Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10
In Sunday’s Gospel reading (Luke 12:49-53), Jesus says some words that have always been challenging to me, but at this moment I find them downright disturbing: "Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division." These words are downright disturbing because I am tired of division. I see distrust in our own country between political parties, which leads, I think, to little getting done in Washington. But the distrust and division are not just in Washington. There is distrust between different levels of government. There is distrust between cities and suburbs, and I could go on and on.
If we take our attention away from the U.S., we see again a seemingly intractable impasse between Israelis and Palestinians. We see an outbreak of violence in Egypt. And there are many other places around the world in which hatreds and fears seem to be winning the day. So when I hear these words coming from Jesus, who is in my mind the Prince of Peace, and the One who can bring us together, I struggle to understand what it all means.
So what are we to make of Jesus’ words? I think part of what Jesus says has to do with discipleship demanding choices of us. If we are faithful to following Jesus, there will be times when we come in conflict with worldly wisdom. There may be times when we are in conflict even with the ones closest to us. As Christians, we do not simply "go along to get along." As Martin Luther King, Jr. and others have reminded us, true peace is not simply an absence of conflict, but comes about through justice. And so there are times when our stance brings us into conflict with others.
But before we saddle up on the horse of Righteous Anger, eager to do battle and destroy our enemies, we need to look at two people. One is Jeremiah, who is featured in our first reading (Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10). The princes of Judah tell King Zedekiah that Jeremiah needs to be killed, as he "is not interested in the welfare of our people, but in their ruin." The king lets them have their way, and they throw Jeremiah into a cistern to die. But Ebed-melech, a member of the court, pleads with the king on behalf of Jeremiah, and is sent to pull the prophet out of the cistern. Why are the princes so eager to kill Jeremiah? Because they didn’t like what he was telling them. They were the ruling elite. They knew best for the people. And they were in Jerusalem, God’s city, so anyone who told them something different from what they wanted to hear was obviously evil and a traitor. Sound familiar? But we know Jeremiah was sent by God, and God had already warned him that this was the response he would get (Jeremiah 1:17-19). In our righteous anger, we need to be careful about whether we are really following God or not.
I think one way to help us discern whether we are following God in our righteousness is to look at Jesus Himself. In our eagerness to do battle and vanquish all those who disagree with us, we may be willing to sacrifice ourselves for the cause. We may be willing to sacrifice ourselves for those who are with us. But are we willing to sacrifice ourselves, out of love, for those who are against us? For those who believe that we are the unrighteous ones? Because that is what Jesus did! Even though Jesus seemed to provoke some to conspire against Him, He did not choose to destroy them, but to live and die and rise again for them as well as for us.
Being faithful may lead us into conflict, but I am not quite sold that it is meant to lead us into violence against others. If I am called to fight in a holy war, I am not sure that it will be all that holy. At the same time, I hope that I will be faithful enough to stand up for what is right, even though it may go against the grain of everyone else. May God give us all the grace to discern His will!
Fr. Phil Paxton, C.P. is the director of St. Paul of the Cross Retreat and Conference Center, Detroit, Michigan.