20th Sunday in Ordinary Time C 2019

(Jer. 38:4-6, 8-10. Psalm 40. Heb. 12:1-4. Luke 12:49-53)

Setting the Earth on Fire

In areas where firewood is scarce, people collect animal dung for fire. Animal dung is dried and used as fuel. It is salted so that it would burn better. Salt, then, is a catalyst for fire.

Jesus suggests that he came to light the earthen oven, that is, to be catalyst. As used by St. Luke, the image is that of the earth’s inhabitants set “on fire” by the message of the Gospel.

Fire is used in Scriptures to symbolize God’s judgment where the just are purified and the evil ones destroyed (cf. Mal 3:2-5). As metal is refined of dross by fire, so people are tested as genuine by life’s ordeals. Here, Jesus states that the purpose of his coming is to test the hearts of men and women, to separate the good from the evil.

Christ becomes a “sign of contradiction”, that is, people are divided over him – whether they are for him or against him. He cannot be ignored; one cannot remain neutral; one must take a stand. Since the world has values contrary to Christ’s, division results between those who accept Christ and those who reject him. His good news is bad news for those who refuse him.

While Jesus is at times seen as “my sweet Lord,” his teaching and demand are far from saccharine. They are “salt” that sets heart on fire. It is true that Jesus comforts those who are afflicted, but he also “afflicts” those who are comfortable to remove them from their comfort zones.