First Reading: Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10; Response: Psalm 40:2, 3, 4, 18; Second Reading: Hebrew 12:1-4; Gospel: Luke 12:49-53
The context of the first reading is from a section of the oracles and history of the prophet Jeremiah called “the Sufferings of Jeremiah.” The action in this reading is situated in the last days of the Kingdom of Judah. The Kingdom of Judah was already subject to King Nebuchadnezzar as a satellite kingdom. Zedekiah, the last of the kings of Judah, rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar. The Babylonian army put Jerusalem under siege. Jeremiah’s role in this political turmoil had for some time brought from the Lord a command to yield to Nebuchadnezzar rather than endure the destruction of Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah. To some, especially of the royal family, such words were treasonous. Jeremiah was arrested, beaten and put into prison. He confronted Zedekiah for these punishments though he had only told him the truth about the Babylonian attack on the kingdom. The king lightened his treatment, and his food ration was restored. Jeremiah kept on with his warnings of defeat by the Babylonians.
Some of the leading politicians pressured King Zedekiah to silence Jeremiah. The king yielded. The prophet was let down into a cistern into mud up to his armpits. An Ethiopian eunuch, probably the commander of the king’s personal guard, appealed to the king to save Jeremiah’s life. King Zedekiah, not wanting the martyrdom of God’s prophet on his conscience, yielded again. They pulled Jeremiah out of the cistern but kept him under arrest. Zedekiah then had a private meeting with Jeremiah. The prophet appealed to the king to yield to the King of Babylon. He gave the king a final warning about the destruction of city, temple and royal family. The king, afraid of his own officials, had Jeremiah returned to some kind of house arrest, where he was kept until the city fell to the Babylonian army in 586 B.C. That is the background and the gist of today’s first reading. This reading was selected to correspond in theme to the gospel reading of today, which speaks of the sufferings Jesus would endure and divisions that would come into future Christian families because some became Christians.
The Responsorial Psalm 40 continues the suffering theme from Jeremiah, but ends with confidence that God cares about the Psalmist. These words in particular fit the story of Jeremiah, “I have waited, waited for the Lord . . . . The Lord heard my cry. He drew me out of the pit of destruction, out of the mud . . . .” Although Jeremiah did not sing a hymn of praise after his rescue, (perhaps because he was still under arrest), the Psalmist sings, “He put a new song into my mouth, a hymn to our God.” The People’s Response, “Lord, come to our aid.”
Last week’s second reading, also from the Letter to the Hebrews, presented us with part of a catalogue of Old Testament figures who lived and acted by faith and trust in God. Our reading last week was limited to the faith (trust in God) only of Abraham. There were many others in the Letter. Today’s reading begins in reference to those faithful ones, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses . . . .” The theme of perseverance in the faith continues to the addressees who are wavering, “and persevere in running the race that lies before us.” The author offers a role model of perseverance, “keeping eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of faith,” a reference to Jesus’ trust in his Father and determination to carry out the Father’s will. Finally, the author reminds his readers and hearers they have not endured as much as some others, “You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood,” as many did in Nero’s brutal persecution of the Christians of Rome in the 60s of the first Christian century.
The gospel reading assembles sayings attributed to Jesus. All of them refer to suffering, first of Jesus, then of Christians within families, implying betrayal of members of the same family. This actually happened, according to the early second-century Roman historian Tacitus. The gospel begins with a difficult statement, “I came to cast fire upon the earth, and how I wish that it were already blazing.” Is this the fire of or from the Holy Spirit of Luke 3:16, in words attributed to John the Baptizer? As he describes Jesus, he says, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire,” The Holy Spirit and fire are also connected by Luke in the descent of the Spirit on the Christian Community in tongues of fire, the first Christian Pentecost. Is it the fire of the word of God, as in the words of the Emmaus disciples’ response to Jesus’ instructing them “in all the Scriptures concerning him,” Luke 24:27. “Were not our hearts burning within us . . . ?” Consultation with the Fathers of the Church on this passage of Luke is not much help. We can echo the great Augustine, (died 430), who said about another passage, “No one has satisfactorily explained this, so neither will I attempt it.”
Whatever that fire may be, it cannot begin until another event occurs, “I have a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished.” We know from Mark 10:38-39 that this “baptism” of Jesus is a metaphor for his crucifixion. Considering that Luke composed his gospel only two decades after the Neronian persecution of Christians in Rome, the sayings about divisions in families refer to persecution and betrayal within families. The sayings begin with another difficult statement attributed to Jesus, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” One may ask if this is a direct quote from Jesus, or rather a statement influenced by Luke’s knowledge of the prophet Micah, 700 B.C., Micah 7:5-6? This seems likely. Luke is using the words of this ancient prophet to express the family divisions that already happened in the persecution of the 60s, and were perhaps still happening in the 80s, the time of composition of Luke’s gospel. In Luke 21:16, the author
writes, “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death.”