“I have come to set the earth on fire.”
Bishop Peter Muhich
Homily from the Televised Mass, NewsCenter1
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, August 7, 2022
Jesus said, “I have come to set the earth on fire.”
Fire is a rich metaphor, or image, that evokes on the one hand a warmth – the comfort of a fire on a dark winter’s night – and at the same time it invokes destructive force which consumes, and spreads, and is hard to control. Think of the wildfires out west a little bit away from us that are so common now at this time of the hot summer months. Or think back to several years ago when Notre Dame Cathedral was ablaze. How terrible that was. That blaze almost completely destroyed that historic church. They thought they would rebuild it, the French government, in five years. It’s going to take them probably fifty, but they’re on the way to doing that now.
It is fire, in this second sense of a destructive force that Jesus is speaking of in the Gospel today. A fierce, a cleansing blaze which causes pain and division. “Now wait a second,” you’re saying. Isn’t God a God of love and isn’t Jesus the prince of peace? He’s certainly proclaimed that at Christmas time. If God is love and Jesus is the prince of peace, what is the Lord getting at in today’s Gospel? Is he off his game? Is he having a bad day losing his temper? No. No the Lord is not off his game or having a bad day. No, the incarnate word of God, Jesus Christ, remember he’s the Incarnate word of God, the word of God come to dwell among us. He never speaks anything but the truth and love. So, what’s he saying? What he’s saying here is not mistaken and therefore what he’s saying is for our good.
So what is it about our hearing or experiencing God’s love and truth that causes us pain and leads to division? One very important three letter word – Sin and its consequences. Sin, and the effects of original sin and our personal sins, cause disorder within us. Sin clouds and corrupts our minds, distorts our conscience, weakens our willpower, disorders our passions. It effects how we see things, approach things, think about things, talk about things, decide about things. Sin messes us up. There is a very formal theological statement that’s true, sin messes us up. It’s kind of down to earth but the truth is pretty simple. Sin causes disorder in us and because we all have to deal with the effects of original sin and all of our personal sins, then we can find ourselves at times experiencing extreme discomfort, even pain, when we have to hear or otherwise deal with the truth, with reality. With love.
For example, you’ve been stuck in a dark cave for a significant amount of time — an hour, a day, a week – and you are rescued and brought out. Remember those people who were caught in that cave, I think it was in Malaysia somewhere in the east. East Asia. They were there for quite a while, and they were finally rescued. When they came out in the bright light of day, how do you think they experienced that light? Painfully. Or for example you’re grouchy because you’ve had a selfish fight with your spouse, and someone enters the room who is bright and cheerful. How do you see them? Maybe as a threat. Certainly irritating even though they really aren’t. Or poor Jeramiah in our first reading this Sunday. He’s simply speaking the truth and for it he gets condemned and lowered into a cistern. Really, they were just going to wait until they died down there. Poor Jeramiah. All he did was speak the words Lord to God’s people at the Lord’s direction.
God’s love, which is constant, God’s truth which never changes. God’s goodness which is eternal, can appear to us as bad news even though it’s good news and causes pain and division in our relationship with the world, and with others, and with the Lord.
So, given this important truth what are we to do with it? I would suggest these three things: first of all expect discomfort at time when you hear the truth. Don’t dismiss it pay attention to it. You are after all, like the rest of a sinner, working out your salvation, and you’re not done growing and turning away from your sins. Don’t be surprised that you experienced discomfort at times. Pay attention to it.
Second, take to heart the advice on second reading, that passage of Hebrews we just heard proclaimed, and rid yourself of every burden of sin as much as you possibly can, so that God’s love doesn’t come to you as a threat. And third, ask the Holy Spirit to help you grow in holiness, to prompt you and move you in your daily life toward the truth and away from sin.
The lesson in this Sunday’s Gospel that our Lord Jesus comes to teach us on his way to Jerusalem with his disciples to face his own passion and death to overcome our worst enemy, sin, is that he has come to set the world on fire. His divine love will cleanse us if we allow it to, and set us ablaze with that same glory and we will be bright lights in a world that sometimes will experience division but will proclaim the great love of God which has come to set the world on fire.