By: Fr. Denis Nakkeeran, Adjunct Professor of Moral Theology
Every so often, we encounter passages in Scripture that can be rather difficult for us to understand well or that we simply may not like reading. It would be far easier for us to receive the Word of God if all we get are the warm and fuzzy passages that make us feel comfortable and where Jesus just keeps reminding us to be nice. And yet, we do not only get comfortable words. We also get the reminders that life will be difficult, that sin exists, and that we are called to turn away from that sin to live for something greater. Why? Because when we understand what Scripture is - God, through human language, communicating the mystery of who He is, who we are, and our salvation found in Him - we see that in order for the entirety of the human condition to be redeemed, the entirety of the human condition must receive God’s Word. This means that not only does God speak to the comfortable surface of our human nature, but also to its darkest depths.
In our Gospel reading for this Sunday, Jesus presents us with a rather bleak scenario. He says that there will be turmoil, discord, and persecution. Of course, these are not things that anyone would like to hear. But, Jesus still speaks them. So, rather than simply sitting in the discomfort that these words might cause for us, we can accept the unique invitation from God Himself to explore why it is He is speaking these words to us. Yes, there will be suffering. Yes, there will be tribulation. Yes, people will hate us simply for following Christ. And at the same time, there is hope. At the end of this Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jesus says, “by your perseverance you will secure your lives” (Luke 21:19). Jesus presents us with the reality of the difficulty that does come with discipleship. He does not try to sugarcoat it. But, at the same time, He shows us that this is not the end of the story. While there will be suffering and persecution, He is inviting us to persevere and endure the suffering, not for its own sake, but for the immeasurable treasure that comes with discipleship - the fire of God’s love.
God’s presence being like that of fire is an image that is present in many places throughout Scripture, including this Sunday’s first reading from Malachi. The fire of God’s presence, which is always characterized by His love (because God is love), has many effects. Because it is hot and intense, some may have an initial aversion to it, allowing themselves to remain far from it. They come to hate the fire and do not like it’s presence. However, for those who accept the invitation of this burning charity, they come to see it not as a fire that burns, but one that brings out the magnificence of that which it inflames, much like the burning bush through which God spoke to Moses. As the prophet Malachi offers us, “But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays” (Malachi 3:20a).
The fire of God’s love then becomes something that divides. Just a few chapters prior in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus Himself says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided” (Luke 12:51-53). It is difficult for us to think about Jesus being an instrument of division. However, when we put it in the context of the fire of God’s love, we can see better why this is the case. One condition in which we see the lack of division is when the status quo is kept. For most of the Old Testament, however, the status quo was sin. The fire of God’s love breaks the status quo - it causes some to turn away from the invitation of God’s love because of the initial heat and intensity they feel from it, and it causes others to accept that love. For those that accept, they are made magnificent, which also causes them to live differently, kindled and enlivened by this love. This sets them apart from those who turn away, who then come to despise that to which they have an aversion. The fire of God’s love, then, becomes the very cause of persecution.
What is amazing, however, is that even though the fire of God’s love is the cause of persecution, it is also the very thing that allows the disciple to heroically endure persecution and even find joy in the midst of it. Of course, the goal of discipleship is to find greater union with God through Jesus Christ. For us who are enlivened by the fire of God’s love, that treasure is already at hand and no one can take it from us. Not only do we get to delight in that love here and now, but it also brings us further to heaven, wherein we will be completely immersed in God’s love. Jesus speaks to us of difficulties so that God’s light can be brought even to the darkest elements of our human nature. By this, He extends the fire of God’s love to every aspect of our being, so that our whole selves can be redeemed and enjoy the blessed life to which we are called. The invitation for us now is to accept the fire of God’s love in our lives here and now, and to delight it in at every moment, regardless of the circumstances of our lives.