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.