“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing…! Do you think that I have come to establish peace on earth? The contrary is true; I have come for division.” Luke 12, 49-56
Just before he was arrested, Jesus prayed for his disciples and for all of us: “Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are…I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17, 11-21). I ask myself just how I am expected to reconcile this prayer with Jesus’ assertion in today’s gospel reading that he has come into the world to cause division.
Might it be that the love and unity offered by the world we know only too well are fake and fraudulent? If the love and unity of which Jesus speaks find their way into our lives, we would end up being a threat to countless politicians and their promises and policies. In fact, the politicians would try to threaten and silence us. But it is not only politicians who do this. Opposition comes from all those whose lack of integrity, compromise and dishonesty are threatened by truth and justice. Moral integrity comes at a cost and efforts are made to buy off those who display it. Those who refuse to compromise are bad-mouthed and ostracised. Those who persist in championing what is right may well divide communities, families and even church congregations. Persistently pursuing the kind of peace, love and unity that Jesus promoted kindles the fires of conflict, competition and bitterness.
Who, then, is the Jesus in whom I put my belief and trust? To begin with, he was an itinerant preacher who refused to be bound by intolerable religious rules and regulations. Moreover, he publicly condemned those who promoted them, calling them names like hypocrites, whitened sepulchres, broods of vipers, showoffs and attention seekers. What’s more, he niggled and provoked those religious leaders by persisting in curing the sick and disabled on the sabbath, when he might have put it off until the following day. Had he been as mild-mannered and sweet-talking as many might have preferred him to be, nobody would have called for his execution. Yet, he continued to make a nuisance of himself, uncovering the cracks in an organised religious institution led by those who ruled by fear and who could see that their personal comfort would be threatened if the ordinary people were to be overly influenced by Jesus: “It’s far better for one man to die than that we end up losing the support of the whole notion”, argued the high priest. But lest the people might see the high priest’s self-interest for what it was, accusations of blasphemy were raised: “The Jews were seeking all the more to kill him because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God” (John 5, 18). And in Mark’s Gospel, we are told how Jesus, placed under oath at his trial by the high priest, responded to the question “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” with a direct, unambiguous “I am” (Mark 14, 61-62). Therefore, it is for us to decide where we stand. Do we accept as genuine what Jesus said about himself, or was he a fraud? We can come to our decision, only by considering everything else that Jesus had said and done in the course of his public ministry. Did his words and actions address real needs and have a ring of integrity about them?
In this context, I am encouraged by the words of Jesuit, religious educator William O’Malley, who clearly understands Catholicity to be a religion for adults:
We are children until we can get beyond the motivations of fear and hope of being rewarded to understanding the value of acting on principle, of doing something because we know that it is precisely the right thing to do. It’s the shift from all the “Thou shalt nots” of the Old Testament to embracing Jesus’ only two commandments: “Love God by loving one’s neighbour.” There’s no escape clause there. Genuine love does not ask: “How far can I go before it’s a sin?”
Moreover, check out the only question that Jesus offers for judging whether the life we each have is worth God’s investment in us: “How did you treat me when you saw me hungry…thirsty…naked…? When I was the one they bullied or called ‘loser’, ‘queer’, ‘slut’, how did you deal with me then?” (W. J. O’Malley, God Questions, Paulist Press, NY 2015)
The way in which Jesus lived his life does not allow us to treat him with indifference. His outspokenness attracted hostility. The same hostility and division await anyone who chooses to walk in his footsteps. Look, for example, at the life of Austrian peasant-farmer, Franz Jägerstätter. He voted “no” in the 1938 plebiscite that led to Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria. He declined to contribute to Nazi collections, and when he was inducted into military service, he refused to serve in Hitler’s army. Consequently, he was arrested, imprisoned and beheaded. Franz’s resistance was a cause of division in his own village. His parish priest urged him to consider his duty to his country and his own family (he was the father of three young children). The Catholic bishop concluded that he was in error, despite his sincerity. After the war, the bishop refused to allow the diocesan newspaper to publish articles about Franz, stating that such articles “might create confusion and disturb consciences”. The war-memorial in the village even now lists 56 Catholics who died fighting for the Nazis. Franz Jägerstätter has no monument to his memory. The German chaplain to the prison where Franz was executed was the only one to express admiration for his courage and heroism. He confided to a group of Austrian, religious Sisters: “I can only congratulate you on this countryman of yours who lived as a saint and has now died a hero. I say with certainty that this simple man is the only saint I have ever met in my lifetime.”
Is the Jesus I follow, a warm, fuzzy, anaemic-looking wuss of a man or one of courage and principle, who causes division? Retired parish priest, William Bausch shares this fable:
Once upon a time, the Devil and a friend went for a walk. They saw a man ahead of them stoop down and pick up something on the road. “What did that man find?” asked the Devil’s friend. “A piece of truth,” replied the Devil. “Doesn’t that disturb you”, asked his friend. “Not a bit”, the Devil replied. “I will let him make a religious belief out of it.”
If we have not yet been ridiculed for speaking and living the truth, we may have only a piece of it, which we have turned into an idol.