The Scripture for this reflection: the Gospel from Thursday of the 29th Week of Ordinary Time (Luke 12:39-43)
There are days I see the Gospel for daily Mass and wish I could substitute for it, preach around it, preach a different reading of the day, or just give a sermon on a favorite topic. The wisdom of the Lectionary is we have to confront passages we wouldn’t want to focus on, and today it led me to embrace the struggle.
Today’s Jesus isn’t the warm, fuzzy Jesus we like to think of: this is the Christ of confrontation. We like to think if everybody would embrace Christ the world would find peace. There would be nothing to fight about, Christ would return, and heaven would come to earth. How could anyone in their right mind refuse the peace Jesus offers? This Gospel leads us elsewhere. The divisions he speaks of, father against son, mother against daughter, and so forth, are unthinkable in the context of his time. Each would be a public scandal; something to be hidden. Jesus brings division, and if we look at our history honestly, it’s happened pretty regularly. Christ separating people can lead us to reject Him, it seems harsh and cruel. However, Jesus is life, in this world and the next. We can’t avoid it, so we should deal with it.
First, I would observe the World refuses healing, doesn’t even want to admit it’s sick and broken. The World wants us to take it as is and not challenge or change it. It wants us to accept the strong will use the weak, natural forces should not be opposed, and we are just consumable items in the food chain, one way or the other. The only hope is to dominate, make our lives the best we can, and just take care of ourselves and our tribe. The only people who matter are people we personally care for. How we come to care about them and how we care for them is up to our fickle whim.
We don’t want to admit we are sick and broken, either. We don’t want to admit our weaknesses unless we’ve overcome them by our own hard work or can use them as an excuse for self-centered priorities. We want to stay sick and ignorant the way the World does. Problems can even be imagined away, success can be something we get when we dream hard enough. I don’t buy that kind of thinking because it’s a key reason I lost a leg: I didn’t want to admit I was sick, and I didn’t want to give up control of my life by admitting I needed help. I was happy as I was, or at least, happy with my illusion of control. I was happy to let my fears run my life. However, what we don’t know can not only hurt us, it can kill us.
So Christ is here to start a fire, and we will divide ourselves over Him. Great, where do we go with that? What kind of confrontation should we be talking about?
I think the most useless images of faith confrontation are the knight on horseback and the soldier in the trench. Admirable images of commitment and endurance to be sure, but they locate the struggle with an arbitrary, inhuman force. They don’t lead us to confront our greatest foe: ourselves. Like Adam and Eve, evil enters the world because we let it, not because a malevolent force has planted booby traps for us to stumble over. We let evil into the world because we want to remake the world in our image of it, into the culture we know and love. It’s especially horrible when we confuse our dream world with God’s paradise, and our work for our selfish dream as God’s Will.
The knight lets us think we’re holy warriors whose every impulse is good, and have permission to destroy anyone or anything we find hostile. Trouble is holy knights probably never really existed (Crusaders existed to kill for the most part), and we can never be holy enough. Soldiers in the trench are a strong cultural memory from World War I, the men who fought there are people some of us knew. It speaks to the dull, dreary, repetitive nature our lives can take, and hopefully if we just stick it out, it’ll be over someday. What we don’t realize is we dig the trenches and we sit in them willingly. We tell ourselves we can keep the chaos of evil away from our trenches and we don’t have to understand why the world is a hostile place or try to change it. Just shoot back and repel everything that comes at you, occasionally try to storm across no man’s land and destroy something to rid the world of a small piece of evil. If you die, it’s for a noble cause.
So what kind of confrontation are we talking about? How about Jacob wresting with an unnamed stranger?
Genesis 32:25-32 talks of a dramatic night in Jacob’s life. He’s just sent his family and everything he has of value across a river and stayed alone. They are going to meet Esau, the twin brother Jacob cheated out of his inheritance. He’s afraid, he’s been sending gifts ahead of him hoping to appease his brother. He knows his brother has every right to kill him over his betrayal. Then night comes, and a man wrestles with him. Jacob wrestles all night, and refuses to let go at daybreak until he receives a blessing, which he gets.
Jacob is never the same again: he receives a new name, Israel (Contender with God), and he limps because his hip is injured, an injury that will never go away. Israel is able to go alone to meet his brother in the open and beg forgiveness for his transgression. Esau is merciful toward him and they part in peace. Israel becomes a new person and an ancestor of God’s people.
My take is when we have a problem with Scripture or faith, we need to wrestle with God, to embrace the struggle relentlessly until we find a blessing. The World shuns this kind of struggle, says God is too distant and should not be challenged, either obeyed unquestioningly or rejected completely. The World says the only valuable solutions are easy, simple, and inexpensive, and don’t really change us. The World tells us the only person that matters is the one who looks back at us from our mirrors. However like Jacob, we need to wrestle with God until something good comes, no matter how long it takes or what the personal cost.
How do we wrestle with God? I think it’s in trying to live the Great Commandment and the Beatitudes, trying to live in accountability with each other and the planet, trying to be generous when our instincts tell us “no”, trying to be genuinely kind and compassionate people from our hearts. It will separate us from the priorities of a “Me first” culture, from consumerism and materialism, from treating others as objects rather than people. We will be resisted, and we will be told resistance is futile. We don’t have to be good or successful, just relentless.
When we take in Christ, He will attack every part of us that isn’t like Him. That’s a good thing, that will lead us to being who we’re meant to be, that will lead us to fulfillment as human beings here and now. We don’t have to worry about a fire, for Christ assures us we will not be consumed by it, and we do not have to be consumed by anger. Christ will give us strength to embrace the struggle, which will probably mark us for life, as well as give us hope and blessing. Sometimes, it’s the only way.