Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10 | Hebrews 12:1-4 | Luke 12:49-53
Oh God, who through the grace of adoption chose us to be children of light, grant, we pray, that we may not be wrapped in the darkness of error but always be seen to stand in the bright light of truth. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
The theme of today’s liturgy is my favorite focus these days. I’m so aware, as I think everyone in the world is aware, of how important it is to be in touch with the truth, and never before in the history of the human race have we had more information, information, information, some of it true, some of it lies. It comes through the same channels, through things that we’ve always trusted, newspapers, television, Internet. “I saw it in the news.” That’s like, “That’s real.” And we know that it’s not necessarily wrong to think that it should all be truthful, but it is probably a little naïve. But all it does to me is remind all of us that, in this particular age we’re living, we have to be discerning. We have to check facts. We have to look more deeply into situations rather than to pick up a sound bite that somebody might throw out there, which brings me back to the whole focus of Christianity: the truth. The truth.
The first experiences that human beings had of God was a kind of personal invitation on his part to be a part of him, and that is what we have with Abraham. We have the story of Adam and Eve where God is connected to the human race, and then we have the story of God saying, “I need the human race to cooperate with me in achieving the goal that I’ve given to human beings.” That goal is to move more and more completely into union with the reality of the world, the truth. That’s what God wants us to feel, see, know, and so he had this personal relationship with people like Abraham and Moses. And then it broadened out, and it was more like he could call on many people to be his voice in the world. They were called prophets, and Jeremiah is one of my favorites, because he’s so human. He was only 19 when he was called to be a prophet, and he was told that he would be able to make a new world, a wonderful thing, and he could build things up, make them whole. He was drawn to that, like so many of us are, and yet there were also the words given to him, which he may not have paid much attention to. But it said, “And you also have to tear down a lot of things.”
There’s the problem. It’s always been the problem with the truth. It’s not like you’re hearing something for the first time. No, you’ve heard it before, but it’s been in a different category, or it was seen to be bad or was seen to be good when the opposite was really true. So the hardest thing about the work of a prophet is he’s got to go in and speak to the truth to people who think they already have the truth, and the two don’t match. So who are you going to believe? This crazy, wild man? Prophets were screamers and yellers, and they had to be in order to be even noticed, I guess. They weren’t that sophisticated, I don’t think, in terms of their teaching. They were just quick to say, “If you don’t stop doing it, you’re going to die.” And that’s a strong statement obviously.
It does work, but who wants to die? If you hang on to your old ideas, your old, false notions, your lies and life seems okay, then what’s the motivation for going to something so radically different that you have to really change — really change? Change is hard. Nobody really likes to change until they absolutely see its value, and usually before you see its value, the gift of the truth, you have to look at the emptiness of what you thought was true. And that has to die first, and then the new thing can come in. That’s the way it works. That’s why it’s so hard to go through this process of being awakened and shown new things, because you first have to doubt where you are. You have to wonder, “Is what I’ve always believed really true?” And then the way you do it, and we know the way you do it, is you look carefully at how that lie has served you. And if everything is calm in your favor and everything is great, you’re going to not leave that lie, but the beauty of human beings is that we have some inner truth, inner knowledge of what really works. What a gift that is. I would call it our natural instinct, our innocent instinct in us that knows what’s really true, what works. It’s called consciousness, and it needs to be developed. It evolves, and it’s growing more and more and more in the human race, and so I’m more and more optimistic that people will see through the lies. And yet it’s still difficult.
So in the first reading, we have Jeremiah, who’s doing his work, and of course the people in power are the ones who are most likely to be hanging on to something that’s not true, because mostly the thing that we worry about in any kind of organization or leader or anyone that has power over people, parents, a spouse, is the danger of using that position of power to make a person live in the way you want them to live for your benefit. And that means telling them lies. So that’s what Jeremiah was trying to do, and of course he reached all this resistance. And I love the fact that he’s sitting there in this cistern sinking in the mud. Nothing could be more clear that his life was not successful, and what’s not in this passage is the part that he gets — he’s really mad at God. “You duped me. You fooled me. You told me this was going to be a wonderful life to help people, and look what’s happening to me.” And so there’s something about the person who speaks the truth. He has to believe, absolutely believe that it’s worth their life. It’s worth everything.
I know I, when I came out of the seminary after Vatican II, I was so excited about all the changes and all the new things, and I just couldn’t want to tell people, because oh, these are so wonderful, these new ideas, this new openness to God’s presence inside of us, the way he’s inviting us to develop our own conscience and see the beauty of all religions and feel oneness with all people and all these wonderful images. I came out of that seminary with all the enthusiasm of Jeremiah, and I was in a cistern many times when people looked at me and said, “What are you talking about? No, that’s not Catholic. That’s not the way we do it. We don’t like the new liturgy. We don’t like the language of our native language. We like it in Latin. We don’t like singing. We like to sit there in meditation. We don’t like the change in the way the room is arranged. We like the way it used to be.” There’s always that tension. Then 50 years later, I don’t hear anybody saying, “I miss the Latin.” There are still some who do, but we’ve changed. We see something new, and we see the value in it, and we see the beauty of it, but it’s been difficult. Transformation, it’s always difficult. So prophets, the work of being the truth-giver is not an easy job, never has been, never will be.
