20th Sunday of the Year Jeremiah 38:4–6, 8–10; Hebrews 12:1–4; Luke 12:49–53
Should I kneel? Commitment to Jesus sometimes puts us in opposition to those we love.
Some time ago a newspaper columnist shared an important moment in his earlier life with his readers.* It happened when he was drafted into the Royal Air Force and found himself in a military barracks with 30 other men.
On the first night he had to make a big decision. He had always knelt to say his prayers. Should he continue to kneel now that he was in the military service? He squirmed a little bit and then said to himself:
“Why should I change just because people are watching? Am I going to begin my life away from home by letting other people dictate what I should and should not do?’’ He decided to kneel.
By the time he finished, he was aware that everyone else was aware of him. And when he made the Sign of the Cross, he was aware that everyone else knew that he was a Catholic.
As it turned out, he was the only Catholic in the barracks. Yet, night after night he knelt. He said that those ten minutes on his knees often led to discussions that lasted for hours.
On the last day in boot camp, someone said to him, “You’re the finest Christian I’ve ever met.’’ • Arthur Jones, National Catholic Reporter (March 28, 1986).
He replied, “Well, I might be the most public Christian you’ve ever met, but I don’t think I’m the finest. Still, I thank you for what you said.’’
That story illustrates one of the points of today’s gospel. Commitment to Jesus Christ means taking a stand on certain things. And, sometimes, that stand sets us in opposition to other people.
But it’s precisely this opposition that makes it possible for us to give the kind of witness Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount. He said:
“You are like light for the whole world.A city built on a hill cannot be hid.No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bowl; instead he puts it on the lampstand, where it gives light for everyone in the house. In the same way your light must shine before people, so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14–16
Sometimes our commitment to Jesus will cause us to be persecuted, as Jeremiah was in today’s first reading.
Sometimes it will cause us to struggle, as Paul notes in today’s second reading.
Sometimes it may even cause us to oppose our own family, as Jesus warns in today’s gospel.
This was one of the reasons why early Romans hated Christianity so much. It tore their families apart.
Once a son became a Christian, he could no longer join the others in pagan worship. He could no longer join the others at gladiatorial games to cheer on two slaves as they fought each other to death.
He could no longer join the others in encouraging his sister to let her crippled baby die, rather than to let it grow up handicapped.
He could no longer join his friends in orgies and other immoral activities that were so characteristic of Rome in its decadent years.
Over and over, Roman Christians had to decide whether they loved kith and kin more than they loved Christ.
And often this set them in opposition to their family.
An example of such opposition occurs in the play Fiddler on the Roof. The story takes place in Russia in 1905. The plot centers around a man named Tevye, the father of a poor Jewish family. Tevye has five daughters and no sons.
His eldest daughter marries a tailor who was not chosen for her by the traditional matchmaker. After a struggle with his conscience, Tevye accepts the marriage.
His next daughter marries a college student who has broken with many Jewish traditions. After another struggle with his conscience, Tevye accepts this marriage too.
Finally, the third daughter, Chava, marries a non-Jew, a young Russian soldier. When Tevye’s wife, Golde, breaks this news to him, Tevye says, “Chava is dead to us! We must forget her.’’
Golde exits from the stage, and Tevye begins to sing a beautiful song called “Chavaleh.’’ In it he pours out his heart to God. He can’t understand why Chava did what she did.
At that moment Chava appears and begins to plead with Tevye to accept her and her husband. Tevye looks up to heaven and says:
“How can I accept them? Can I deny everything I believe in? On the other hand, can I deny my own child? . . . [But if I deny everything I believe in . . .] if I try to bend that far, I will break. . . . No, Chava.’’
When Jesus invited people to follow him, he realized what he was asking of them. For some, it meant doing what Chava had to do. It meant leaving father, mother, and family.
In other words, commitment to Jesus has to take priority over everything else, even commitment to our own family.
And this is the message of today’s readings. It’s a message that is as important today as it was in the time of Jesus. The Christian’s commitment to Jesus and the Father must take priority over everything else. The Christian’s commitment to light and to truth cannot be compromised in any way.
“You are like light for the whole world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bowl; instead he puts it on the lampstand,where it gives light for everyone in the house.In the same way your light must shine before people,so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14–16
Lord, give us the courage to follow you, even though it causes us to struggle, as Paul notes in today’s second reading.
