TWENTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (2022)
Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10
Psalms 40:2-4, 18
Perhaps the prophet Jeremiah would feel very much at home in today’s world. Jeremiah is suffering on account of telling the truth, a truth he has received directly from the God who called him to be one of the Old Testament’s most reluctant prophets. One tends to think that truth would be highly valued in any era, but as today’s first reading shows, the truth in Jeremiah’s day was just as potentially threatening as it appears to be in our own day. Indeed, truth is an interesting commodity, highly valued when it works for one’s benefit, easily discarded or ignored if it possesses the possibility of harming. When we think of the kind of divisions that have migrated from politics to our dinner tables, they all have to do with how much a person values truth.
Jeremiah was forced to endure the maligning and untrue accusations of the princes, who were so persuasive that the king handed Jeremiah over to them, who promptly silenced the truth by throwing Jeremiah into the mud of a well – out of sight, out of mind! Lucky for Jeremiah, a court official with more integrity than the princes, persuaded the king to remove Jeremiah from the well, lest he die of starvation. Jeremiah would know in his lifetime the cost of preaching the truth, and his sufferings, like those of so many prophets of God, would pre-figure the sufferings of Christ, who in the New Testament, is so often compared with those prophets.
The so-called religious authorities of Jesus’ day also had an aversion to the truth, for what Jesus taught had the genuine possibility of upending the comfortable lifestyles they had carved out for themselves. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day clashed often with Jesus, and on more than one occasion Jesus would call them hypocrites, or “white washed tombs” that contained nothing more than dead people’s bones. The author of Hebrews cautions us to “consider how Jesus endured such opposition from sinners (like the prophets), in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin (untruths) you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.” But to the extent that we are truly prophetic like Jesus, we can be sure that we will one day have to suffer.
If “division” causes suffering, or the absence of peace, one might be lead to think that today’s gospel has found it’s fulfillment in our era, for there is more than enough division to go around. But the “fire” that Jesus wishes was “blazing” is not the cause of that division. Indeed, the fire Jesus speaks of is the fire that refines gold, and “renews the face of the earth.” The fire of Pentecost, which appeared as “tongues,” is the antidote to what afflicts the world, for it rejuvenates the world while enkindling a passion for what is right, and just, and good, and truthful in the hearts of all peoples. Because of sin there will be division, but to the extent that we allow the fire of divine love to burn within our hearts, to that extent will we be disciples who truly change the world for the better.
On this very day, in 1941, the heart of a simple polish priest was on fire with the love of Christ. He was no stranger to the slings and arrows of his time directed at those who told the truth. So great was his love of the Lord and His Mother that he saw no choice but to speak the truth regardless of the consequences. He would be arrested by Nazi officials and eventually transferred to Auschwitz, the infamous labor camp and crematorium. In retaliation for the escape of one prisoner, the deputy camp commander would choose ten men to be starved to death in an underground cell. When one of the chosen men cried out, “My wife! My children!,” Maximilian Kolbe volunteered to take his place. The prisoners were crowded into a small cell (which I had the privilege of viewing), and after two weeks of being starved and deprived of water, only Maximilian was left standing and alive. Because authorities wanted the cell emptied of the bodies, Kolbe was given a lethal injection on August 14, 1941. The next day, the feast of the Assumption, his body would be cremated. St. John Paul II would canonize St. Maximilian Kolbe in 1982, while the man whose life he saved at Auschwitz looked on.
Maximilian is precisely what the fire enkindled by Jesus looks like. He, and countless other saints, have changed the world for the better by preaching and living the truth of Jesus’ gospels. May we cooperate with the graces that flow to us, in order that we might be men and women who preach the truth of the gospel, not only with our lips, but with our very lives.