When you ask people about Jesus and His message, even those who are not Christians, most people’s view would be something like the following. Jesus was a kind, gentle man who taught a message of universal goodwill and brotherhood. Following His teaching should bring tranquility and peace to your life. This view of Jesus is epitomized by many movies about His life. Jesus is presented with long hair and incredibly gentle. He acts like a hippie who walked the roads of Palestine – wearing sandals of course – some 2000 years ago. Now, there certainly is a lot of truth to this image of Jesus and His message, but it is not the whole picture. In today’s gospel we see another side of Jesus. He is presented as a disruptive and rebellious figure. He tells us that He has not come to bring peace, but division. Jesus explains the affect that His teaching should have on the world: it should be like a fire. As we will see, what Jesus has in mind with this analogy is a far cry from a serene campfire around which we hold hands and sing Kumbaya.
If we are trying to follow Jesus, we should feel a certain amount of division, some burning even, within ourselves. Being a Christian should make us feel uncomfortable at times. This is because the Gospel calls us to change ourselves and change can be painful. Jesus calls us to act in a way that we would sometimes rather not act. When we say yes to Jesus and His way, we can sometimes feel like we are at war within ourselves. For example, if someone says something rude about myself or someone I care about, my first reaction is to seek revenge, to hurt them back. In such a situation choosing to follow Jesus’ example by fighting against this impulse and forgiving the person will not be easy, it may hurt us to do this. Or, for example, we all want to accumulate more and better material goods, whether it be clothes, a car, good food or entertainment. Making the choice not to buy yourself that new outfit, or the best car you can or to see that new movie and rather give some of that money to the needy, is not an easy thing to do. We feel the tension between what we want and what Jesus asks of us. When we chose to follow Jesus we discover that it brings struggle and discord within ourselves.
Being a Christian will also cause a certain amount of division between ourselves and other people. Following Jesus will often put us at odds with current trends and popular opinion about what it means to live a good life. I experienced this strongly when I graduated from a Catholic High School and went to university. The new friends I was making often had a different world-view and set of values. Tensions could often arise because of our disagreements on different issues, whether it be regarding belief in God, the role of religion in society and a host of moral issues. Following Christ can put as at odds with other people, sometimes those very close to us. Jesus says that His message will bring division even in a family, a son against his father, for example. Perhaps you might argue that it is the normal state of affairs for a daughter-in-law to be at odds with her mother-in-law. You don’t need Jesus to have conflict with your in-laws! Now, I do not think that Jesus wants there to be division within a family. He is trying to highlight the seriousness of His message and that it demands a response, either we are for or against. This, unfortunately, can lead to tensions in a family. We see this in the lives of some saints. For example, the fathers of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas of Aquinas both put their sons under house arrest when they heard about they plans to follow Jesus. Choosing to follow Jesus with often cause a certain amount of division between ourselves and other people.
The tensions that arise from following Christ, those within ourselves and those with other people, are meant to purify us so that we become more like Jesus. The fire that Jesus can bring to our lives will hurt at times but will transform us to be better people. Fire has many uses, it can keep us warm or it can heat our food. Fire is also used to purify metals. A woman once went to visit a silversmith to observe him in action. She noticed that in order to purge the silver from all its impurities, the silversmith would heat the silver over a fire in order to burn off all foreign elements. The woman asked the silversmith how he knew when the process of purification was over. The smith responded that he paid close attention to the silver in the fire; he would know that the silver was purified when – and only when - he could see his own reflection in the silver. Jesus does the same to us. When we make the choice to follow Christ each day it is not easy, it causes tensions both within ourselves and with others. In a way we are held in the fire. These struggles are meant to purify and refine us, to remove all impurities so that more and more we become like Christ. The fire that Jesus brings should transform us so that more and more we reflect Him in our life.
Today’s gospel calls us to examine our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. What are our expectations in following Christ? Should we expect a life of peace and tranquility? Yes, but not at once and not all the time. We should not let ourselves feel discouraged when we experienced struggles and divisions – both internal and external - because we have chosen to follow Jesus. This is normal. If we never felt a struggle within ourselves or experienced that we are at odds with social trends and opinions then something would be wrong. This should give us hope. Let us change the way that look at struggles and difficulties in our life. We should not see them as times when God has abandoned us or feel that something is wrong. Rather we should recognize them for what they are, necessary moments when Jesus is refining us and removing from us impurities so that we more and more reflect Him in all our words, thoughts and actions.