Like Jesus, we all have to do the heavy lifting

  • August 7, 2013

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) Aug. 18 (Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10; Psalm 40; Hebrews 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53)

Power is seldom thrilled or even willing to hear the truth, and this applies in any setting or time in history. Only words that confirm and protect the status quo and its power structures are acceptable. Unfortunately for Jeremiah, his entire mission consisted of proclaiming the unpleasant truth of God’s Word to the ruling elite. They had their minds set on power politics and military alliances to withstand the assaults of the Babylonians in the early sixth century B.C. and they were convinced that Jerusalem was impregnable. After all, it was God’s holy city!

Jeremiah, speaking on God’s behalf, demanded a shocking and appalling course of action: they were to surrender to the Babylonians and go into exile. We can imagine everyone’s reaction if respected religious figures urged surrender to the Nazis during the Second World War.

Why did Jeremiah give counsel for what seemed to everyone a distasteful, treasonous and defeatist plan? Wouldn’t resistance have been the better decision? The answer was simple: it was God’s will. The exile was to be a time of repentance and conversion for the collective sins of the nation. God would take care of them in exile and bring them home some day unharmed.

It was not to be. The authorities tried their best to silence or kill him. His words were not heeded and the people of Israel went into exile anyway, but after great loss of life and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.

Despite what we might think, God’s plans do not necessarily match our own desires or protect us from what we most fear. Not only are individual souls being formed and instructed, but the collective soul of humanity. Often this involves struggle, suffering and encountering head-on the evil and negativity that we have created. In our own time, God might ask Christians not to fight so hard to hang on to power, privilege and influence. God’s plan could entail a period of stripping, repentance and true conversion.

We cannot always choose the way that seems more pleasing to us. There are many Jeremiahs in our midst — it would be helpful if we were less defensive and more attentive.

We are never alone in this. Jesus has blazed a trail before us and done most of the “heavy lifting” so that we do not have to shoulder the entire burden. We have even more company. The cloud of unseen witnesses that surround us are not mere spectators but a veritable cheering section. To continue the author’s metaphor of the race, they run alongside us with words of encouragement in the same way that friends and spectators encourage faltering marathon runners.

Everyone must run the race — no one has to win and no time cards are kept, but all must at least finish.

We always think of Jesus as the prince of peace and as someone who heals and reconciles people. But He also said some puzzling and disturbing things about His role in history. He insisted that He brought not peace but division and would turn many people — even family members — against one another.

Jesus did not come to baptize the status quo and certainly not to make people comfortable. He taught us to be compassionate, forgiving, non-judgmental, non-violent, open-minded, humble, generous and simple. Those who really take His teachings seriously and apply them in their lives will not really fit in. They will be at odds with society and even with some religious people. They will be resisted and at times rejected or persecuted. That is just fine, for it is a sign that they are on the right path.

Religious faith should not be used to resist change, bolster institutions and power structures or confirm people in their opinions, fears and prejudices. In fact, Jesus wanted to start a fire blazing on the Earth, and the fire that He longed to ignite was the Spirit. In its ancient religious setting, fire was understood to be consuming and purifying. Jesus desired to remake and purify the Earth — and still does.

At various times in our history the fire has burned very low and threatened to be extinguished, but it has always burst into flame again. This only occurs when enough people open their minds and hearts to God and seek His will.