Sunday 18 August 2019: 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Jeremiah 38:4-6,8-10. Hebrews 12:1-4. Luke 12:49-53

There is so much conflict, violence and war in today’s world and the fact that religion is seen to be central in so much of this conflict reinforces the view held by many people that religion is conflictual and destructive. To hear Jesus say in today’s Gospel that he has come not to bring peace but rather division seems difficult to digest.

Peace, however, is not just the absence of war. It has been described in many different ways but by and large peace is ‘that situation of justice and rightly ordered social relations that is marked by respect for the rights of others, that provides favourable conditions for integral human growth, and that allows citizens to live out their lives to the full in calm and joyful development’ (Arinze, 2002, 1).  As Saint Pope John Paul often said, there is no peace without justice, and as Pope Francis reminds us, there can be no justice without respect for the social rights and inclusion of all people.  

Peace is a value upheld by most major world religions and religions have played and continue to play a central role in the understanding and the establishment of peace in societies. Simultaneously and sadly, religions are at the core of so much of the strife being experienced in our world today. However, I think we can safely say, none of these conflicts are based on theological issues but rather religion is used as an identity factor in struggles over political and economic issues. Neither violence nor peace is the prerogative of any one religion.

People who speak out against injustice and work for peace in the fullest sense of this term are very often rejected, including by people of their own community. To work for peace certainly requires courage. We see this today in our first two readings: the prophet Jeremiah was causing too much upheaval to the authorities by calling for justice and hence they planned to kill him; in the second reading we’re reminded that Jesus himself, because he spoke up for the poor and the marginalized, because he mixed with outcasts and sinners, because he preached justice and right and challenged the religious and political authorities of his day, was crucified and killed on the cross. In our history as Church we have had many prophets, who following the example of Jesus, filled with the Fire of the Holy Spirit, spoke out and were condemned.  Many of these we now recognize as Saints.

We can think of St Catherine of Siena, who challenged the social and political questions of her society that had lost its soul and equally critiqued the Church that had lost its vision and sold its integrity. She was criticized, insulted, rejected, condemned, ridiculed, by her family, her neighbours, her religious community, the political rulers, the church. Yet, Catherine remained faithful, making total personal sacrifice, trusting always in God and seeking only to be true to God’s love, God’s will and God’s service. We can think of Martin Luther King who was a man of courage committed to God’s reign of peace and justice, angry at the injustice of the whole slavery and apartheid system in the America of his day, and was committed to nonviolence to work for change, These, as well as Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day and so many others that we can think of, inspire us as followers of Christ not to be indifferent, not to feel powerless, not to lose hope, not to give up. Each one of us, no matter our age or our status, can make a positive change in our world and even in our Church, if we have courage, if we have hope and if we have love.

In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus saying, “I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already!” The fire which Jesus speaks about is the fire of the Holy Spirit, the fire that gives us the strength and the courage to bring love and hope into every situation of human misery and suffering, and to live so that God’s Kingdom of peace, justice and right relations will advance and flourish in our world.  We have received the Holy Spirit in baptism, but it is up to each of us to open ourselves each day to the Spirit and allow the Spirit to fill our hearts. It is the Spirit which helps us overcome our fears and encourages us to reach out in new ways to help those we meet, and to find new and creative ways to make our Church, our country and our world a renewed and better place.

It was Chesterton who said that ‘The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried’. Certainly, the message of Christ is a difficult one to follow and it is up to each one of us to ask whether and how in my own life I am truly seeking to follow Christ and live the message of Christianity. We think today of people who are refugees, migrants, displaced; people in our direct provision centres; people who are homeless; people who have been abused, rejected, excluded; people who are alone; people who suffer from ill-health and bereavement. We think also of people in our families and communities with whom we might have some division or dispute. Am I prepared to allow the Spirit to fill my heart with fire, to do all within my power to make this world a better place for those around me, and indeed for the wider world?

Pope Francis has said: “If the Church does not receive this fire of the Holy Spirit, or doesn’t let it enter into Herself, it becomes a cold or lukewarm Church, incapable of giving life, because it is made up of cold or lukewarm Christians.” And he added: “It would do us good today to take five minutes and each of us ask ourselves: But how is my heart? Is it cold or lukewarm, or instead capable of receiving this fire? Let us take five minutes for this. It would do good for us all.”

Sr Kathleen McGarvey OLA
Published in The Furrow
July/August 2019, page 431