This Sunday: Yes, Family Life Is Tough. Jesus Wants You to Stay and Fight
The Gospel is very sad this Sunday, the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C. Jesus tells us that he comes to bring division — to divide us even from our families.
He means to put an end to the carefree days when we could politely ignore fundamental differences. He demands that, when we are given a choice between pleasing him and pleasing our children or parents, we choose him.
It’s no good pretending this isn’t a sad choice to have to make. But it’s also no good pretending that the alternative isn’t much, much worse.
In the Gospel passage Jesus makes clear that he is not just a judge; he is a judge eagerly awaiting the chance to burn away evil.
“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” Jesus says.
When you hear “fire” there, think of two very different but related things — think “Word on fire,” and think “fire of destruction.”
The fire he brings is the potency of his Word, the saving message of the Scriptures that should make us glow with zeal just as it made the Emmaus disciples say “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?”
But the same fire is a fire of judgment. God is an “all consuming fire,” a fire that purifies what is strong by burning up what is weak. You see it in the tongues of flame that hovered over the apostles’ heads and the flames of Christ’s eyes in Revelation.
“There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!” he says. He is describing the baptism in his blood that will come through the passion, an experience we have to follow him through; a “trial through ordeal” that is impossible to survive with our selfishness intact.
Then he says he comes to bring division to our families.
Notice, he doesn’t say he will separate families: He says he will set us against each other in our households.
We have all seen family division over Christ. Family members have rejected us over the right to life, forcing us to decide what is more important: preserving comfortable relations with them or defending the lives of innocents. Family members have despised us because the faith disagrees with their choices, demanding we choose their opinion over Jesus Christ’s.
But in all this, St. Ambrose points out, “You are not forbidden to love your parents, but you are forbidden to prefer them to God.”
In fact, we are ordered to love our parents, and in the parable of the Prodigal Son Jesus shares the worst family sin imaginable: cutting yourself off from your family by moving far away or, like the older brother, cutting yourself off while staying close.
Jesus wants us to stay in our divided family, and find a way to love others through it.
But the alternative to choosing Christ over family is worse: It means being mired in mud.
We have all also seen family harmony that only comes at the cost of ditching Jesus Christ. Maybe our religious conversion fell at the first hurdle, because our family immediately taught us not to take Christ too seriously. Maybe our commitment to a daily family rosary petered out when we decided to let everybody relax and do their own thing instead. Maybe the Holy Spirit gave us a great insight to share, but we never spoke it, because we didn’t want to challenge or embarrass anyone; or, truth be told, ourselves.
This is the same situation described in the First Reading from Jeremiah when princes — royal sons — told the King that Jeremiah was a problem because his talk of God was “demoralizing the soldiers.” Rather than oppose his family members, the king had the prophet thrown into a cistern, where he sits until a court official convinces the king to command soldiers to “draw the prophet Jeremiah out of the cistern before he should die.”
This is what happens to Jesus Christ in our family when we decide he is a problem that needs to be shunted aside. It is as if we have thrown him into a cistern in our hearts, his saving message left to die in the mud because the family didn’t like him.
Or maybe it’s us in the mud of the cistern.
The Second Reading describes how we are running a race with heaven as our goal, but are slowed down by “sin that clings to us.”
St. Ambrose says we have all been in this predicament, stuck in a “pit of misery” and a “mire of dregs”:
“We were drowning there; our whole flesh was clinging to the mire, trapped in the whirlpool of our sins. Our soul was powerless to save itself; fallen and ruined as it was by the multiplicity and dreadfulness of our offenses. Thanks be to the Lord Jesus, God’s only Son who came down from heaven to forgive us our sins. He came to save us from the pit and slime of this world, from the mud and mire of this earth, from this body doomed to death.”
If we choose Christ over what drags us and our family to sin, we will be like the delighted soul this Sunday in Psalm 40, who sings, “He drew me out of the pit of destruction, out of the mud of the swamp; he set my feet upon a crag, he made firm my steps. And he put a new song in my mouth.”
Those are bracing images of what the choice looks like when we put Jesus first. He doesn’t make our life darker and murkier; he makes it more robust and joyful.
And while we’re at it, before we get too self-righteous about our place in our families, notice one other lesson from Sunday’s readings.
“In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood,” Hebrews says. “Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.”
We may think of ourselves as heroes of the faith because we have suffered resentful looks and unkind words for Jesus. Painful though these may be, they are the smallest sufferings the real heroes of the faith suffered. We might even ask ourselves an awkward question: Is our family really rejecting us because of Jesus — or is our self-righteousness causing our family to reject Christ?
Throughout the chapter before Sunday’s Second Reading, Hebrews has been describing true heroes of the faith: Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and more. These are people who suffered far more than cold shoulders from loved ones. They faced violence in their own families, and besides that were driven into exile, faced their own deaths, were called before kings, imprisoned and rejected. Our Christian brothers and sisters around the world are suffering that and worse, being tortured and killed for the faith. We have had it easy, so far.
But the most memorable line from the Second Reading is this: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden that clings to us and persevere in running the race.”
God put us in a race to his finish line, and there the great family that went before us cheers us on. Our job is to run and not lose heart, bringing as many of our household with us as we can coax to come along.