The 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Year C
Peace be with you and greetings on this, our celebration of the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time. Well,,, today’s Gospel reading doesn’t come across real bright and cheery does it? What’s with all this talk about division, one against another, even within the same family? It all kind-a reminded me of a story my friend John once told me when he and his wife had gotten into an argument. Now mind you, John and Janis have now been married for over 50 years and are still deeply in love but like any long relationship, there were bumps in the road along the way. They had been in the car traveling all day and had spent the last hour or so in complete silence because of a disagreement. They were not saying a word to each other as they passed a farm with a pasture full of cows, goats, and pigs. At that point John attempted a little sarcastic humor when he should have just kept his mouth shut. He glanced at Janis and then motioned towards the pasture and asked, “relatives of yours?” Now Janis is not only an intelligent lady, but also quite wise. Instead of responding in anger at John’s stupid attempt at humor, she calmly turned towards him and said, “you’re right John,,, I believe they’re some of my in-laws.” OK, sorry folks. Now, I know that story isn’t very spiritual, but I couldn’t help it when I read the in-law against in-law part of today’s Gospel.
Seriously though, what is the spiritual message from today’s Gospel? It doesn’t sound like good news when Jesus says, “Do you think I have come to establish peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” or, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing.” His words seem to be right out of the Old Testament, don’t they? Where is our merciful, gentle, and loving Jesus we’re so used to hearing? My friends, as hard as it is to accept sometimes, God didn’t change somewhere between Malachi and Matthew. Oh, just in case you didn’t know, Malachi is the last book of the OT and Matthew if the 1st book in the NT. The God of the OT is the God of the NT, and we must never forget, Jesus himself is the second person of the Trinity. He is God.
Honestly, today’s reading challenges me with what I consider one of the great mysteries of my own personal Christian Faith; it’s not the incarnation, the virgin birth, or even the Blessed Trinity. From my humble perspective I have difficulty reconciling a God who is perfectly merciful with a God who is perfectly just. When someone tells me, they don’t like the God of the OT, I remind them, no one in the Bible talks more about Hell and damnation than Jesus Christ himself. Go read about the sheep and the goats in Mt 25 for example.
OK, so how do I reconcile a God who seems fierce and judgmental with a God who is loving and merciful? Doesn’t the Bible tell us God is love? Well, yes it does – but unfortunately, our perceptions of God’s love are obscured by the fallen world we live in. Thomas Aquinas wrote volumes about our perception of God viewed through humanities’ lens of sin in a fallen world and I’ve only got about 7 more minutes but let’s try. Aquinas said, “Whatever is received is received according to the mode of the recipient.” OK Thomas. So, what does that mean? Well let’s think of God’s love as the sun. On a bright blue sunny morning, the sun shines into our homes with radiant beauty. Now let’s add window shades to our simple little metaphor for God’s love. When the shades are wide open our home is full of light from the sun but as we start pulling those shades closed the sun’s light is diminished. The same sun is still shinning on the world outside, but we’ve chosen to dim its’ light by pulling the shades. Friends, this simple image is sort of what sin does to our perception of God’s love. It becomes distorted or diminished.
If you’re living in a relatively good spiritual state, God’s love will be perceived as kind, gentle, and merciful but if you’re spiritual life is off the rails, God will be perceived as fierce, threatening, and judgmental. You can see this story repeated over and over and over in the Bible. The great news is, however, the sun itself hasn’t changed. God’s love is still shinning as brightly as ever but our perception of that love is distorted, and, in most cases, we did it ourselves by closing the shades, through sin, or ego, or simply our every-day priorities like, pride, power, pleasure, and wealth.
Another key variable in Aquinas’ formula for perception of God is his definition of love itself. Thomas says, “love is willing the good of the other.” Now I’ve used Aquinas’s love definition often before but it’s critical to let it sink in. “Love is willing the good of the other.” When it comes to the Bible and our perception of God there is a flip side to this whole “love of God”, however. If love is willing the good of the other, then God’s love for us must – by necessity, generate God’s opposition to whatever works as evil within us. Hence, we have today’s Gospel. When Jesus says, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” He is telling us He wants to burn away anything opposed to God’s love for us. Anything that diminishes our perception of God’s love. He wants to burn up those shades we have pulled over the windows of our hearts distorting our awareness of God’s love! Jesus came to shake things up and that’s why this reading sounds a little scary and can cause confusion. The bottom line always really, really is, however, God is love!
Several weeks ago, I read a quote from Bishop Robert Barron summarizing why we sometimes tend to be divided, sadly even within our own Catholic Church. And also how we sometimes swerve off the path of God’s love. He said this; “The entire point of religion”, let me repeat, “The entire point of Religion is to make us humble before God and to open us to the path of love. Everything else is more or less a footnote. Liturgy, prayer, the precepts of the Church, the commandments, sacraments, sacramentals – all of it – are finally meant to conform us to the way of love. When they instead turn us away from that path, they have been undermined.” Friends, if you believe anything in the Bible says God doesn’t love you, you’re misinterpreting the Bible. And if anything in your own personal faith life is pulling you away from love of God and love of neighbor, open those shades to your heart and let the sunshine in.