By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
First Reading: Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10; Response: Psalm 40:2, 3, 4, 18; Second Reading: Hebrews 12:1-4; Gospel: Luke 12:49-53
One aspect of New Testament theology depicts Jesus as the Man of Sorrows. Of all the actors in the Old Testament, the prophet Jeremiah is the most Christ-like as a man of sorrows. The context of our first reading is from a section of the Book of Jeremiah that can be called “The Sufferings of Jeremiah.” The approximate dates of Jeremiah’s ministry: 626-582 B.C. in the Kingdom of Judah, centered in Jerusalem. The kingdom was already a satellite of the Neo-Babylonian Empire under King Nebuchadnezzar. King Zedekiah of Judah rebelled against Babylonian rule. Nebuchadnezzar put Jerusalem under siege. Jeremiah’s divinely commanded role in this political turmoil was to persuade Zedekiah to yield to Babylon rather than bring destruction to his kingdom. To some patriots, especially of the royal family, this seemed treasonous. Jeremiah was arrested, beaten and imprisoned. He confronted his king about these punishments because he had done nothing but tell him the truth coming from the Lord. Zedekiah lightened Jeremiah’s treatment. His food ration was restored, but Jeremiah continued his warnings of defeat by the Babylonians.
Leading politicians pressured Zedekiah to silence Jeremiah. The king yielded. The prophet was lowered into a cistern into mud up to his armpits. An Ethiopian officer, probably the commander of the king’s personal guard, appealed to the king to save Jeremiah’s life. The King was unwilling to have the death of a prophet on his conscience. With the king’s permission Jeremiah was pulled out of the cistern but kept under arrest. Zedekiah met privately with Jeremiah. The latter appealed once more to the king to yield to the power of Babylon. Jeremiah gave another warning of the destruction of city, temple and royal family. He was then kept under some kind of house arrest until Jerusalem fell to the Babylonian army in 586 B.C. That is the story behind today’s first reading. This reading was selected to correspond to Jesus’ warnings in the gospel about what was to happen to him and the divisions that would come into Christian families because of him.
Psalm 40 continues, sometimes quite literally, the theme of Jeremiah’s suffering. “The Lord heard my cry. He drew me out of the pit of destruction, out of the mud of the swamp.” Not all the selected verses of the Psalm echo Jeremiah’s plight. The psalmist claims that the Lord put a new song in his mouth, “a hymn to our God.” The psalmist does not brazenly confront God like Jeremiah did (See Jeremiah 20:7-9.) That was Jeremiah on his worst days. Usually, his prayer was more like that of our psalmist: “You are my help and my deliverer. O my God, don’t hold back! Lord, help me!”
In last Sunday’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, the author presented us with a role model of faith — our spiritual ancestor Abraham. He listed other examples of faith, but our reading omitted them — a frequent fault in our readings. It is to Abraham and these omitted examples of faith that we reconnect today, as the author writes, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses….” He appeals to the recipients to follow the example of faith of the cloud of witnesses and “persevere in running the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, leader and perfector of faith.” From much of the letter, we suspect that the addressees of the letter were on the verge of giving up their new faith and returning to the form of Judaism which they held previously.
Jesus endured the cross, despising its disgrace. His reward: a position of power — seated on the right side of God’s throne. As if to say, “If perseverance worked for Jesus, it will work for you.” They must have been under pressure; some form of persecution. Thus, the author concludes, “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding (your) blood.”
The theme of suffering pervades the gospel reading as it did our first reading. “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing.’” In Luke 3:16, the Baptizer connects the Holy Spirit with fire. Referring to Jesus, he says, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Is this Luke’s reference to the first Christian Pentecost, when the incursion of the Holy Spirit is accompanied by “tongues of fire?” Immediately thereafter, the earth is set ablaze with the teachings of Jesus. Hebrews 1:7 speaks of God making his messengers “flames of fire.” The Church Father Cyril of Alexandria, died 444, vaguely connects this saying with the fire of the Holy Spirit. Whatever the meaning, it cannot begin until another event has occurred. “I have a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished.” The Institutor of baptism does not need the sacrament of baptism for himself, so baptism here must be understood as a metaphor; a symbol. Christian tradition, as seen in Mark 10:38-39, interpreted Jesus’ suffering and death as a baptism.
Mindful of what Luke revealed in the hymn of the angels, “… peace on earth to people of good will,” we are astonished at the next sayings he attributes to Jesus, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” But that is not new. The same theme is already heard back in Luke 2:34-35, in the words of old Simeon: “This child is destined for the rise and fall of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is contradicted.” Simeon turns to Jesus’ mother and says, “…and a sword will pierce through your own soul also.” It was not only Jesus’ immediate family that would suffer because of him, but families that would split over Christianity. Luke reflects on an oracle of the prophet Micah (700 B.C.) with these words he attributes to Jesus: “From now on, a household will be divided three against two, two against three, father against son, son against father, mother against daughter, daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, etc.” Luke knows of divisions in families during the persecution of Christians in Rome in the 60s, where family members betrayed family members to Roman authorities. He refers to this situation in Luke 21:16: “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death.”