20th Sunday of Ordinary Time

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.

Notice that Jesus didn’t say anything about division between mothers-in-law and sons-in-law.  I guess, even in His time that division was a foregone conclusion.  Anyway, Jesus’ words to His disciples today are pretty startling.

“I have come to set the earth on fire!”, he says.  In fact, He wishes it were already burning.  “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”


Now, wait a minute!  Isn’t Jesus all about love?  Didn’t He tell us that the greatest commandment is to love God and that the second commandment is just like it:  Love one another?  What’s divisive about that?

Here’s the thing.  He knew that He was giving us an almost impossible task.  He understood human nature.  He knew His message would divide us.  Remember, the Jewish people were expecting a Messiah to arrive on a golden chariot pulled by magnificent white horses.  They thought He would wipe out their enemies and that they would live in a world of peace and prosperity.  Jesus wasn’t what they expected at all.  In fact, even today the Jewish people don’t believe Jesus was the Messiah.

“Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?”  Yes, that’s what they thought.  So Jesus was a big disappointment to a lot of them, especially the leaders.  We see the division during Holy Week when His loyal followers throw palm branches in His path as He enters the city and then the crowd demands that Pilate crucify Him just a few days later.

Over the centuries His message has divided Christians from Jews and Muslims, and has even separated Christians from one another.  Holy wars; inquisitions; crusades; thousands, maybe even millions of people have died, all in the name of Jesus.  Surely that’s not what He had in mind.

Look at the world we live in today.  Jesus left us with one Church.  A billion Catholics, including you and me, believe that we ARE that Church.  But there are literally thousands of Christian denominations who don’t share that belief.  For 1,500 years there was one Christian Church but in the last few hundred years, we’ve been divided.  We Catholics operate under a very rigid structure starting with the Pope and working all the way down to you and me.  Every Roman Catholic Church in the entire world is celebrating the same mass today as we are.  They have the same readings.  They say the same prayers, even though they may be in another language.  Walk into any Catholic church anywhere in the world and you’ll know what’s going on.

So why is there such a division today?  I think it’s mainly because it’s not easy to be Catholic.  Just the other day, Jesus told us in the Gospel to take up our cross and follow Him.  We Catholics take that literally.  Other denominations, not so much.

Here’s a good example, the famous verse John 3:16.  Here’s what our Bible says: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” 

Now, the King James Bible, which many of our protestant brothers and sisters use says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish , but have everlasting life. 

Another version popular with many protestants is the New International Bible.  It says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Might not—should not—shall not. 

It’s just one word of difference but think about how it changes the meaning.  For fifteen centuries every Christian accepted the first translation, that is that we MIGHT have eternal life.

The funny thing is that I grew up in one of the churches that teaches that all you have to do is to believe in Jesus and you’ll be saved.  But, it was also a church with fire and brimstone preaching.  They had almost as many rules as the Internal Revenue Service.  You couldn’t smoke, or drink, or dance.  You had to go to church at least three times a week.  That always seemed like a lot to me for a church that taught me that all I had to do was to believe in Jesus to be saved.

Of course we are divided from with non-Christians.  All you have to do is look at the Middle East to see that that’s true.  There were more Christian martyrs in the twentieth century than there were in the first nineteen centuries combined.  No, Jesus didn’t come to establish peace on earth.  More than 2,000 years later people are still killing each other over their beliefs.  All you have to do is take a look at the front page of the newspaper to see that that’s true.

Jesus knew human nature.  He knew that we could never agree on anything.  He knew that His message of love would lead to division and even war.  Even in our own country, we fought a terrible war among ourselves, the Civil War.  From 1861 until 1865 our ancestors took up arms against one another.  Even though peace was declared almost 150 years ago, there are still remnants of that war.  Lincoln may have freed the slaves but we’re still divided along racial lines.  There are still people in the south who hate the north and vice-versa.  States rights, which was really what the Civil War was all about, are still a hot political issue, maybe even more today than in the 1800s.

In spite of what the media would have us believe, most Americans believe in Jesus.  Even those who don’t will most likely tell you that they believe in peace and love of neighbor.  If that’s so, why do we still have wars?  Why are people being killed in the streets of our cities?  Why is there so much hate?  Either we believe Jesus’ words or we don’t.

You and I don’t get to decide where American troops will be sent.  We have no say in foreign policy or even in local law.  We do have the vote, but I’m afraid too many of us take that for granted. Some of us may vote only for candidates from one party or the other.  Some of us may make up our minds based on TV commercials. Some of us may not vote at all.  In the end, one vote probably won’t win or lose an election.

So, what can we do?  We can live our lives as Jesus taught us.  He said He came to cause division but He also said he came to set the world on fire.  How does He do that. He does it through us.

You’ve probably heard about Father Patrick Dowling.  He’s the priest who stopped to anoint a young accident victim in Northeast Missouri.  He prayed with her and the rescuers.  By the way, the girl isn’t Catholic.  He anointed her anyway.  Then he got in his car and drove away.  Nothing special about that.  It’s his job.  But the story got international attention, mostly because Father Dowling didn’t try to focus any attention on himself.  People said he was an angel and that the whole thing was a miracle.  When Father finally came forward to identify himself, a lot of people were disappointed.  There was no miracle, just an Irish priest doing his job.

The point that many people missed is that he wasn’t supposed to be on that highway.  He lives in Jefferson City. He had just come from filling in at mass for another priest who was sick.  God put him on that highway at that time.  That’s how He rolls.  He doesn’t do the “burning bush” thing anymore.  He works through ordinary people like you and me.

So, even if it was only for a few days, this man’s act of kindness made headlines all over the world.  It made people stop and think.  It made them believe that miracles are possible.  And you don’t have to be a priest to make things like that happen.  All you have to do is live the Gospel.  Love one another.  Don’t waste your time on gossip or fault-finding.  Look for God in your day-to-day life.  Be someone’s angel.  Be a uniter, not a divider.

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