Stuck in the mud and forced to choose: Sunday reflection

Jost Amman / Wikimedia Commons.

This morning’s Gospel reading is 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 peace of the Lord be with all of you on this fine summer Sunday morning. We will offer that to each other this weekend at Mass, with some of us — guilty! — shortening that to “peace be with you,” or simply “peace.” Since the pandemic put handshaking and hugging out of business in some churches, a development that some didn’t really mourn, we might even flash the peace sign at friends and fellow parishioners in more distant pews.

However, it truly is the peace of the Lord that we wish for others and ourselves, even if we don’t necessarily articulate it in the moment. Why is that distinction so important? It reminds us that peace only comes through the Lord and not through human machinations.

Today’s readings speak to this hard and uncomfortable reality. Jesus made sure His disciples understood that His mission would not end in peace in their lifetimes, but instead in even greater division. It foreshadows the Passion, of course, when the Judean community would split over the issue of Jesus Himself, but also in every age and in every corner of the world.

Now, division was already the state of affairs before Christ, and division continued afterward on matters unrelated to Christ too. But why? It comes to us through Original Sin, in which we presumed to have equality with God and put our own wills above His. Even when Adam and Eve made that fateful choice in Genesis, this created a problem: having three entities and three wills competing with each other for control. It also had a rather predictable effect — when things went sideways, one of them (Adam) tried shifting the blame for it onto another (Eve), who then told God that the devil made her do it.

Now imagine that same scenario, only with seven billion wills bumping up against each other for supremacy. Even when well-organized, that necessarily creates conflict and disharmony at some level and pitch. There is no room for true peace and harmony in that environment; we strive for tolerance instead, which is indeed a virtue but an elusive goal even in the best of times. Our fallen nature makes true and lasting peace unreachable.

Christ’s arrival made those divisions even more sharp, because Christ reminds us of our fallen nature and the stakes involved in the decision to follow him. If regional and local affairs divide communities, the decision whether to follow Jesus to salvation divides us to our cores — right down to the family structure, the very core of our human community and perhaps the locus of our greatest pretense to authority. Our choice in the aftermath of Jesus’ mission is clear: we either choose His authority above all others, including family authority, or we stick with fallen human authority instead.

The choice of salvation is still very much a free-will decision. And like all of our free-will decisions in this fallen world, it will divide us, in this case even more profoundly than all others. Jesus didn’t desire that outcome, but He knew very well the choice His mission would force us to make, and how difficult it would be for us to make it.

In our first reading, we see an allegory for that choice play out in the life of the prophet Jeremiah. As the city of Jerusalem came closer to its fall to the Babylonians, Jeremiah prophesied constantly that the Lord’s judgment was at hand and that the city was doomed because of Judea’s decision to follow its own will rather than the Lord’s. Rather than listen to Jeremiah, the king and his princes cast Jeremiah into a cistern to imprison and silence him, and Jeremiah became mired in the mud. Only after a court official warned the king about the consequences of killing a bearer of God’s word did they pull Jeremiah out. After the fall of the city, of course, Jeremiah’s prophecies reflected on the eventual restoration to come via the Lord’s forgiveness, which came to pass seventy years later.

That has a parallel to a long tradition in the Christian church about the Passion of Jesus. In that tradition, the Sanhedrin cast Jesus into a cistern in the house of Caiaphas to await their trial and judgment after His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. This is not found in the Gospels, but this tradition is ancient and strong enough that the house of Caiaphas is part of the pilgrimages that go through the Holy Land. I myself have gone through the structure traditionally identified as Caiaphas and his dungeon. Unlike Jeremiah, Jesus was only lifted out of His cistern imprisonment to be killed through crucifixion, an act that divided the Judean community at the time and especially afterward.

Still, just as Jeremiah prophesied after his release, the Lord worked through the Passion to deliver us from sin, death, and damnation. But we have to choose that path, and to choose that path means to surrender our notions of god-like status and accept Christ as our Lord. That choice forces us to conform our wills to His rather than try to do the opposite. And only that choice can bring true peace and harmony with the Lord and all those whom He adopts through that free-will choice.

Paul explains this choice and its blessings in our second reading today from his letter to the Hebrews:

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.

That choice doesn’t not end division on Earth; it only deepens it in our temporal lives. Our decision to reject our hubris and understand our true relationship to the Creator and to Christ is the first step to true peace and true harmony in eternal life.

So once again … may the peace of Christ be with you today, and always. May it free you from the mire of the material prison of sin and the darkness of our fallen natures, and lift you up to the light of the Lord and the paradise of the eternal Trinitarian life.

The front-page image is “Jeremiah Lifted Off the Cistern” by Jost Amman, 16th century, a woodcut from an illuminated German Bible. Currently on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Via Wikimedia Commons

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  

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