An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 12:49-53, August 18, 2013
IN 1938, NEVILLE Chamberlain (1869-1940), British Prime Minister from 1937 to 1940, thrice went to Germany with the end in view of preventing the outbreak of a general war in Europe over the demand of Adolf Hitler that Czechoslovakia cede its northern region to Germany. By virtue of the Munich Agreement signed on September 30, Chamberlain, together with Premier Edouard Daladier of France, gave in to almost all the demands of Hitler. By pacifying the German Dictator and by preventing the outbreak of hostilities, he was able, in his own description, to achieve “peace with honor”, “peace in our time.” When he returned home, England quite expectedly gave him a hero’s welcome. The Britons thought that they could now sleep soundly, without having to fear that they would wake up to the sound of drums and cannons. He was an instant celebrity in Europe. In the eyes of many, he was a peacemaker.
What about Jesus? Of course, Jesus was expected, if he was the Messiah, to bring peace. That precisely was the longing of the prophets. According to Isaiah, his reign will be characterized by peace: “they will name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace; his dominion is vast, and forever peaceful” (Isa 9:5). For Zechariah, he will proclaim peace to the nations (Zech 9:10b). Luke, of course, sees in Jesus the fulfillment of what the prophets proclaimed. It was expected that Jesus would bring peace. At his birth the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). Jesus was a peacemaker.
But to bring about peace, Jesus had to unmask effort to cultivate the appearance of peace by taking the bull by the horns. The problem with the kind of peace that Chamberlain sought in Munich was that it did not go to the root of the problem. The Munich Conference never treated the real situation, perhaps because the participants were scared to displease the Dictator. That “peace” was short-lived, of course. Hitler seized the rest of Czechoslovakia, and when he attacked Poland on September 1, 1939, Chamberlain found himself making a declaration of war with Germany. Understandably enough, when “peace in our time” is recalled, historians tend to identify Chamberlain with the word appeasement—describing his policy toward Hitler on the eve of World War II. It was peace at a great price. How often it happens that we cover up the real situation out of fear of displeasing the powerful, of being unpopular before the people, or of losing our personal interests.
In the 1st Reading, for example, we are told that the People of God were in a precarious situation. The Babylonians, under king Nebuchadnezzar, were so powerful that going against them would seal the doom of Israel. But the ministers of King Zedekiah refused to recognize the gravity of the situation, afraid as they were of losing their interests and privileges. They tried to pressure the King to revolt against the Babylonians. It is not infrequent that leaders are not able to see the state of the nation because the cordon sanitaire makes it impossible for them to obtain the correct knowledge and judgment, even as people around them always try to protect their privileges and interests, even if these do not coincide with the interest of the whole nation. Advisers and ministers often speak of words that the leaders wish to hear because this is advantageous to the latter’s sycophants and favorable to their self-interests.
Under such a situation, anyone who speaks the truth, engages in a correct reading and assessment of the situation and attempts to suggest a correct approach to the problem is liable to become unpopular, ostracized, criticized, or even killed. Thus, when Jeremiah, who had nothing in mind but real peace for the whole nation, informed King Zedekiah that by going against the Babylonians the people would be hopeless, he was ultimately accused by the King’s ministers of desertion and treason, for his diatribe, according to them, destroyed the will of the soldiers to resist their enemy, even if the King himself had sympathies for the prophet. No wonder, in the Gospel, Jesus said that he came not to bring peace but division. For the peace that Jesus brought, shalom, wholeness, is not one that can be bought at any price. It is a message that attacks the subterfuge of peace, the façade of the establishment whose leaders profit from the injustice and violation of rights that are being committed under the name of tranquility of the social order. It exposes the falsity and evil in the light of God’s word. The hearers are placed in a situation of crisis, in which they must decide for themselves whether they are for the message or against it. As a consequence, the message becomes a source of conflict not only between groups but even within families: “from now on a household of five may be divided, three against two or two against three” (Luke 12:52).
Of course, when truth is proclaimed, the messenger himself becomes part of the casualties, though people and those who go against him suffer in the end. Jeremiah was imprisoned (Jer 37:11-16) and later, because of his announcement of defeat to the revolt, left to die in an empty cistern (Jer 38:1-13). In the Gospel, Jesus speaks of “the baptism which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished” (Luke 12:50). By baptism, Jesus must have referred to his death; he would have foreseen that from the way the people and the religio-political authorities react to his message his death was inevitable. Such anticipation of his fate as a prophet is well expressed in his lament: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you” (Luke 13:34a). This was the consequence of the rejection of his message by the people. They turned against him. “When I gave bread to the poor,” says Bishop Helder Camara, “they call me a saint. But when I ask why the poor have no bread, they call me a communist.” Just as Jeremiah suffered much in the hands of those who wanted to silence him, so Jesus suffered from those who wished to choke his message. Still, the baptism of Jesus, like the sufferings of Jeremiah, was necessary in order that real peace may be established. In the words of Isaiah about the Servant of God, “he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole [i.e., shalom, peace], by his stripes we were healed” (Isa 53:5).