Jesus challenges us to step away from the herd

  • August 13, 2007

20th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C) Aug. 19 (Jeremiah 38:1-2, 4-6, 8-10; Psalm 40; Hebrews 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53)

Jeremiah is not the first or the only prophet to get into trouble by voicing contrary views during a crisis or time of war. Usually the party line is the only voice desired or permitted. But Jeremiah has the dubious honour of proclaiming the word of God — not his own — and it is not something that those in power want to hear.

Despite all of their political and military machinations, the city is going to fall to the Babylonians, and there is not a thing that they can do to prevent it. The prophet advises the people to surrender — life as a prisoner is better than death, and perhaps they will provide the descendants who will some day rebuild the city. Nothing is to be gained by needless slaughter. But to the ruling powers, this is treasonous and seditious talk. Jeremiah is demoralizing the troops and giving aid and comfort to the enemy. They order an attack that almost claims his life. His words come true, and many in the doomed city will forfeit their lives to a hopeless cause.

The message of a prophet is rarely welcome, for it usually questions the present course of action and calls for radical change. This should make us pause and reflect in our present situation. Those who criticize the way a war is conducted or even call its legitimacy into question are often accused of being unpatriotic or even in league with the enemy. But all human undertakings are measured by God’s standards, not ours, and what is unwise and unjust in His eyes will remain so despite our self-delusion or pride.

No one knows this more than Jesus, for He had to swim against a very strong current for His entire life. He is the trailblazer or pioneer, which means that He has cleared the path before us and expects us to follow it too. It is not a path where complacency, acceptance of the status quo, or human approval and respect are found. It is not a comfort zone; in fact, it can be extremely uncomfortable. It means challenging the claims of those in authority and questioning commonly held opinions and prejudices. Is it worth it? Jesus thought so — the joy of knowing that one is doing the will of God and that one’s life is pleasing to Him is more than enough compensation.

We are used to referring to Jesus as the Prince of Peace, and to find Him insisting that peace is not what He came to bring is jarring and upsetting. He uses images of fire, division and conflict to describe the purpose of His mission. His references to division within families would not win him a place on a “family values” platform. He is not speaking of the theological or doctrinal rancor and hatred that has caused crusades and religious wars. In these instances both parties in the dispute are in the wrong when they resort to violence and persecution. His is speaking of the sort of division that is caused by His mere presence and the drawing force that induces people to follow His spiritual path.

The teachings of Jesus challenge the believer to step away from the herd — away from tradition, custom, communal or ethnic religion, and the expectations of society. If followed, His spiritual principles are the catalyst for change in the lives of individuals, societies, nations and churches. This is terribly threatening to some people, for many abhor change when it affects their way of life or what they find familiar. When the words of Jesus are taken seriously and lived with integrity, division will be close behind. In fact, opposition is one indication that one is on the right path, while excessive approval and acceptance should make one pause and reflect.

The fire that Jesus wanted to start on the face of the earth is the purifying and transforming force of the Spirit. It is meant to sweep away all human institutions and activities that are not in harmony with God, especially those that cloak themselves in false religiosity, dishonesty and willful ignorance.

We should pray that it were blazing already, for we have nothing to lose except those things that separate us from God.