divisions came about because people rejected him.

The same is true for us. Our passionate love of God and service to others will cause friction and conflict. It might even alienate us from our own family. But we cannot let that stop us from speaking up. God must have the first place in our hearts, above any other allegiance we might have whether to country, to a political party – even to our family. This doesn’t mean that we intentionally push others away from us or that we seek out conflict with those who have different views from us. But it does mean that we will not surrender our commitment to our faith to keep the peace. A peace that can only be kept by suppressing our consciences is no peace at all, and will soon fall apart.

Jesus came to set the world ablaze with his passionate love. His words were fulfilled on Pentecost when God’s love came down upon the apostles in tongues of fire. Since that day, God’s love has been spreading throughout the earth and changing the world. As people set afire with that love, we must pass it on to everyone we meet, even at the possible risk of being rejected and causing division.


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