20th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already! There is a baptism I must still receive, and how great is my distress till it is over!

‘Do you suppose that I am here to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on a household of five will be divided: three against two and two against three; the father divided against the son, son against father, mother against daughter, daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’

Lk 12:49-53

This particular passage from Luke’s Gospel can be illuminated with greater meaning when read through both an historical and contemporary lens. This is especially true when reflecting upon Jesus’ challenge to his disciples ‘do you suppose that I am here to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.‘ This seems very much at odds with our understanding of Jesus and his teaching, especially that of the Sermon on the Mount. Yet it was prophetic, for the advent and evangelisation of the Good News would have a divisive effect on humanity.

Jesus was very much aware of the way in which his counter-cultural message would divide society and he foresees that even families would experience tension and discord. This would be especially true, not so much in response to his general teachings, but in response to his identity as the Messiah and the claims of the disciples as to such. All four Gospels reveal the way in which Jesus polarised many of the people of his time between true followers (disciples) and those who dismissed his teaching of a new covenant as blasphemy. In particular, Jesus and his followers were at odds with the upholders of Jewish law and ritual. Such divisions intensified during the first century AD and early Christians were in fact expelled from synagogues.

Given the current religious sectarianism in many parts of the world, one can see that Jesus was fully aware of the deep, bitter and long-lasting divisions that would accompany the spread of the Gospel.

When Jesus tells his disciples ‘I have come to bring fire to the earth‘ he is not referring to an impending apocalypse but rather a spiritual fire, an enthusiasm ignited by the Holy Spirit to believe, live and spread the Gospel of salvation. He desires that the hearts of his disciples will be on fire with love and he wishes that ‘it were blazing already.’ Ultimately, this fire will only truly blaze after his death and resurrection, events which he refers to. ‘There is a baptism I must still receive, and how great is my distress till it is over!‘ Jesus brought fire to the earth and it continues to blaze through the presence and action of the Holy Spirit.

Luke’s account highlights that to be a follower of Jesus is not without pain or suffering or on occasions the experience of division. At the same time our difficulties can be filled with meaning if we allow our hearts to be ablaze with the love of Jesus and a desire to spread the Good News.

Anthony Cleary
Director, Mission & Identity