Aug 18, 2019: 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

1st Reading – Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10

In those days, the princes said to the king:
“Jeremiah ought to be put to death;
he is demoralizing the soldiers who are left in this city,
and all the people, by speaking such things to them;
he is not interested in the welfare of our people,
but in their ruin.”
King Zedekiah answered: “He is in your power”;
for the king could do nothing with them.
And so they took Jeremiah
and threw him into the cistern of Prince Malchiah,
which was in the quarters of the guard,
letting him down with ropes.
There was no water in the cistern, only mud,
and Jeremiah sank into the mud.

Ebed-melech, a court official,
went there from the palace and said to him:
“My lord king,
these men have been at fault
in all they have done to the prophet Jeremiah,
casting him into the cistern.
He will die of famine on the spot,
for there is no more food in the city.”
Then the king ordered Ebed-melech the Cushite
to take three men along with him,
and draw the prophet Jeremiah out of the cistern before
he should die.

Today’s dramatic first reading is the passage from the middle of a story.  It involves a clash between a prophet and a government, a national crisis, and political power plays.

In those days, the princes said to the king: “Jeremiah ought to be put to death;

The setting is Jerusalem in 588 BC.  The city is under siege by the Babylonian armies of Nebuchadnezzar and the situation is dire. Jeremiah preached an unwelcome truth: that the Babylonians would be victorious in the upcoming battle. He counseled surrender to King Zedekiah, which enraged the princes of Judah.  In such a time of national crisis, Jeremiah’s behavior was an act of treason punishable by death.

Zedekiah would be the last of the kings of Judah before the Babylonian Exile.  As we will see, he was no match for the political intrigues of his day.

he is demoralizing the soldiers who are left in this city,

The literal Hebrew expression is “he weakens the hands of the men of war.”

and all the people, by speaking such things to them; he is not interested in the welfare of our people, but in their ruin.”

The princes claim that Jeremiah’s preaching had a devastating effect not only on the soldiers but on the general population; they accuse him of treason.

This is a case where the word of God spoken by the prophet is in deadly conflict with the policies of the nation. In such a situation, the one who speaks in God’s name is likely to pay the price, which is exactly what happens in this case.  Instead of listening to the truth that Jeremiah is teaching, they want to silence him.

King Zedekiah answered: “He is in your power”; for the king could do nothing with them.

It seems that the king would have preferred another course of action (perhaps he was open to Jeremiah’s message), but clearly the true power is in the hands of the princes.

And so they took Jeremiah and threw him into the cistern of Prince Malchiah, which was in the quarters of the guard, letting him down with ropes. 

The princes have Jeremiah thrown into a well, choosing for him a death without bloodshed for reasons not given.  Perhaps they didn’t want the blood of a prophet on their hands.

There was no water in the cistern, only mud, and Jeremiah sank into the mud.

Every town had a cistern with walls built of rock and plastered with limestone, to collect and hold precious rainwater.  The cistern’s opening was narrow, to prevent the loss of water by evaporation.  At the end of the dry summer season, most of the water had been drawn, leaving the bottom mud in which Jeremiah was trapped.

Ebed-melech went there from the palace and said to him, “My lord king, these men have been at fault in all they have done to the prophet Jeremiah, casting him into the cistern.

The man who saves Jeremiah is a foreigner, a Cushite (i.e., Ethiopian) eunuch in Zedekiah’s court.  His name means “servant (’ebed) of the king (melek).”  His reasons for stepping forward on Jeremiah’s behalf are not given.

He will die of famine on the spot,

His explanation to the king about the impending death of Jeremiah in the cistern is a bit strange, since that was precisely why he had been put there in the first place.  Perhaps the king was unaware of what the princes had specifically done, or perhaps he simply had a change of heart.

for there is no more food in the city.”

Further evidence that Jerusalem is losing the battle.

Then the king ordered Ebed-melech the Cushite to take three men along with him, and draw the prophet Jeremiah out of the cistern before he should die.

At the urging of Ebed-melech, the king gives permission for Jeremiah’s rescue.