Lord, give us the courage to follow you, even though it causes us to be persecuted, as Jeremiah was in today’s first reading.
Lord, give us the courage to follow you, even though, sometimes, it sets us in opposition to our family, as Jesus warns in today’s gospel.
Series II 20th Sunday of the Year Jeremiah 38:4–6, 8–10; Hebrews 12:1–4; Luke 12:49–53
Fire lighters We must stand up, take a stand, and light fires, even when this means paying a personal price.
The July 10, 1989, issue of Newsweek magazine featured a cover story entitled “The New Volunteers: America’s Unsung Heroes.’’
The story described 28 people who are taking a stand in today’s society. They are people who are lighting candles instead of cursing the darkness.
For example, there is Kelley Weaverling, a kayak guide in Valdez, Alaska.
When the Valdez Bird Rescue Center was searching for someone to head up a wildlife rescue operation after the Exxon oil spill in March 1989, Kelley stepped forward.
Thirteen years before, he had come to Alaska “to get away from the world,’’ as he put it. Then when Exxon dumped 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, Kelley saw that he could never get away from the world. He lives in it.
Kelley compared the Exxon oil spill to “coming home and finding your house totally vandalized, your pet dead, and your wife raped.’’
Then he added, “I need to get involved. I’m ashamed it took this kick in the pants to get me going.’’ And so he organized 220 workers and 43 boats to rescue wildlife endangered by the spill.
Then there’s Shelby Long. In 1986, her neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia, recorded three murders, two rapes, and 134 burglaries.
That’s when Shelby felt her kick in the pants and decided to get involved. She organized the neighborhood to fight back. Two years later crime in that same neighborhood dwindled to no murders, no rapes, and only 20 burglaries.
Athird example is Waleed Sadruddin.
In 1989, this 17-year-old lived in Portland, Oregon, across the street from the boarded-up windows of a former crack house.
When he saw his friends joining street gangs, he felt his kick in the pants and decided to get involved. He organized his peers into a high school fraternity as a “positive alternative to gangs.’’
Members of the fraternity sponsor dances, clean up graffiti, and help one another with homework and with family problems. These three people are just a part of the army of 80 million Americans who have felt a kick in the pants and are getting involved. They walk in the tradition of Jesus, who says in today’s gospel, “I came to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already kindled!” But Jesus also goes on to say that taking a stand and lighting a fire often invites opposition.
It often divides a nation or a city sometimes even a family.
Witness the abortion controversy raging throughout the world. And this brings us to an important point.
When you take a stand and light a fire, you don’t always end up with your picture in Newsweek magazine. Sometimes you end up in jail.
Afew years back,Maryknoll magazine carried the story of a South Korean poet named Kim Chi Ha. The story was written by Kim’s mother.
During the South Korean dictatorship of the 1970s, Kim was sentenced to life in prison because he used his poems and his poetic talent to speak out against governmental corruption and governmental exploitation of the poor.
His mother wrote that her son was simply following the example of Jesus, who always spoke out in defense of the poor and the oppressed. Then, quoting her son, she said:
“Society puts these people down, but the gospel tells us they are important. There is a real struggle against evil in the world, and we must take [a stand].’’ We must identify with one or the other.
She concluded, saying: “I want to follow my son’s [example]. . I want to identify with the oppressed, the troubled, the despised.’’ What happened to Kim Chi Ha is what Jesus said might happen to his followers if they followed his example. St.Matthew quotes Jesus as saying:
“For my sake you will be brought to trial before rulers and kings. . . . No pupil is greater than his teacher. . . . So a pupil should be satisfied to become like his teacher. . . . Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” Matthew 10:18, 24–25, 28
The stories of Kelley Weaverling, Shelby Long,Waleed Sadruddin, and Kim Chi Ha are examples of people who are standing up and lighting fires.
They are examples of people who have heard Jesus’ words and have responded to them. They are examples of people who have felt a spiritual kick in the pants and have become involved.
They are people who invite us to join them in lighting candles instead of cursing the darkness.
