Studying God’s Word

Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10
Hebrews 12:1-4
Luke 12:49-53 [120C]
The readings for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time preserve a historical and unfortunate reality: many people are threatened by God’s message and his messengers. From the Old Testament prophets to members of the earliest Christian communities, those who spoke God’s word often faced social harassment, intolerance, persecution, and, at times,
even death.
In today’s first reading from the Book of Jeremiah, we hear about the persecution that the prophet Jeremiah suffered at the hands of the ruling elite in the southern kingdom of Judah. During the reign of Zedekiah over Judah (598–587 BC), Jeremiah served as a counselor for the young king, who was only twenty-one years old when he ascended to the throne. As heard in today’s reading, the “princes” of the king, who carried out many of the day-to-day operations in the kingdom, complained bitterly to Zedekiah about Jeremiah who they perceived as “demoralizing” the soldiers and the people. (Jeremiah was well-known for openly confronting the idolatry and even the apostasy of the Israelites living in Judah during the years leading to their exile into Babylon in 597 and 587 BC). Unwilling to protect Jeremiah, Zedekiah allowed his princes to silence the prophet by placing him in muddy cistern (dry well), leaving him to die of starvation and dehydration. It was only through the intervention of one of the Zedekiah’s court officials, the Ethiopian Ebed-melech, that Jeremiah was rescued from sure death in the cistern. 
The second reading from Hebrews picks up from last Sunday when we heard about Old Testament exemplars of the faith. Abraham’s faith was highlighted in the reading, although Hebrews 11 offers many other examples. Today’s reading begins by speaking of these ancient Israelite men and women of faith as “so great a cloud of witnesses” and a source of inspiration for members of the Christian community to whom the author of Hebrews writes. He then refers to Jesus as “the leader and perfecter of faith.” This is a title for Jesus found only in Hebrews. In fact, Hebrews uses over a dozen titles for Jesus, many of which are unique within the New Testament (for example, “high priest,” “forerunner,” and “minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle”). The author sees Jesus’ agony on the cross and his resurrection and ascension to God’s throne in heaven as affirmation of the title “leader and perfecter of faith.” Furthermore, although some community members seem to be faced with various levels of harassment, the author tells the community to keep their “struggle against sin” in perspective, since—unlike Jesus—they have not “resisted” the opposition they face “to the point of shedding blood.”
The Gospel reading presents one of Jesus’ more startling statements: “Do you think I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three.” Scholars often speculate that this social reality likely reflects the tensions of Luke’s time toward the end of the first century AD, two generations removed from Jesus’ death and resurrection. As the Christian message spread through evangelization, clearly there were those who accepted and believed and others who rejected the message. In today’s reading, Jesus forewarns that this reaction to the proclamation of the kingdom of God will be experienced in a personal and profound way.

Dr. Daniel J. Scholz