TWENTIETH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
USCCB LINK TO ALL THREE READINGS
Jesus said to his disciples:
“I have come to set the earth on fire,
and how I wish it were already blazing!
There is a baptism with which I must be baptized,
and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!
Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?
No, I tell you, but rather division.
From now on a household of five will be divided,
three against two and two against three;
a father will be divided against his son
and a son against his father,
a mother against her daughter
and a daughter against her mother,
a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”
Next Sunday’s Gospel is a good example of why it is critical to read an entire Gospel—as in the case of St. Luke--cover-to-cover. I noticed on my recent trip that many hotels still stock the Gideon Bible in the bedside drawer. The Gideons, a lay society dedicated to putting the Bible in the hands of every person in the world, have distributed two billion such texts over the years. I am always taken with the addendum to the sacred text in the Gideon translation, recommendations for what texts to read when you are lonely, broke, depressed, tempted, etc. I have no doubt that such devotional use of the Scriptures in general is widespread and certainly to be encouraged.
That said, it is important to underscore again and again that the Gospels were written to deliver a specific message of salvation. Put another way, Luke and the other evangelists were devoted to a mission that transcended my particular existential stresses; like Mohammed, I must go to the mountain and not the other way around. This coming Sunday’s Gospel text, taken out of context, can evoke fear, confusion, or skepticism. It is probably not a suggested text in the Gideon Bible for those in stress, though if you are reading this from your room in a Hampton Inn, you could help us all by checking.
Joel Green, in our source commentary, points out that the dire future predictions of Jesus pitting family member versus family member seem totally at odds with the Infancy narratives earlier in the Lukan text, where the child born in Bethlehem is hailed as a prince of peace. How do we square this identification of the child Jesus with the preacher who seeks to become an agent of fire and division? Green points out that there are many clues in St. Luke, even in the bucolic Lukan Christmas stories, that suggest the divisiveness of Jesus. When Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to the temple, the old prophet Simeon tells them that this child would be the cause of the rise and fall of many, and that “a sword of sorrow” would pierce Mary’s heart. Even at this early stage, the Gospel is taking on a cast more appropriate to “Braveheart” than “Mary Poppins.”
The passages of St. Luke most remembered to a casual reader are the heart-warming parables of extraordinary generosity and forgiveness. The Good Samaritan comes to mind, for example, but in examining this passage closely, Jesus is creating a major rift in contemporary Jewish life. The two wayfarers who pass by the injured man are very likely doing so for “religious” reasons. They are, respectively, a priest and a Levite (official caretaker of Temple worship); handling a bloodied man who may even have appeared dead to them would have rendered them temporarily unclean for Temple service.
So what would a hearer of that parable—particularly a Jewish official—take away from it? (1) The introduction of open-ended charity proclaimed by Jesus far exceeded the legal prescriptions of Jewish Law as it was interpreted at that time; (2) the demands of charity far outweigh the codes of liturgy; (3) the despised Samaritan is actually holier than the clergy, and (4) in the final analysis, what is the ultimate value of a religious system that has no room for the most basic works of mercy, providing first aid to a broken man? We do not need Luke to spell out the divisive nature of the preaching and deeds of Jesus.
In the Sunday text Jesus speaks of his baptism; although he speaks in the present and future tense, he is in all likelihood referring to his baptismal washing by John the Baptist. Jesus was a disciple of John originally, and for the rest of his life his preaching would echo the Baptist’s, who warned of a rapidly coming day of judgment. Jesus evidently understood his baptism as a commissioning to make this new kingdom of his Father present in the here and now. The opening words of Sunday’s text express Jesus’ zeal to ignite the world now, and his frustration that the world is not already blazing. [In the text that follows Sunday’s reading, Jesus chides his audience for its failure to “read the signs.”]
The description of divided families in this text carries multiple meanings. Green understands the primary meaning as an explanation of the personal transformation that occurs when embracing the life and message of Jesus. [Interestingly, St. Paul had written earlier in one of his letters that a converted Christian married to an unbeliever could separate from the marriage. In Canon Law today, this exception is known as the “Pauline Privilege.”] I agree with Green, but I would add the thought that the family fractures may also be references to religious breaks in Judaism as many Jews were baptized into the Christian community. By the time this Gospel was written (80-85 A.D.) the city of Jerusalem had been leveled by the Romans, and popular belief had it that the Roman destruction was God’s punishment for the majority of Jews refusing to recognize Jesus as savior.
In looking over the entirety of Luke’s Gospel, particularly its episodes of mercy and forgiveness, the thought strikes me that the “newness” of Jesus and the Kingdom resided in its new definition of the exercise of forgiveness and outreach to the poor. There was shock value in his forgiving a sinful woman who publicly anointed him at a banquet; those in attendance tut-tutted that were Jesus truly a prophet, he would know the nature of the woman and never allow her to touch him. In fact, he was and he did, and this was enough to drive a sword through a complacent status quo.