20th Sunday Year (C)
(Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10; Hebrews 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53)
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we have a much-ignored aspect of Jesus' teaching set before us in our Gospel reading today, so let me recall His words for you:
Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division.
And not, indeed, any ordinary sort of division, such as east against west, black against white, or rich against poor, for example; but the most fundamental division:
For from now on five in one house will be divided: three against two and two against three. Father will be divided against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.
How do these words of Jesus fit in with all the modern cosy talk about setting aside all differences, forgetting whatever can separate people and concentrating wholly on being comfortably one, and reasonably happy, together? Jesus' words, of course, do not fit in with such an attitude to life. And yet, there are very many people -- even many Christians -- who seek to shape a world in which they hope everybody will able to live together with anybody, in peace, pleasure and prosperity, a world from which they want to root-out whatever differentiates, not just set it aside as unimportant but root it out as fundamentally wrong in comparison with the great good of human superficial oneness. They envisage a world built on and governed by only such principles and such standards as all can readily accept and freely agree on.
These visionaries, however, know little about human nature and care nothing about human destiny, and their prescription for life in modern society leads quickly into a situation where the lowest common denominator always prevails:
ABORTION has to be OK because many want it and most of those who don't want it are afraid of seeming to be unkind or inconsiderate, and, of course, a silenced baby is less of a load on one’s back than a screaming woman threatened with motherhood!;
CRIME is bad, of course, but punishment can seem to be so unloving, indeed, as many say, at times, so vengeful, therefore, let us tone down serious thoughts about justice, about past and future victims, about the effective protection and authentic good of society, and devote more – novel! -- thought and more publicly-appreciable efforts to transform the criminal to become not, sadly, a morally better person, but a more socially manageable and less troublesome one;
MARRIAGE between one man and one woman is by far the best, of course, especially for the children of such a union, but surely any sort of loving relationship has to be regarded as wholly acceptable, because, after all, marriage does make serious demands on the married couple, while other relationships are much easier and allow the life-styles of those with different ideas and/or idiosyncratic psychological make-up to appear as totally acceptable and equally commendable.
This ever-burgeoning option for no divisions, no trouble, no distinction, is the easy, popular, beginning of a landslide that can soon develop into a headlong and, ultimately irresistible avalanche capable of destroying human society like the herd of Gadarene swine in the Gospel story; for moral indifference gradually breeds citizens who regard society as nothing more than the milieu where they can hope to find and publicly practice their own type of personal pleasure, and make most personal profit from contacts with others. In the wilderness thus created, attitudes such as individual and social responsibility and civic pride soon come to be regarded as follies of the past; whist anarchy is seen, by a growing fringe, as the modern vision which alone can offer full personal expression and radical human freedom for everyone.
And so, while the doctrine of "laissez faire" as the French say, or "let things be" as we might put it, can never, admittedly, build-up or establish a truly human society, nevertheless, the common, man-in-the-street, understanding of Christian charity would seem to be totally against those strange words of Jesus:
"Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division."
Let us now face up to this difficulty instead of trying to ignore it, and we will find that the solution leads to a better understanding of human life and its possibilities.
The demands of charity are real, and for Christians they are supreme, but we can never rightly appreciate those demands until we have first come to understand the true nature of Christian charity.
First of all, is it always and necessarily opposed to division? If we think of charity as just getting on with other people, then, obviously, Christian charity as expressed in those words of Jesus is incompatible with modern social and secular ‘oneness’. Charity, however, is not just a matter of getting along with people: it is a supernatural gift from God, a sharing in the love which is the very life of the God Who made us for Himself; it is the living bond that unites Father and Son in the Holy Spirit and can transform our fallen humanity into one capable of sharing something of Jesus’ heavenly beatitude. Christian charity is a gift of God, a sharing in heavenly love come down to earth, because the Father sent His beloved Son among us, here on earth, to save us from our sins: the Son Who, in the power of His Holy Spirit, enables us to begin to live here on earth as children of God for a heavenly fulfilment according to principles that are divine.
Those who promote "laissez faire" or "let things be" do not recognize, do not acknowledge the reality of, ‘sin’ nor do they seek to promote morality; they think only in terms of criminality and ‘political correctness’: they think that human agreement and oneness is the all-important aim, an aim which is totally based on human, man-made, laws and regulations. We Christians, on the other hand, hold that "oneness in Christ" and the promotion of God’s law which is inscribed in the very make-up of humanity is the only possible solution for the real needs of mankind, the only viable programme that can lead to authentic personal fulfilment and a truly human society.
Now this understanding of Christian charity as an anticipatory participation in divine charity can -- under certain circumstances -- involve and even require earthly division:
He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. (Matthew 10:37)
There can be times and circumstances when we must put God first and loved-ones second: a choice that can indeed bring about division in family life and in society. And yet, such earthly division must never be allowed to break the rule of fraternal charity even here on earth, for whilst Jesus unequivocally demands:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind (Matthew 22:37);
He also, at the same time, tells us that there is a second commandment which is like the first and which demands that:
You shall love your neighbour as yourself (Matthew 22:39).