So we have then in the second reading, we have this beautiful image of Jesus who had this same prophetic work. He had to be there to speak the truth, and Paul is so aware, because he was in the lie, and he saw the truth. It wasn’t easy for him to see it. It was like this flash of light, and he saw something so radically different that it took him a couple of years to digest the transformation that happened to him. We often don’t think about that. We think sometimes you say the truth, somebody goes, “Oh, wow. That’s great. Now I can change it.” No, he had to go through a major, psychological, emotional, spiritual renewal when he saw that the thing he was condemning and destroying was the light and the truth, and so he’s very much aware of the gift that he received and the cost that that gift was. So he’s so thankful and talks about, “We’re all here to do this work, and it’s hard. And if you start complaining and whining, you haven’t gone and shed your blood yet for it.” It’s interesting that all the disciples, except for Judas, who took his own life, but all but one were martyred for their faith. They went through what Jesus went through. They died for it to speak the truth. It continues to happen in the world today. People speak the truth, are murdered or excluded, condemned, ruined, whatever.
So we have then in the gospel the most powerful image of why it is that prophets don’t give up, why Jesus didn’t give up, why he endured the shame of the cross. The shame was looking like he was a fool and he was a fake and his truth didn’t hold in the world. It wouldn’t accept him, and it’s true. The resistance was so much that they had to destroy him, but then he proved that you can’t stop the truth. It will not die. It comes back stronger always. That’s so hopeful to me in the world today that all this resistance we have to people that are standing up, trying to point out the insanity of so many things in the world going on today, trying to say war is useless, or this idea of competition, this idea of nationalism, whatever — I don’t want to get into politics at all, but there’s just certain things that people are claiming that I think most people see, “No, we tried that, and it didn’t work. It’s a lie.” So what we have in this gospel passage is the most beautiful image of what it is the truth actually does. “I’ve come to speak the truth.” John, the disciple who understood Jesus more than anybody, simply said, “Jesus is the truth incarnate. He’s the truth.” His essence is the truth, a loving, forgiving, understanding man/God filled with mercy and justice, both. Why do we see if it’s mercy or justice? No, they’re both. Mercy and justice, they have to be together, and he came to proclaim all of that. What he says about it, “It’s like a fire. I want to set this place on fire.” The interesting thing about fire in scripture, we tend to think of it as punishment because of our image of hell, but fire has always been, in the scripture, an image of transformation, burning out everything that’s fake and phony. It’s like when you heat metal and the gold in it is the only thing that survives, this sort of thing. That’s the image of this fire that he wants to do, and he calls it a baptism. That doesn’t necessarily mean baptism is the only way to the truth. He’s not talking about Jesus’ literal baptism, but we use that kind of metaphor when we say, “Oh God, that was like a baptism of fire,” because baptism means a dying to self, a dying to everything that’s fake and phony. It’s why the original way in which people were baptized and still are in many churches, even now in the Catholic churches, you’re put under the water as if you’re dying, and then you’re lifted out of the water. And you died in there, and then you come back to life.
So that’s the image of, “I want this transformation so bad, and I must go through it. I must go through it.” And there’s anguish in his struggle. I love the image of Jesus as this human being, 100 percent human as well as 100 percent God. He’s so attractive when you focus on his humanity, because he wasn’t perfect in that sense of never, ever speaking something that wasn’t completely capable of being taken from scripture and quoted in any situation that’s always true. That’s not the way scripture is. We’re listening to a human being, 100 percent human being, struggling with the work that is so passionate in his life, and it’s so frustrating for him when he sees people rejecting it even when he has the most amazing power as a miracle worker. And that’s what got him in so much trouble. You couldn’t necessarily write him off. You couldn’t, because he’d make blind people see. He’d make lame people walk. He’d make dead people come back to life. What are you going to do with a man that says, “I have this power, and that power is my credentials. And I want you to listen to me.” And the people were, and the people in authority were terrified — terrified. “What do we do with this guy? He’s going to threaten our existence, our way of having influence, therefore power, over people, and we get them to do what we want them to do. We’ve created a life for ourselves that we like very much even though it’s not necessarily for the good of others, but it’s certainly for the good of ourselves. So we’re not going to change that.”
So what’s interesting in this gospel is what he says is the result of people changing, and this is so true today. Have you ever lived in a world more divided over religion, politics, everything? Extreme to extreme, and it’s like everyone is against everyone else, Democrats against Republicans, liberal Catholics against conservative Catholics, one religion against another. All those things are so classically the sign that we’re in a period of radical change. How exciting. You ever get discouraged by saying, “I wish people wouldn’t just take such extremes”? Well, the extremes are not healthy in a sense. They’re not really working together, but they certainly do make you wonder which is true, who’s really holding the truth mostly. And then you can say, “All right, I need to choose a side. I need to choose a place where I’m going to be.” And how do you do that? The only way you do it is God gives you the strength and the wisdom to know. That’s the secret of Christianity, God speaking to you the truth, not finding it on the Internet, not finding it from the great preacher or finding it from some leader. No, you have the right to find the truth from a God who wants to reveal it to you with such energy, such passion he’ll never not lead you to that beautiful gift of truth.
Father, your passion that you placed in the heart of a man, Jesus, who is also God, is a model that we should have for our lives. It’s what you invite us to participate in, not as fully as he did but as real, in a way, as he did. So guide us in this incredibly important journey at this time in our world where we are desperately longing for that which is true, that which brings life, that which brings peace and unity. Help us to endure the division that often is the process before we can find that wholeness and that oneness, and we ask that in Jesus’ name, amen.