This gospel is Tough Love.
Typically, Jesus is consolation, hope, love. This week, it’s anguish, sacrifice, division.
In a nutshell, last week’s gospel was about vigilance and an invitation to discipleship. This week, it’s about commitment and the cost of discipleship…
Groundhog Day and It’s a Wonderful Life are two of my favorite movies. In Groundhog Day, Phil Connors, the character played by Bill Murray, is a self-oriented man who is seeking advancement and personal gain, regardless of the impact on his relationships and the cost to others. There are clues of this everywhere but he doesn’t see them or doesn’t care. Phil is destined to re-live the same day over and over again… to the point of misery, desolation. The way forward? The salvation? He breaks free from this sentence when he becomes oriented toward others, when he sacrifices, when he serves.
In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey, played so memorably by Jimmy Stewart, is actually a very other oriented person… to a fault. Over time, he grows resentful and bitter, feeling as though life has passed him by. He is destined to see what the world would have been like had he never been born at all. This leads to despair. His salvation? Understanding the value of his impact on others and realizing that his wealth, though not monetary, was limitless.
Phil Connors and George Bailey perhaps could have seen it coming — there were warning signs all along. But instead they had to go through their trials, which of course ended up becoming their blessings. Anyone who is a parent knows that some children can simply be told not to touch the stove. Others will only learn once they have touched it. You could say that Phil and George had to touch it in order to get it.
We don’t know exactly what prompted Jesus to make the very unsettling statements that we heard in today’s gospel reading. Statements about setting the earth on fire, about the anguish of his own coming trials, and about setting members of families against each other. We don’t know what prompted it; we can only surmise that the disciples must have needed to hear it. Maybe Jesus felt as though they needed to touch the stove.
Discipleship has a cost. Setting families against each other? Well, that is exactly what would happen in the early church. Back then, there were no social programs, no societal safety nets. Family was everything and to be set against your own was a harsh and potentially dangerous circumstance. Yet that is what would happen as some chose to follow Jesus, while others did not. Early members of our church faced this kind of extreme hardship.
Contrast that to today.
I am reminded of a post that someone had in their Facebook feed a few weeks ago. An analyst was stating that Pope Francis needed to “modernize” his view on abortion in order to remain relevant, to stay popular. Modernize?
Listen to Jesus’ words in today’s gospel. Could you image if that analyst had lived back then and said to Jesus… “you know… with that harsh tone, there are people who might decide not to follow you…”? What do you think Jesus would have said at that point?
Jesus’ words to the disciples were the equivalent of grabbing them by the shoulder and shaking them. They should do the same to us. They should be our touch the stove moment. They should make us wonder about our own commitment level. Are we willing to follow Jesus? Are we willing to do what it takes?
The prize is eternity. It is forever consolation, forever hope.
The message is Tough. But make no mistake about it: it is also Love.