The following is my homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C. The readings can be found here.
I have to admit, when I first read through the Gospel for today, my first thought went to The Dark Knight. I could just hear Michael Cain saying, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” We hear of a Jesus who wants things to burn, wants chaos, want divisions. Given how divided our world already is today, some of us might find Jesus’ words a bit challenging, even shocking: “C’mon Jesus, I’m here trying to build bridges and work for peace and you’re over there saying ‘I didn’t come to bring peace but division.’ Let’s get on the same page here!” Of course, he’s the Lord and I trust him, but it does make me wonder: Is Jesus secretly just a criminal mastermind trying to take over Gotham? And if not, what does he mean by setting the world on fire? What does he mean by bringing division?
To answer this, I want to go back in time a bit, back to a time without as much civil unrest in our country as we have today. In 1896, the Supreme court ruled that segregation was legal, that black and white people could have separate but equal accommodations under the law. And for more than 50 years after this, life in the south seemed pretty stable. People knew their place and there wasn’t a lot of animosity.
But then things began to change. In the 1950s and 60s, the complaints of injustice became louder and more organized. There began to be a raised awareness of the plight of an entire people. People like Rosa Parks protested unjust laws; black students started attending white schools, drinking from the same water fountains; college students staged sit-ins at whites only restaurants and got arrested for breaking the law; people like Martin Luther King Jr. rose up and began rousing people to the cause, walking in Selma, walking on Washington, before he was arrested and thrown in jail.
All of this created major divisions. The US had gone from a peaceful, stable place, to a place with constant fighting and extreme tensions. Violence was in the streets, and people of color were blamed for causing it. In his letter from the Birmingham jail, King wrote about the resistance he received from others, that he was causing too much of a stir, that he should be more patient, that he should “wait” and basically not be in everyone’s face about these things. He was tearing the country apart with his demands. These civil rights advocates were responsible for causing division, they said.
Which is true, in a way. But not because they wanted to see the world burn. No. What they were advocating for was not division for the sake of division, but for justice, equality, and freedom under the law; they were trying to make the earthly kingdom appear more like the heavenly one. In other words, what they were advocating for was the Truth.
Unfortunately, what they found was that the Truth is divisive for those who don’t want to hear it.
Those who preferred the status quo, those who liked to abuse and oppress others, those who did not care about justice, fought back: they had black leaders assassinated, burned people’s homes, attacked marchers with water hoses and dogs.
I tell you, it’s amazing how history repeats itself. Turn back the clock 2500 years and it’s the exact same story. In our first reading we hear of Jeremiah the prophet being thrown into a cistern, left for dead.
What got him here you ask? He called out his people for the evil of slavery. Even after God told them to free their slaves, that it was unjust to enslave their own people, they continued to do it, and Jeremiah continued to protest. He refused to quit preaching the Truth of God, and it got him first banned from the Temple—unwelcome in the place of worship—and eventually thrown into a cistern. Those with slaves, those with power, did not want to hear the Truth because the Truth forced them to admit that they were wrong, forced them to change what they did. They didn’t want that… and so they acted violently.
The Truth is divisive for those who don’t want to hear it.
Returning, then, to our original question—is Jesus secretly just a criminal mastermind trying to take over Gotham?—this is our answer. When we hear Jesus saying that he has not come to bring peace but division, this is what he is talking about. Jesus does not set out to create division for the sake of division. Rather, like the civil rights advocates, like Jeremiah, he comes preaching the Truth, but he knows that the Truth of the kingdom will inevitably upset people; the justice of God will not be received with joy from everyone because there are people who actually stand to benefit from injustice. Those who live selfishly, those who do not respect life, those who have no care for the kingdom of God will be offended by anything that challenges them. They might even respond with violence.
Jesus himself came preaching a message that many did not want to hear, that tax collectors and prostitutes were loved by God, that religious people were abusing their power and should give it up, that the kings of this world were filled with greed and should be cast down from their thrones. He preached truth to those who did not want to hear it, and it caused division, it created chaos… and it got him killed.
The truth is divisive to those who don’t want to hear it.
This… presents a bit of a problem for us. Making a commitment to Christ means living the way the he did, caring about the things he cared about, preaching the things he preached. But what Jesus preached, what we stand for, is not alway attuned to the values of the world. If we truly take seriously our commitment to him, it is inevitable that we are going to face some resistance.
Standing with Jesus means that we may not be accepted by society. We are a people that stands for a consistent ethic of life, upholding the dignity of all life in all of its stages. We stand against abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia, war, and torture, while advocating for the well-being of children, refugees, the poor, and the elderly. There is no political ticket that accepts all that we believe. When you stand against greed and oppression in our world, you are going to make some people angry.
Unfortunately, the same thing can be said about our relationships with friends, with boyfriends and girlfriends. Following Christ means that what we do, and more importantly, what we don’t do, will go against what is popular sometimes. It will force us, as difficult as it is, to stand up to our peers and say, “No, I don’t do that sort of thing, and you shouldn’t either.” It might even compel us to intervene when our friends are gossiping or putting someone down, when they are doing something destructive and dangerous say, “stop, we shouldn’t do that.” That is not going to make us popular, no sir. The Truth is not received well by all, and those who commit themselves to it will cause divisions.
Divisions among their friends, but worst of all, among their families. I wish that I could say that it wasn’t the case, but I have met more than enough people whose parents do not support them going to church, who do not support their discernment of a vocation. Someone wants to devote their life to Christ, doing something virtuous for the kingdom, and their families tell them that they are throwing their life away.
How very sad. And what a horrible position it puts them in, to know the Truth but to realize that living it will bring division to people they love very much.
This, this right here, is what Jesus is bringing out attention to today: if we are to be his followers, if we are going to stand by the Truth, we must accept the fact that we are going to cause some divisions. People are not going to always like us. We might even face violence as a result of our lives.
The Truth is divisive for those who don’t want to hear it, but it is no less the Truth.
What Jesus wants from his disciples today is for us to pick a side. Are we going to stand with the world, with what’s easy, overlooking injustices, overlooking difficult situations so that we can live in peace and not upset some people? Or are we going to stand with Jesus, acknowledging that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, willing to risk what we have, even risk some of our relationships, to stand for the Truth?
I can tell you, standing with the Truth is not easy. You might lose some friends, face some ridicule. It might even get you arrested, attacked with a fire hose, thrown down a cistern, or even nailed to a cross. But what’s the point in having all the comfort in the world if we’re living a lie?