Luke 12:49-53
Raging Fires
 by Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Luke writes to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.

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."

Every cohesive social unit must at least tacitly agree upon a common rule of life, a code that has the force of law every bit as rigorous as the Ten Commandments.  Mothers used to threaten to “wash your mouth out with soap” for violations of family norms.  Today moms are no less firm as they indict young violators with the ever-so-modern “That’s unacceptable.”  It is easy to imagine gangsters demanding honesty and fair dealing among themselves, if only to ensure the success of their criminal enterprise (hence the cliché, “There’s honor among thieves”).  A word to the wise in this regard: Don’t steal from mobsters.  That would be, well, unacceptable.

But a “cohesive social unit” that has come to terms with vice requires a radical and painful overhaul that goes beyond the crime-busting tactics of Elliot Ness and his Untouchables – or forced compliance with the detailed regulations of the Federal Register.  Breaking up cohesive criminal enterprises – and families that have made peace with patterns of profound evil – by recalibrating one’s code of behavior or “world view” is painful if not costly.

Christ challenges His disciples with His own code that seems to have dire consequences: “From now on a household …will be divided; a father …against his son, …a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”  “whoever is not with me is against me.”  “If anyone does not hate …even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”  “I come not to bring peace but a sword.”

It is, however, incorrect to reduce the teachings of Christ to a mere “code of behavior” or even some grandiose “world view” (in the early church, it was simply and elegantly, “the Way”).  The way of Christ is far more sublime.  The question of our confrontation with the teachings of Christ hangs on, ultimately: “Who do you say that I am?”  No wishy-washy answers are allowed.  Jesus Christ is the Son of God – period, absolutely, without question or waffling.  Or He is not.  That is the one truth-choice that, like the flash of lightning, draws a clear line.  And the choice of which side each man is on is what establishes the “division” of which He speaks.

There can be none of the, “Let’s form a committee to discover common ground, and go from there.”  The demand of truth is the opposite of the relativism that Pope Benedict famously proclaimed as the “tyranny” of the modern world.  We hear it in so many forms: “My God says this.”  “But my truth is this.”  “It doesn’t matter what you believe, just so you do not hurt anybody.”  “Jesus might have been a nice guy who taught people to love their neighbor, but the Son of God? C’mon.  That’s just too much.  You can’t be serious.) And besides, it would change everything.)”

Christ insists: “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on earth?”  Well, no, “not as the world gives peace.”  And relativism answers, “Can’t we all just get along?  At least through this family wedding, or family reunion or this election cycle?”  Translation: ”Religion is a private, personal affair.  Can’t you just keep your beliefs out of sight?  Who Jesus was has nothing to do with anything.”  Like gangsters who have made peace with a life of crime – or like the Jews who made peace with the Cesarene demons – we too have made peace with the Prince of the World with his ever-increasing evil demands.

But what of all other controversies?  Don’t they tear families and organizations and nations apart too?  How many families are ripped apart as they grab to claim their fair share of the estate of a deceased parent?  How many political coalitions, woven together with compromises over divergent interests and demands, endure beyond a year or a decade or a generation?  How many mob bosses in their greed end up betrayed by their own (so much for “honor among thieves”)?  There can be no lasting compromise with evil because it is the very nature of evil to divide and destroy like a raging fire.

The fire of the truth of Christ rages with a different kind of urgency.  Christ describes the fire that He wished was already blazing.  But what kind of fire?  Not a fire of human consumption and destruction, but a fire of illumination and virtue.  His resurrection would be revealed to be the lightning bolt that illuminated once and for all the truth of who He is.  And once a man, enlightened by this fire, gives the (correct) answer to “who do you say that I am?” then the other aspects of the fire can affect him: purification, divine love, the “firing up” of passion for fully living a Christian life.

An important footnote: in Christian history, a few overly triumphalist types who mistake their mission to spread the faith as (among other misinterpretations) opportunities to provoke “righteous” division, even to the point of persecution of nonbelievers.  The divisions of which Jesus spoke were predictions, not commandments.  He wasn’t asking His followers to go about deliberately stirring up controversy merely for the sake of provoking division.

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