Not peace, but division

Baptistry, Florence

Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Politicians frequently claim to be uniters, not dividers.  If you wanted proof, therefore, that Jesus was not a politician, look no further than today’s Gospel: “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

Political promises of unity, of course, come cheaply; sometimes they simply mean, “If you disagree with me, I’ll accuse you of being a divider.”  In today’s Gospel reading, however, Jesus makes a move never recommended by any political consultant: he preemptively accuses himself of bringing division.  Other than the desire to put centuries of future homilists in a very awkward position, why would Jesus do this?

The first reason is honesty.  Being a Christian involves a choice—and not an easy choice.  We are required to believe, against all other religions, that Jesus alone is the way to salvation; against our cultural majority—and the entertainment industry—that sexual relations are only legitimate between a husband and a wife; and, against the evidence of our senses, that bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus and that the dead will rise to eternal life.  And these are only a few of the teachings that make homilists get a little chicken.  Jesus, however, is neither a chicken nor a con man.  He does not wish to trick or bamboozle us about the difficulty of what he is proposing.  His own death, the baptism of fire he speaks of, is the starting point of Christianity.

If we probe deeper, we will also find, implicit in what Jesus is says, one of the most underappreciated elements of Catholic belief—the staggering, almost terrifying, dignity of human free will.  The choices that we make really matter.  Their consequences will endure into eternity; we are given the freedom to choose literally heaven or hell.  I cannot imagine a more powerful gift.

This does not mean that God is neutral about what choices we make.  He teaches us right and wrong; he keeps teaching us even when we chose wrong.  But he never withdraws the gift of our free will.  The choices we make are really ours.  Sometimes the consequences of our choices bring uncomfortable results.  Sometimes we learn from these results; we don’t touch the hot stove a second time.  But God does not coerce us.  The “weapon” that he uses to influence our decision is the truth itself.  Sometimes that truth is as harsh as Jesus’ words today.  There’s no cotton candy in the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  But that is the testimony Jesus gives. 

In fact, Jesus directly addresses what for many of us are the toughest cases, religious divisions within families, son against father, mother against daughter.  We all have relatives who have left the Church, and Jesus does not take the sting out of what that means.  He does not give us comforting cliches that water down what faith means, like “Well, at least they still believe in God…,” or “As long as they’re a good person…”  Turning away from the fullness of truth puts one’s soul in danger, and there’s no sugar-coating that.  Now, Jesus doesn’t tell us to lose hope, to stop praying for such people, or to shun them.  Not at all.  He just doesn’t let us compromise the truth he offers to give us an easy out.

Now I want to be clear: Jesus is not advocating unnecessary divisions.  The vast majority of our divisions—among individuals, families, nations—are not the result of our heroic adherence to the truth.  More often we are divided because of our impatience, anger, pig-headedness, selfishness, and pride.  Even when we are living truthfully, these personal failings can result in unnecessary roughness and other personal fouls.  In fact, precisely because we know that following Jesus sometimes requires us to take unpopular stands, we need to devote special attention to cultivating kindness, magnanimity, willingness to listen, and genuine concern for those with whom we disagree.  If we know we disagree with a coworker about politics, for example, it might give us added reason to ask about her kids or hobbies.  

If we feel alone—and sticking to the truth may leave us feeling isolated—we can remember the “great cloud of witnesses” mentioned in the letter to the Hebrews, the saints who are with us and support us.  The saints also sometimes remind us that they faced much worse than we do.  Nothing brings out the worst in people like self-pity, and the letter to the Hebrews gives us a rather tart response if we start to feel sorry for ourselves: “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.”  Today is the feast day of St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest imprisoned in Auschwitz, starved and then poisoned to death after offering his own life in exchange for another prisoner.  Your coworker is irritating, you say?  Boo-hoo.  

This great cloud of witnesses also gives us hope for those hard cases of loved ones separated from Christ and his Church.  For the cloud is vast, and some saints followed a long and winding road to the Lord, from St. Paul who persecuted the Church before Christ literally knocked him off his donkey to St. Monica, whose son Augustine broke her heart for years dabbling in every fashionable and exotic religion he could find while she prayed for him to come back to the Catholic Church.  He did.  She even lived to see him baptized, though she died before he became a bishop, the greatest theologian of his age, and, more importantly, a saint.  Augustine’s feast day, later this month, is the day after Monica’s.

This great cloud of witnesses is united in bearing witness to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—the choice to follow Jesus Christ without compromise, without a candy coating.  A peace constructed on anything less can only be temporary and illusory, not the eternal peace of the saints.  The saints, as the letter to the Hebrews says, kept their “eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.”  They show what beauty, what power, what integrity human free will is capable of.  With our eyes fixed on union with the man who is truth itself, we are capable of a joy that is staggering, almost terrifying, a joy that endures—despite all the divisions around us—into eternity.  The choice is yours.

Readings: Jer 38:4-6, 8-10; Heb 12:1-4; Lk 12:49-53

August 14, 2022

St. Isaac Jogues, Rapid City, SD

Author: Anthony Lusvardi, SJ

Anthony R. Lusvardi, S.J., teaches sacramental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He writes on a variety of theological, cultural, and literary topics.

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