Fire on Earth
August 19, 2007
There are difficult words from Jesus in today’s gospel. He wishes to set the earth on fire. He speaks against peace. Our favorite images of Jesus are peaceful images: Jesus surrounded by children or holding sheep which had gone astray. These peaceful images attract us. So what sense can we make when Jesus says his coming is to establish division and he desires to set our world ablaze? Have we perhaps misunderstood Jesus’ message? Are we wrong to say that Jesus is the Prince of Peace? We are not. Jesus will bring peace. But his peace will not be complete until the last day when Jesus establishes God’s kingdom. Before that time, the role of peace must be more carefully considered.
When we follow Jesus getting to peace is not always peaceful. True peace is more than the absence of hostility. It is a life that is built on goodness and justice. As long as we live in a world where injustice and evil are present, opposing that evil and injustice is necessary. And opposing evil is hardly peaceful. Jesus does indeed call us to peace, but getting to peace is often disturbing and painful.
As we try to make sense of Jesus’ words in the gospel, an important distinction should be held in mind: the difference between keeping the peace and serving the peace. Christians are called not to keep the peace but to serve the peace. If we make keeping the peace our highest priority, we will never allow ourselves to upset or disturb anyone. We will always be inclined maintain the status quo and afraid to rock the boat. Such an approach runs the risk of covering over the injustice and evil that are present among us. When it tolerates evil, keeping the peace is contrary to God’s kingdom.
If we make keeping the peace our highest priority, we will never permit ourselves to say that a particular relationship is abusive, and we need to change it. We will never face the reality that our marriage is destructive and walk away from it. If keeping the peace is our highest priority, we will never have the courage to confront a family member about his or her alcoholism or speak out about verbal or sexual abuse in the workplace. It was a misguided desire to keep the peace that led certain bishops in our church to cover over the sexual abuse of children by priests. We suffer to this day from their decision to keep things quiet.
We are not called to keep the peace. We are called to serve the peace. Now of course this does not mean that making people angry is somehow valuable in itself. Upsetting people is often unwise and counter productive. But in a world where evil exists, opposition and confrontation are sometimes necessary to serve the peace. We might be called to serve the peace by marching against an unjust law or an unjust war. We might be called to serve the peace by standing against someone in authority who ignores the rights of another. We might be called to serve the peace by speaking the truth in our family, in our workplace, or in our church–even if speaking the truth makes waves and risks division.
Are you serving the peace or are you keeping the peace? That is a crucial question. If we end up covering over evil in an effort to keep the peace, we will in time be living a lie. And that lie will in the end destroy us. But if we can, with prudence and strength, oppose the evil that surrounds us, we will be serving the peace. Our efforts to confront evil are, of course, playing with fire. But when we light a fire to destroy the forces opposed to God’s Kingdom, Jesus would say, “Let it burn!”
Not Fearing Fire
August 18, 2013
When we come to Jesus, we do not expect fire. But this is what we get in today’s gospel. When we come to Jesus, we expect consolation and peace but Jesus’ words today are words of conflict and division. What’s going on here? First of all, it is important to note that when Jesus says he has come to set the world on fire, he is not speaking prescriptively but descriptively. That is, he is not prescribing or decreeing that there should be divisions on earth. He is rather describing what will happen in this world when we follow him.
In the imperfect and often unjust world in which we live, speaking the truth, standing up for what is right, is not always welcome. It often causes fire. You just said no to your teenager. “No, you’re not going to the mall with your friends, when there’s work to be done here at home. No, you’re not going to an unsupervised party, even if everyone else is.” There’s an angry comment, a slam of the bedroom door, and silence. You have done the right thing, but now there’s fire.
It’s been a long time coming. You call her into your office and let her know you have to let her go. Many deadlines have been missed. She is not able to keep up with the demanding pace in the office. Her irresponsibility and poor attitude are influencing others. She cleans out her desk and comes into your office to turn in the keys. Not a word is spoken, but you can see in her eyes the rejection and the anger. You have made the right decision, but you have also set things ablaze.
You are out with some friends, maybe at a party or at lunch period at school. One of them speaks up and cruelly demeans another person, because of their religion, race, or their sexual orientation. For a minute you think you will let it slip, but then you speak out against the comment. The people around you are surprised. Some of them hear what you are saying but others dismiss you as a hopeless fool. You have said the right thing, but you have also caused division.
How wonderful it would be if following Jesus was easy. When we stand for what is right or speak the truth, how great it would be to be greeted by applause. But this is not the world in which we live. So Jesus is telling us today that if we wish to assist him in building the kingdom of God, if we wish to contribute to making the world better and more just, then we cannot be afraid of fire.
In this sense maybe the words of Jesus are comforting after all. Often when we think of being a disciple or trying to be holy we imagine ourselves as being docile or peaceful. So, when we do or say things that get people upset or angry, we can begin to worry whether we are really doing what we should. Jesus comforts us in today’s Gospel. He tells us that speaking the truth and standing for what is right, even if it causes division, is not only compatible with the gospel but essential to it.
None of us wants to anger or upset people. But avoiding these things cannot be our top priority. Our fundamental obligation is to speak the truth and to make choices which are right. If we do this, we will be following Jesus—even if we set things on fire.