2nd Reading – Hebrews 12:1-4

Brothers and sisters:
Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,
let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us
and persevere in running the race that lies before us
while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus,
the leader and perfecter of faith.
For the sake of the joy that lay before him
he endured the cross, despising its shame,
and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.
Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners,
in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.
In your struggle against sin
you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.

Today’s reading from our study of Hebrews is an exhortation for endurance, using the familiar metaphor of a race.

Brothers and sisters: since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,

Since the games were one of the major events in the Greco-Roman world, the race metaphor was marvelously effective.  The author begins the analogy by describing a cloud of witnesses, just as the games were often held in a large stadium filled with crowds.

In our reading from Hebrews last week, the author held up Abraham as a model of faith.  In the section between that reading and this one, many more models of faith were referenced from the Old Testament.  This is who comprises the “great cloud of witnesses.”

Just as athletes are spurred on by the cheers of the people in the stands, so too Christians are encouraged by those who have preceded them.

let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us

Runners must strip themselves of anything that might encumber them, carrying nothing that is not essential for the race.

This is true for Christians as well: we must not be impeded by the unnecessary weight of sin.  To carry such a burden would deprive the runner of the freedom to move swiftly, and in fact would make running so difficult, they would tire very quickly.

and persevere in running the race that lies before us

For Christians, life is a participatory race, not a spectator sport.

while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.

Success in any athletic venture requires the athlete to have a goal that is kept uppermost in mind.  The author insists that our goal is Jesus, who has already run (and won) the race.

For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.

The author is urging the Hebrews to remain faithful. Jesus is the preeminent model, having faithfully endured both the cross and the opposition of others.  Having been put to death, he is now seated triumphantly in the place of honor, at God’s right hand.

Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.

As runners begin to tire, they can look to Christ.  This suggests that, like a marathon runner rather than a sprinter, the Christian runner is in for the long haul.

In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.

Here the running/race analogy breaks down a bit, as shedding blood is more characteristic of boxing or wrestling than running.

The author acknowledges that the addressees of his letter have known persecution, but nothing as serious as what Jesus suffered. They are not alone in their struggle, they have the cloud of witnesses supporting them, it is not time to think of giving up.

Gospel – Luke 12:49-53

Jesus said to his disciples:
“I have come to set the earth on fire,
and how I wish it were already blazing!
There is a baptism with which I must be baptized,
and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!
Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?
No, I tell you, but rather division.
From now on a household of five will be divided,
three against two and two against three;
a father will be divided against his son
and a son against his father,
a mother against her daughter
and a daughter against her mother,
a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

The picture Jesus paints of himself in today’s gospel reading is troubling if we think of him merely as a gentle Messiah who came to spread peace throughout the world.

Jesus said to his disciples: “I have come to set the earth on fire,

Fire symbolizes many things:

  • Casting fire usually denotes judgment, as it did with Elijah in 2 Kings 1:10-14.
  • It could be an allusion to the refiner’s fire of which the prophet Malachi spoke (Malachi 3:2).
  • Fire symbolizes the presence of God: recall that God made his presence known to the Israelites through the burning bush and the pillar of fire that led them out of bondage.
  • Fire also symbolizes the Holy Spirit: tongues of fire rested over the head of each person at Pentecost (however, the negative tone of this passage suggests otherwise).
  • John the Baptist said that Jesus would baptize with “the holy spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16).

All of these aspects can be reconciled in the knowledge that encountering the living God refines, purifies, and transforms those who are open to conversion, but destroys those who persist in asserting the self as independent of God and God’s reign.

“The fire is Christ’s own passion of love, a fire that is to be handed on. Whoever comes close to him must be prepared to be burned. This is a fire that makes things bright and pure and free and grand. Being a Christian, then, is daring to entrust oneself to this burning fire. The message of the Church is there precisely in order to conflict with our behavior, to tear man out of his life of lies and to bring clarity and truth. Truth makes demands, and it also burns.” —Pope Benedict XVI

and how I wish it were already blazing!

In addition to describing the effect of his ministry (setting the earth on fire), Jesus also conveys a tremendous sense of urgency.

There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!