Therefore, where father or mother, son or daughter, would try to lead in ways that turn from God, from Jesus' teaching, then indeed Jesus brings division, for:
He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me (Matthew 10:37).
In all this, however, it is not racism -- contemporary society’s ‘bete noir’ -- or personal ill-feeling that divides, but solely love for Jesus, love for that Jesus Who will never allow us to forget what we owe to our heavenly Father, our earthly parents and family, or set aside love for our neighbour. In all this, it is simply a matter of the greater love prevailing in circumstances where a lesser love, though not followed, is nevertheless, not to be denied.
In other words, where love of God transcends all other loves, it can embrace and transform any earthly divisions. Modern ideas of social oneness, a human society without any distinctions, on the other hand, are unable to express divine love, and without that divine content they cannot truly express or fully promote Christian brotherly love or authentic human well-being. Because of this Christians are always obliged to seek, first and foremost, not human oneness, but love of God.
Because of His supreme love for the Father Jesus, to the end, evoked division:
One of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, "If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us!" But the other, answering, rebuked him saying, "Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!" And Jesus said to him, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise." (Luke 23:39-43)
Jesus walked the way of the Cross, and today there are too many Christians who fear that way, and who consequently try to persuade themselves that they are doing right when they distort Christian teaching in order to promote human agreement.
Jeremiah provoked opposition and division as you heard in the first reading. In the beginning of his career as prophet of God he had been afraid to speak divisive words, even though the words were God's Own words. God took him the by the scruff of his neck, so to speak, and told him (Jer. 1:17):
Therefore, prepare yourself and arise, and speak to them all that I command you. Do not be dismayed before their faces, lest I dismay you before them.
In other words: ‘Be afraid, and I will give you reason to be afraid! Now stand up prepared and ready for whatever comes!’ Such indeed is the message many Catholics need to hear today, that is, many of those who, from fear of human opposition and human divisions, would rather try to water down, change, Catholic teaching in order to accommodate modern attitudes and bring as many as possible into the pseudo-fold of comfortable conformity. These attempts can only fail because their promoters are seen to be both faithless and also very, very proud, since it is God the Father alone Who brings those He has called, to one true fold of Jesus:
No one can come to Me unless the Father Who sent Me draws him.
Our job, as disciples of Jesus in Mother Church, is to show Jesus to the world, and for that purpose Mother Church has been guaranteed the presence of the Holy Spirit to lead her into all truth about Jesus and to form all men and women of good will by His grace through her sacraments into a likeness of Jesus. The loyal handing-down of divine truth, and the gracious lifting-up of her children as disciples of Jesus for the Father, is the whole function and purpose of the Spirit-guided-and-endowed Mother Church in this world; and we, her children, must never directly seek or try to promote whatever fosters human disaffections, because Jesus has commanded us, quite unequivocally:
You shall love your neighbour as yourself. (Matthew 22:39)
Nevertheless, on the other hand, we are not to fear unsought divisions overmuch, because human differences that arise out of love of God can be healed, for all men and women of good-will, by that very love of God.
Therefore, as disciples of Jesus, we must always bear in mind the words we heard in the second reading:
Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith Who, for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-3)
The great Greek doctor of the Church, St. John Chrysostom, lived in the 4th century, and because he was famous as a preacher -- being popularly known as the golden-tongued one (that is what Chrysostom means) -- was raised to the supreme dignity of patriarch in the imperial city. Nevertheless, he refused to curry favour by preaching what the emperor and his courtiers wanted to hear, and consequently was banished, and ultimately died in exile for His witness to Christ. This great saint, I say, who so eminently practiced what he preached, commenting on these words of Our Lord:
You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavour, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men, (Matthew 5:13)
says in one of his sermons:
Jesus tells His disciples “unless you are prepared to face up to opposition, you have been chosen in vain.” Do not fear evil words, but do fear lest you yourselves should share in the pretences of others, for then, “You will become like tasteless salt; trodden under foot, and despised by everyone.” However, if you resolutely refuse to back down before them, and then hear people speaking against you, rejoice; for this is what salt is for, to sting the corrupt, and make them smart! Of course, they will blame you but that won't harm you, on the contrary, it will be a testimony to your firmness.
We who are Catholics today do not have to face up to Emperors and their cronies, as did St. John Chrysostom, but we do face a world both fearful and hostile where there are too many Catholics we need ‘to make smart’. For, we have been given a wonderful privilege -- the true faith -- and we are called to be witnesses before the world to the truth of Jesus. Let us resolve, therefore, to show our gratitude for God's great and gracious Gift by trying to prove ourselves more faithful to our calling: witnessing to the Faith, neither fearing opposition nor currying favour, and loving God first and foremost at all times and in all circumstances.