Life & Soul

Why Jesus says he brings fire to the earth

Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem, by Rembrandt (1630)

The 20th Sunday of the Year
Jer 38:4-6 & 8-10; Heb 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53 (Year C)

“Let Jeremiah be put to death: he is unquestionably disheartening the remaining soldiers in the city, and all the people too, by talking like this…”

Jeremiah, together with a host of martyrs reaching down to the present day, was not a welcome voice. As Jerusalem faced destruction, he alone proclaimed that resistance was futile. He alone had the courage to describe the coming disaster as the inevitable consequence of infidelity and the shameless exploitation of the poor. His contemporaries sought to silence him by abandoning him to drown in a muddy well.

Sinful humanity habitually resists the truth about itself. Thus, from the moment of his calling, Jeremiah had been entrusted with a divine message that had the power “to tear up and knock down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant”.

God’s Word continues to confront our lives: in prayer, in the Scriptures, and in its presence amongst those who share our journey. Pride refuses to acknowledge the truth about itself. Humility acknowledges its sin, allowing the power of that same Word to become its rebuilding and replanting.

Our own society is not so very different from that of Jeremiah. We have huge potential, and yet at the same time we face challenges that cannot be ignored. Climate change, and the inequalities between rich and poor nations, readily spring to mind. These are but examples; there are many other pressing needs. What is important is our response to these challenges. Do we bury them, as Jeremiah was cast into a well, or do we respond to them?

At the Presentation Simeon acknowledged the infant Jesus as a light to the nations. He also went on to describe him as destined for the fall and for the rising of many, as one who would lay bare the secret thoughts of many. As such he would become a sign that would be rejected.

Thus, in the fullness of his ministry, Jesus described himself as bringing fire to the earth. Fire, that purifies and refines, also has the power to consume what is worthless. Jesus, like Jeremiah before him, would speak words that confronted the arrogance of those who refused to listen.

“Do you suppose that I am here to bring peace on 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.”

May the fire of Christ’s living Word purify our divided hearts, enabling us, with him, to remain faithful in the face of rejection.