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Gospel commentary: Set the earth on fire

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LK 12:49-53

At a recent gathering with three seminary classmates to celebrate our 30th anniversary as priests, we spent our first night around a roaring outdoor fire. We warmed ourselves against the cool Montana air and renewed our friendship by sharing stories from our days in the seminary and catching up on life. It was a terrific evening. 

Jesus says to his disciples in the Gospel of Luke: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” Allow me to attempt to unpack this strong image.

Surely, Our Lord is referencing the fire of his love. He manifests his love for us in countless ways: humbling himself, taking on our flesh and dwelling among us; extending generous acts of unearned forgiveness; healing those afflicted for years with various illnesses; patiently teaching us the Gospel way that leads to true joy and fulfillment; and, calling us to share in his mission of building his kingdom. The greatest manifestation of his love, of course, was when he chose to obediently and lovingly lay down his life for your salvation and mine.  

Jesus wants that love to be embraced with gratitude and to transform us into humble disciples who in turn bring the fire of that love into every corner of our little world. If every Christian’s heart was truly on fire with a deep love for God, the fire would be blazing.

Fire purifies as well. The finest gold and silver are purified numerous times in the refiner’s fire. Jesus wants to purify our hearts with the fire of his love that forgives our sins and cleanses our hearts (gradually) of the stains of sin. Our nature was deeply wounded by the first sin of Adam and Eve. When we are being honest with ourselves, we know that we are rather weak and that quickly we slide into our selfish and sinful ways. Every human being has a profound need for God’s mercy. The peace and newness of life that flow from God’s tender mercy, poured out so wonderfully in the sacrament of penance, are truly some of the best gifts that Jesus bestows upon his beloved children.

Fire is powerful. While on that same anniversary vacation in Montana and Wyoming, we caught a glimpse of the enormous impact that forest fires can have on the environment. Setting the world on fire suggests that there is no room for mediocrity. We recently celebrated the memorial of St. Ignatius of Loyola. One motto that governed his life and ministry is “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.” This is often translated from Latin, “For the Greater Glory of God.” Ignatius did not dedicate his heart and his ministry to the glory of God, but to the greater glory of God. Ignatius was constantly striving to give more generously, love more intensely, teach the faith more effectively, spread the Good News more widely, and serve the pope more faithfully. There was a powerful “more” that governed his life.

Fire also causes division. The fires in Yellowstone and the Grand Teton national parks drove the moose, elk, grizzlies and mountain goats to other mountains. Jesus reminds us that being on fire for Him and embracing the Gospel way of life will cause, at times, tension and even division. Some family, friends and neighbors will be put off by the truths that govern our lives. Jesus was put to death because he firmly taught Gospel truths with great authority and conviction. “From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father … ”

Jesus wants His disciples to be clear and firm in teaching the Gospel way of life and striving to live it authentically. With the truths of our faith, there can be no room for compromise. 

However, Our Lord also wants us to be humble when we discuss and teach our faith — to be mindful that we are all sinners. Our Lord desires that we encourage others to live and embrace the faith with patience and charity. He modeled for us that the best way to build up faith in others is to journey with them as he journeyed with the Twelve and gradually and patiently brought them to the fullness of the faith. Jesus wants us to avoid laying heavy burdens on people and failing to help carry them. 

Let me finish with the insightful and encouraging words of the Letter to the Hebrews: “Let us rid ourselves of every burden of sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.”

Fr. Peterson is director of mission and development for the Youth Apostles.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019