It is a commonplace at present to hear that both the UK and the US societies are ‘deeply divided’. Today’s readings show us that such divisions are not new. The Hebrew Prophets and the gospels are facing up to some serious results of disunity.
Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10
This prophet had the unhappy task of warning his country that the Chaldeans, who were besieging Jerusalem, would prevail and armed resistance would be futile. Although the weak king, Zedekiah, listened to him secretly, he felt unable to flee as Jeremiah counselled. Those who sought to defend the city are the ‘leading men’ of our reading who were resisting the siege and who thought by getting rid of Jeremiah, they would succeed. Jeremiah has one faithful follower who persuades the King to allow his rescue. After this, the attackers did prevail and the result was the destruction of Jerusalem and the removal of the leaders off to exile in Babylon.
Jesus would have been well aware of the persecution of Jeremiah, and other prophets (compare Luke 11:49ff). He would that background when he would also be opposed and rejected by some of those he had come to save.
Psalm 39/40:2-4, 18
The psalm was an obvious choice, for what may have a metaphor for the psalmist of rescue from the pit does fit Jeremiah’s situation.
This follows on from last week’s reading praising the faith of Abraham. The author of the Letter went on to detail the faithfulness of many others in the Old Testament, who are now summarized as a ‘cloud of witnesses’. We are asked to learn from their example, but more than that, to look to Jesus. (The centrality of Jesus in our lives is never far from the mind of this writer.) The phrases ‘who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection’ are two nouns in the Greek which are stronger than this translation. The first is related to the word for ‘first’ or we might say ‘foremost’, meaning the one who far surpasses the earlier witnesses. The Revised New Jerusalem Bible translates it as ‘pioneer’ which has the sense of not only going before but preparing the way. The second word is only here in the Bible, meaning a person who completes or perfects a work begun. A similar idea is in Revelation/Apocalypse where Jesus says, ‘I am the beginning and the end.’
Many find this short passage a difficult one to interpret, and that is shown by differences in the commentaries. The first verse is preserved for us only in Luke. In his commentary on Luke, G. B. Caird describes it in this way: ‘This rare glimpse into the inner mind of Jesus reveals an agonizing mixture of impatience and reluctance.’
Fire in the Old Testament was a symbol of purification based on the idea of refining precious metal: high temperatures would melt the ore and drive off the impurities leaving the desired gold. ‘Baptism’ may be a reminder here of John the Baptist who predicted that the ‘one who comes after me will baptize you in fire and Holy Spirit’. But as Caird says, this prediction did not think of the ‘one who comes’ having to go through the fire himself. Baptism meaning ‘immersion’ fits our sacramental use of cleansing through water, but here has the sense of being ‘immersed’ in pain and suffering.
The next verses are best thought of as ironic. It is not Jesus’ intent that people turn against each other, but that comes as they respond in different ways to his mission which challenges his listeners to turn from wrong-doing and to follow him.
Some of Jesus description comes from the prophet Micah (7:6) who lived in unsettled and unhappy times. Just as with Micah, so for Jesus there were –and still are – people who find it ‘too hard’ to listen to his message of peace and reconciliation. Some will just ignore it, but others turn against him and his followers to the point of putting them to death – a process we still see going on today. These ironic words compare with the anguish Jesus expresses over the way he will be denied by those in Jerusalem (Luke 13: 34-35). It was not only physical pain that Jesus had to endure.
The allusion to Micah shows Jesus’ familiarity with the Hebrew scriptures and how he sees them throwing light on his own mission. Micah concludes with his own dedication to look to ‘the God of my salvation’, and trusts in being heard. And in Luke Jesus will express his utter trust in his Father as he hangs on the cross. (23:46)
The liturgy selection leaves us with the bleak image of division, but Christians know that is not the final word. After his Resurrection, the message of the risen Lord to the disciples is ‘Peace be to you!’ (John 20:19) But for us to receive that blessing, Jesus must first endure his ‘baptism by fire’, suffering a painful and humiliating death. While we have the hope of peace to live with, we may also be challenged by the divisions and enmity we live with in our world. Can we become the ‘blessed peacemakers’ of the Beatitudes? (Matthew 5:9)