The Fire of Jesus

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 20
August 14, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: After a quick reading of this text, we might dismiss it as being an obvious mis-remembering of what Jesus actually said. Perhaps Luke has injected his own political perspective into a conversation which, many years after the fact, he can only dimly recall. However, a closer look at Jesus' manic outburst is telling a[euro]* telling us that he said what he meant and meant what he said.

Jesus said some harsh things during the brief, three years of his public life.

It's like he didn't even try to be nice. Instead, he used expressions and idioms that left no mistake as to his meaning, words like "vipers" and "serpents," "hypocrites" and "liars," "weeping" and "gnashing of teeth," "death" and "destruction."1 He referred to his enemies as whitewashed tombs full of rotting dead people and said that they a[euro]* his detractors a[euro]* were the devil's spawn.2 Their destiny, he said in no uncertain terms, was damnation and "eternal fire."3

One could argue, however, that Jesus' harshest words were reserved for hard-working, earnest families who thought they were living in connubial bliss and enjoying the best that life could offer, if you could ignore the Roman soldiers patrolling the streets. "I came to bring fire to the earth," he roared at astonished families. "Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?" Well, yes, that's exactly what we thought. But Jesus went on to explain that, to the contrary, his mission was to bring division and discord; he came to rip clans and tribes asunder. Families would be set against families. Relationships would unravel. In the apocalyptic vision of Jesus, the earth would be scorched, and not even the bonds of love would withstand the searing heat of the coming conflagration.

This is not the Jesus we know. Who is this person, we ask, and what have you done with the Jesus who said "let the little children come to me"?4 Clearly, the Jesus of this text is losing it; he's mad enough to drown puppies. He's not just in a bad mood: he's like a mule chewing on bumblebees. The fire of Jesus is coming and there will be blood.

The words, if not from Jesus, might have been attributed to the disciples who wanted to rain fire down upon the heads of those who had been hostile to them. Oddly, Jesus in that case rebuked them.5 Or, if we didn't know better, we might assume that Jesus' words here were lifted from some of the imprecatory psalms, calling down calamity and destruction upon the enemies of Yahweh.6 "I came to bring fire to the earth," Jesus said, but the words sound like something that might have come from the mouth of God himself, searing the edges of the Hebrew Bible with evocations of wrath, fire and brimstone: "Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!"7 Happy, indeed!

But the harsh words of our text come not from the psalms or a wrathful Old Testament Yahweh, but from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ himself. So, now what?

The easy answer and then the hard one

The problem is how to reconcile the Jesus who loves all "the little children of the world"8 with his statement that he wants to set the world on fire.

The easy answer is that this is the human Jesus talking, not the divine Christ. We mortals are not unified creatures dominated or motivated by a single driving force, but rather by a complex patchwork of competing desires. This is why in one chapter we might see Jesus having compassion on the multitudes and in the next, taking a whip to the backsides of the crooks doing business in the courts of the temple.

For example, a mother may be a wonderful, nurturing woman in the household, kind to her children and loving to her husband, while at work, however, she's the hard-nosed CEO who will hire and fire at will. Likewise, a father can't wait to join his family in the evening, play games with his children and take the schnauzer for a walk. Yet, during the day in his role as a football coach, he's a beast who yells and hollers, and makes final decisions on who makes the team and who doesn't.

Humans are singularly unique in this regard. We are Jekyll, but we are also Hyde. The wolf and the lamb coexist. This is who we humans are.

Winston Churchill was arguably the single most compelling reason that Britain was able to survive World War II. Yet, according to his biographer, Churchill resisted the idea that he had transformed the Britons into a fighting machine: "He believed the British race had 'the lion heart;' he only supplied the roar."9 That said, there was nothing more that Churchill loved to do than to be at Chartwell with Clementine, his children, his dog and with his easel, canvas and oils.

In this text, we hear the roar of Jesus. It would be a mistake to assume that the Jesus who is loving and kind, who wanted to draw the world to himself, who saw himself as the Great Physician and who drew little children to himself is incompatible with the one who stormed into the temple and threw the money changers out on their keisters and who now proclaims that he is coming to bring fire to the earth. Jesus is both one and the other.

But the harder answer is not that this is the human side of Jesus speaking but rather that it might be the divine side ! What if the human Jesus is the one who gathers children around his knees, but it is the divine Christ who now channels the wrath of God upon a world not yet ready to receive him?10

Perhaps this is what the Protestant apologist C.S. Lewis is driving at when he says, "Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not 'So there's no God after all,' but 'So this is what God's really like. Deceive yourself no longer.'"11

So, to return to the question: How do we reconcile the Jesus who loves all "the little children of the world" with his statement that he wants to set the world on fire? The easy and hard answer is that we reject the need for a reconciliation of natures . Jesus is the lion; he is also the lamb. He is both the roar and the whisper. He is both the fire and the water of baptism.

A little fire could be a good thing

Let's back the train into the station for a moment. Perhaps we've made a faulty assumption. We've assumed that what Jesus says is a bad thing , a terrible thing, something that if we could stop, we certainly would.

But what if the coming fire is not a bad thing but a good thing?

What if destruction is exactly what is needed before a new structure can be erected on the site of the devastation?

What if a purifying fire is precisely the remedy to remove the dross, dirt and degradation that has polluted the hearts and minds of the faithful?

What if only a scorching fire can pop open hitherto lifeless seeds buried in the detritus of indifference, thereby allowing new life to burst and blossom?

What if Jesus, the Light of the World, or should we say the "Fire of the World"?, is the only way to illuminate the narrow gate that leads to eternal life, and to avoid the broad path that leads to destruction?

Granted, in our anxiety about the severity of Jesus' language, we'd like to ask Jesus to tone down the rhetoric. Could Jesus please not be so off-putting? We act as though Jesus is the unwelcome relative who always embarrasses us by stating the obvious or by uttering an inconvenient truth at an inconvenient time.

But we've got it wrong! A little fire can be a good thing. A big fire as well. The hot flame of the refiner's fire12 is just what is needed in the church. And the fire of Jesus actually represents the true nature of Jesus himself as it reminds us of the sacred heart of Jesus which in Catholic art is usually depicted as a blood-red anatomically correct heart with flames and a halo of heavenly light.

There it is! A heart that's aflame! What we too often interpret as flames of rage and destruction are actually the flames of a heart that's red hot with passion and love for the world.

We, too, might be misunderstood

You might have noticed that those who are passionate about their beliefs are often difficult to live with, or are people we generally try to avoid. Doesn't it matter if their belief is true or false - whether they were gabbing about alien abductions or a low carb diet. We'll duck into a hallway or cross the street to evade recognition. We're not comfortable with those whom the late social philosopher Eric Hoffer called "true believers," that is those who have unyielding "faith in a holy cause," because, by and large, they've lost faith in themselves.13

Jesus has both the holy cause and faith in himself. This is why his words in today's reading make us uneasy. He is passionate, and both the level of his emotion and the subject matter makes us queasy. But Jesus didn't mind making people uncomfortable, and he warned us that those who follow him faithfully could expect to be victims of verbal abuse, culture bias and mocking ridicule: "If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. ... Because you do not belong to the world ... the world hates you. ... If they persecuted me, they will persecute you."14

The Gospel lesson today challenges us to remember that like Jesus, the prophets and the saints, we should not be surprised when we are misunderstood and abused for his sake. Even in such suffering, we bring glory to God, and we demonstrate our devotion and adoration to the sacred heart of Jesus who, because of his passion, gave himself for the world.


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