They are people who invite us to take to heart the words of today’s second reading, when it says:
[L]et us rid ourselves of everything that gets in the way, and of the sin which holds on to us so tightly, and let us run with determination. . . . Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. . . . He did not give up because of the cross! . . . So do not let yourselves become discouraged and give up.
The words of Jesus in today’s gospel and the example of our brothers and sisters in Newsweek magazine invite us to consider how we might join them in lighting fires instead of cursing the darkness.
This is the message of today’s readings. This is the good news that we celebrate in this liturgy. This is the challenge that Jesus holds out to us today.
Series III 20th Sunday of the Year Jeremiah 38:4–6, 8–10; Hebrews 12:1–4; Luke 12:49–53
Witness Unless we stand for something, we will fall for everything.
Jesus said,] “I came to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Luke 12:49
Some time ago, a national magazine interviewed an 81-year-old great-grandmother named Dorothy Scott Smith.
For over 40 years, she has fasted on the anniversaries of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It is her way of making reparation for the suffering those bombs caused so many men, women, and children.
Dorothy is a former teacher and librarian. She has a long history of speaking out on issues of peace and justice
She began doing so during World War I. At the age of seven, she wrote a poem to protest the killing that was going on between nations. It reads:
If all of us were horses, how happy we would be. No one would start an awful war, so far across the sea.
We’d just eat grass all day long, or slumber in the sun.You’d never see us toting guns, or killing anyone. Later in her life, the Ku Klux Klan published an ad in the Miami Herald, calling for racial segregation. Dorothy responded to it with a letter of rebuttal to the paper.
When the Herald didn’t publish her letter, she had the paper print it as an ad and paid for it herself.
In recent years this great-grandmother has been arrested six times for protesting the militarization of space.
Her most recent arrest got her a sentence of 30 days in jail. Dorothy explains the reason for her protesting this way:
I must protest. I feel so hopeless. I want to stop the killing but I don’t know how. . . . I’ve tried petitions, vigils, and fasting. . . . I can think of no way that I’d rather die than to do so working for peace. Retold from an interview in Salt magazine
Dorothy’s story illustrates the point Jesus makes in today’s Mass readings. He says, “I came to set the earth on fire. . . . I came to bring . . . division.” Luke 12:49, 51
Jesus’ point is that there will be times when his followers will have to take a stand on certain moral issues of their time, just as he did in his time.
J esus warns us that taking a stand could bring persecution, as it did in today’s first reading.
Or it could bring insults and suffering, as Paul warns us that it might in today’s second reading. Finally, it could bring division between nation and even family members as Jesus warns us in today’s Gospel.
The early followers of Jesus did not have to wait long before these warnings became realities.
Hardly 30 years after Jesus ascended to heaven, people as far away as Rome were becoming Christian.
When members of a Roman family became Christian, their lives changed. They no longer joined their family members in pagan worship.
They no longer joined their friends at gladiatorial games in the Colosseum, cheering on two slaves as they fought each other to death.
They no longer joined school friends in the orgies and other immoral activities that were widespread in Rome in its declining, decadent years.
They no longer accepted the cultural practice of hastening the death of infants who were born with physical defects.
That brings us to our gathering here in this church today. When Jesus invites us to follow him, he realizes what he is asking us to do. And he wants us to realize it also.
He wants us to realize that our commitment to him and to his teaching must take priority over everything else.
And sometimes that means taking a stand that will cost us dearly both personally and socially.
To illustrate this point, consider two examples reported in Christopher News Notes some years back.
The first concerns Jim Reily, a teenager from Croton, New York.
Jim received national publicity when he resigned his paper route in protest to a sizable abortion ad in the Sunday edition of the paper.
The second concerns Bill Molloy, a man from Cincinnati. He received similar publicity when he arranged for an operation in a hospital that refused abortions.
He did this even though his doctor was not on the staff of that hospital. “It’s a statement of my beliefs,” he explained.
This brings us back to God’s word in today’s readings.
It is a word that is, in a sense, more important today than it was in the time of Jesus.
It is a word that must not be compromised in any way. It is a word that Jesus wants us to speak to our world.
He said to his followers in the Sermon on the Mount:
“You are like light for the whole world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. “No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bowl; instead it is put on the lampstand, where it gives light for everyone in the house.
“In the same way your light must shine before people, so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14–16