The Power of Fire
August 14, 2016
Fire is an image that Jesus uses in today’s gospel. But what does he mean when he says, “I have come to set the earth on fire?” How does fire connect to Jesus’ mission? Now usually when we think about fire, we think about heat or light, or even destruction. But fire can also be power—the power to change things.
About a million years ago, our human ancestors first discovered how to use and control fire. They probably saw fire begin from a lightning strike and figured out how to ignite it again with sparks and kindling. The discovery of fire was real power, power to change history. Now for the first time, humans controlled their own heat and could choose to live in colder climates. Now for the first time, humans could cook their food, which provided higher nutrition and probably spurred the development of the human brain. Fire is power: the power to change.
It is in this sense that Jesus uses fire in today’s gospel. Jesus sees his mission as a mission to ignite a fire that will bring about change. And what Jesus is trying to change is important. Jesus seeks to change the world. He says, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it was already blazing.” You see, all too often as we approach our faith, we think too small. We imagine that Jesus has come to change our hearts, or to help us with some personal addiction, or to make us better people. Of course, Jesus wants to do all those things. But his vision is much larger. Jesus wants a new world, a world whose structures no longer support greed, hatred, and violence. Jesus wants our world to become the Kingdom of God. So Jesus’ message is not so much inspirational as revolutionary. Not so much spiritual as evolutionary. Jesus wants the world to change. That is why he has come to set the earth on fire.
Now following this larger vision of Jesus is not easy. We can imagine what it is to be kind to our neighbor, to contribute to the poor at Christmas, or to forgive a family member who has hurt us. But how do we build a new world? How do we attack war, poverty and injustice? Envisioning that kind of a mission is more difficult to imagine and to accomplish.
But Jesus calls us to it. That is why if we are to be his disciples, it is not sufficient only to be good people and come to church. We have to feel the pain of this world and seek to end it. We have to recognize the abuse of our environment and work to correct it. We have to become involved in our political process to elect candidates of integrity, vision, and a commitment to the common good.
Jesus wants his gospel to change the world. That is a huge mission. But Christians continue to believe that it is possible. We continue to hope. That hope was expressed by the Jesuit theologian Teilhard de Chardin, who wrote, “Some day, after mastering the winds and the waves and the tides and gravity, we will harness for God the energies of love. Then, for the second time in the history of the world, humans will have discovered fire.”
The Prince of Peace
August 18, 2019
During the Christmas season, we celebrate the birth of the Christ as “The Prince of Peace.” So why does Jesus tell us in today’s gospel that he has not come to establish peace, but rather division? How can the same Christ who calls us over and over to forgive our brothers and sisters and calls peacemakers the children of God, now say that he has come to set the earth on fire and divide families right down the middle? To address this dilemma, it’s helpful to realize that the word “peace” has different senses in the New Testament. When “peace” refers to a goal, a goal for the world, Jesus accepts peace unconditionally. Peace on Earth is God’s will for us, and it is the purpose of the Kingdom. But when Jesus speaks the way he does about peace in today’s gospel, he wants us to realize that although peace is God’s desire, getting to peace is not always peaceful. Sometimes, we must be willing to risk a temporary peace, in order to achieve a lasting one.
As couples prepare for marriage in our diocese, we use an on-line instrument called “Prepare and Enrich.” This tool is used by millions of couples throughout our country, and its purpose is to determine how compatible the two people are who are planning to enter into marriage. In order to do this, the people at Prepare and Enrich have identified what they say is the most important quality for a successful marriage. Now, if you would ask me what the most important quality would be, I would say something like love or forgiveness or sacrifice. But what Prepare and Enrich believes is the most important quality in marriage is assertiveness. By assertiveness, they mean the ability of the partners within the marriage to tell one another what they really think, what they feel, and what they desire. Assertiveness is another word for telling your spouse the truth. Prepare and Enrich insists that, if a marriage does not have that quality, it will gradually become shallow and eventually fail.
So, why would a spouse not speak the truth? Because of a fear of an argument. Because of a risk that a partner would become disappointed or angry. So, instead of saying what a person really feels, wants, or needs, the person says nothing, or says what he thinks his or her spouse wants to hear. And the marriage begins to die. The truth has been avoided for the sake of peace. Now, this is the peace that Jesus wants to set on fire. This is the peace that he has come not to establish but destroy. Jesus wants us to know the truth cannot be sacrificed to keep the peace. And any peace that is not based on the truth will not last.
So, today’s gospel asks us are we willing to speak the truth to the people that are important to us, even though it might risk the peace. All married couples know what the hot-button issues are in their relationship. They could be issues of finance, in-laws, or raising children. Today’s gospel asks us are we willing to raise those issues, respectfully, but honestly. Not because we want an argument, but because we know, that unless our marriage is based on the truth, it cannot grow. We have people in our larger family and friends that disagree with us politically—disagree about immigration, healthcare, or national security. Today’s Gospel asks are we willing to share with them what we really believe, not because we’re looking for a fight, but because these people are important enough to us that they deserve to know who we really are.
Jesus is the Prince of Peace. He leads us into God’s peaceable kingdom. But getting to peace sometimes involves risking the peace. This is because a peace that is not built on truth is no peace at all.