Jesus speaks of the baptism he must undergo, which is a reference not to ritual baptism but to his coming passion and death.  While he dreads it, he also embraces it, for he knows it will be the means by which he will accomplish his mission.

Jesus isn’t eager for these disturbing events to unfold; rather, he burns with zeal for the accomplishment of his earthly mission — a mission which, in calling for radical change, will inevitably include dire consequences.

“We have, indeed, a second font, one with the former: namely, that of blood, of which the Lord says: ‘There is a baptism with which I must be baptized,’ when He had already been baptized. For he had come through water and blood (1 John 5:6), as John wrote, so that He might be baptized with water and glorified with blood. He sent out these two baptisms from the wound in His pierced side, that we might in like manner be called by water and chosen by blood, and so that they who believed in His blood might be washed in the water. If they might be washed in water, they must necessarily be so by blood (see Matthew 22:14). This is the baptism which replaces that of the fountain, when it has not been received, and restores it when it has been lost.” [Tertullian (A.D. 200-206), Baptism 16,1]

Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.

We must take the message of the Bible as a whole, and not just one passage here or there.  Jesus was clearly a man of peace; he is not saying that the desired effect of his mission was to divide people.  However, the message he proclaimed was clearly divisive. Some who heard it would come to believe Jesus and become his followers.  Others would not believe and would become angry, and even persecute those who believe.  Jesus knows this from experience.

Also, recall that many of the claims he made cut to the core of the dominant social and religious customs and understanding of the time.  For example, he insisted that commitment to him and his message must take precedence over any political or family loyalties; this was another cause of the division he describes.

Jesus has set the stage for this pronouncement throughout Luke’s gospel:

  • He taught the disciples about the hardship of his and their calling (9:23-24).
  • He twice told the disciples that he will suffer and die (9:22, 44).
  • He was accused of casting out evil spirits by the power of Beelzebub (11:15).
  • He experienced the inhospitality of the Samaritans (9:52-53).

From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

Those who were originally bonded to each other by the closest human ties were often torn apart by loyalty to Christ. The animosity Jesus created was also the cause of his own rejection and ultimately, his suffering and death.

There is no consoling conclusion to this discourse.  Believers can accept Christ’s teaching and the rejection that may result, or reject his teaching and endure the fire of judgment.  It is for the hearers to decide which course of action they will choose.

Connections and Themes

The cost of discipleship. So much is demanded of Christ’s followers, one wonders why anyone would accept his message.  As disciples, we commit ourselves to values and principles that not everyone shares.  We can be misunderstood and even ridiculed for our beliefs.  There may be times when we must stand in opposition to others.  Discipleship can place enmity between us and those we love.

Yet if we are genuinely committed, we realize that there is also a price to pay if we are not faithful.  It is very difficult to live with ourselves when we disregard our deepest convictions and ignore the promptings of God.  As difficult as a life of faith may be, we know that such a life is the only way to live in this world.  Fidelity may exact a dear price, but it is the only way open to us if we are to be true to ourselves and God.

Divine assistance. Faced with the cost of discipleship, we quickly realize that we do not have the resources to pay it on our own.  We need, and have, assistance.  The first reading assures us that God will stoop down and draw us out of our pit, and we may find, as Jeremiah did, that this aid comes from places and people we would never expect.  Strangers can help us; children can open our eyes; the elderly can provide insight.  We may find that those closest to us are not supportive, but there are others that appreciate the stands we take and the directions we set for ourselves.  We may discover that while we lose some brothers and sisters, we gain others. The real support we receive, however, is from Jesus, who came to set the world and our hearts on fire.  He endured the cross and gave us an example to follow.

The communion of saints.  Paul assures us that there is a vast throng cheering us on as we run the race of discipleship.  They are not merely spectators; they are those who have already run or are still running their own race.  We are not alone in our commitment, in our struggle — there are many witnesses and examples to follow.  Some of them have already died but left behind a legacy.  Some of them are people we know, others are strangers.  They could be people in our workplace or in our neighborhood.  It is through these witnesses, these fellow believers, that God draws us out of the pit; it is through them that God comes to our aid.

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