FOR PEACE OR FOR WAR?
Jer 3:4-6,8-10; Heb 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53
The gospel text of today is quite a difficult one to interpret. The first difficulty is that Jesus said: “I have come to set the earth on fire and how I wish it were already blazing.” How could Jesus be so careless with His words? Does this mean that Jesus has no more regard for lives and property? Is this not the same Jesus, who promised that he would “baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:16). Could this mean that the baptism he promised was intended to be a destructive baptism? From every evidence it one makes a literary interpretation of this text, the result would look very scary. Such an understanding of this text stands in total contradiction to everything that Jesus stands for.
- APPARENT CONTRADICTIONS
Jesus’ statement about fire stands against his peace offer to his disciples, in John 20:19, 21, after his resurrection: “Peace be with you! … Peace be with you, as the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” Furthermore, his utterance is at odds with the St. Luke’s picture of Jesus. For instance, when the Samaritans refused him passage through their territory, his disciples wanted Jesus to take action against them in these words: “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” (Luke 9:54). Jesus rejected this move in the most emphatic way. It is not for him to destroy with fire, but to build with love. Here we recall Jesus’ testamentary instruction to his disciples is: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). Clearly, Jesus is not about destruction, but about LOVE. With this biblical and background knowledge, we can try to unlock the mystery of today’s gospel. But, to begin with, let us now go through the various scenarios of the use of fire in the bible in order to see what Jesus means.
- USES OF FIRE
In the bible, “fire” has different applications in different scenarios. Here are the various broad instances of fire.
- a) Fire as destruction: Whenever fire used in a destructive sense, it was in connection with divine punishment for sins committed. However, in each of the cases fire is not used a reckless act of an uncaring God. It is consistent with the concept of “gehenna” or the fire of hell. This is a punitive fire.
- The first instance is from LUKE 3:9, 15-17 “The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.…”
- Also Luke 9:54 says: “When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” Here, the two disciples also had in mind the intention to punish.
- Punishment by fire is also seen in Revelation 20:9. The text says: “They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them.
- Fire and brimstone fell from heaven upon Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24-25) and destroyed those towns and all its inhabitants.
- One of the ten plagues against Egypt was fire and hail from heaven (Exodus 9:3).
- The prophet Elijah called down fire from heaven that incinerated soldiers sent from wicked King Ahaziah (2 Kings 1:9-17).
- Lightning is sometimes described as fire from heaven in the Bible (Psalm 27:9; Psalm 144:5-6). All of these fires from God, however, were destructive fires. And it is the destructive and consuming force of fire that we usually think of when we talk of fire.
- b) Fire as Divine Presence: There are several instances in the Old Testament that associate fire with the presence of Yahweh, the God of Israel. This is a positive and desirable use of fire.
- 1Chronicles 21:26 says: “David built an altar to the Lord there and sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings. He called on the Lord, and the Lord answered him with fire from heaven on the altar of burnt offering.”
- In the contest on Mount Carmel between Elijah and the prophets of Baal, fire was used to vindicate the God of Elijah (1Kings 18:24,38)
- The presence of Moses at the burning bush highlights God’s presence. At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God (Exodus 3:1-6). This event took place on Mount Horeb, described as the “Mountain of God.”
- Remember, the “pillar of fire” that accompanied the Israelites by night as they wandered through the desert to the Promised Land. (Exodus 13:21-22).
- In Acts 2:1-4, we have the Pentecost miracle.
- c) Fire as symbol of punishment: A great majority of instances in the Old Testament shows that fire is used as a symbol of divine punishment.
- Malachi 4:1 says: “For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,” says the LORD of hosts, “so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.”
- Isaiah 30:27-28 is reminiscent of the gospel of today. It says: “See, the name of the LORD is coming from afar, burning with anger, heavy with threat, His lips filled with fury, tongue like a consuming fire…”
- The prophet Elijah used this fire also as a punitive weapon. (2 Kings 1:12).
- THE FIRE JESUS SPOKE ABOUT
Fire is closely linked with the presence and the power of God. It is often used as an instrument of divine wrath, exercised against sinners, both Israelites and Gentiles. It is, therefore, logical to say that the “fire” of which Jesus spoke is the fire of divine wrath. It is a symbolic fire that engulfs evildoers. When Jesus said that he had come to “kindle a fire” he is saying that he has come to bring about the outpouring of God’s wrath on sinful Israel. It is a symbolic way of reminding his contemporaries that God has punished with fire in the past. He will do it again in their day. Jesus setting fire on earth is like the word of God that spits fire on the wicked. This reminds us that a merciful God is also a Judging God. The God who shows us mercy has given us also a roadmap to salvation. He has planted his signposts to show us the way to the kingdom. If we follow this, if we take a stand for him, we shall live.
In today’s gospel Jesus speaks about the cost of discipleship. He wants this fire to come to us so that we may become fully committed Christians who are willing to follow and imitate him, to work for him and even die for him as disciples in the world.
- FOR PEACE OR FOR WAR?
“Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Jesus explains that the Christian faith has a polarizing effect on the people around us. If we truly place our allegiance with Christ, we will alienate ourselves from some people, but Jesus also reminds us that giving Him first priority is the most important thing we can do. What the Lord stresses is that God’s peace should not be the kind that accepts compromises with evil, or tolerates injustices and wrongdoings. And a Christian must exemplify this “peace” even at the cost of antagonizing and hurting relatives or friends. Believing in Jesus would have an opposing effect on everyone, even to the point of dividing families, close friends.
This message is vividly illustrated in the story of Thomas More (1477-1535) whose life was immortalized in Robert Bolt’s multi-awarded movie, “A Man For All Seasons.” A devout layman and brilliant lawyer, Thomas More, was appointed High Chancellor of England by King Henry VIII. At a crucial point, Thomas was made to choose between friendship and loyalty to the king or his faith and conscience. He chose the latter when he opposed King Henry’s illegitimate union with Anne Boleyn and refused to recognize him as supreme head of the Church in England. In 1535, after resisting even the entreaties of his own family, which he considered contrary to the will of God, Thomas More was decapitated at the Tower of London with these parting words: “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.” In the life of every Christian, there will be situations, perhaps not as dramatic as that of Thomas More, when we, too, have to witness to our Christian principles and convictions, when we have to stand up against evil in society.
The readings today present us with the challenges of our faith and the challenges to our faith. Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern because he refused to hedge on the faith. He refused to tell the king what the king wanted to hear. He proclaimed the truth that God told him to proclaim, even though it cost him severely. The people to whom the Letters to the Hebrews was addressed were tempted to give up the faith. It seemed too difficult to them, too demanding. Further on in the letter, the author of Hebrews would tell them to lift up their drooping hands, and firm up their shaking knees. In today’s reading they are reproached for all their complaining. They had not yet resisted sin to the point of shedding blood. They are exhorted to keep their eyes focused on Jesus, and not be so concerned about their present lives.
Unfortunately, many Christians practice a passive religion. They express faith and go through the motions, but do not really commit themselves. Jesus calls for an active religion. Christianity is a revolution against the values of this world. Like Jeremiah (in today’s first reading) who denounced injustices for which he was persecuted and eventually killed or like St. Thomas More, to be a prophet in our times is not easy. Nonetheless, we pray to God that we may be active Christians, ready to testify to our faith at all times.