20th Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 14, 2016

The Gospel reading today begins with a saying from Jesus, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” (Luke 12:49), and concludes with an admonition about the consequences of taking Jesus’ teachings seriously. (Luke 12:51-53)

If read on the campus of a primary, secondary or post-secondary educational institution today’s Gospel passage would require a trigger warning for the benefit of those who live in tense households or suffer from pyrophobia.

The saying, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” (Luke 12:49), is usually understood as an example of biblical apocalyptic: the allegorical use of fantastical images. Apocalyptic is a common element in many Scriptural texts. If this saying is an example of apocalyptic, then Jesus is using fire as an allegory for the radical transformation that will be offered to human nature through his sacrificial death on the Cross.

Jesus saw himself as ushering in a new age of reconciliation between God and God’s People. (Luke 13:28-30) He conceded that not all people would welcome or embrace his message. (Luke 12:51-53) Despite the possibility of conflict with those who would reject the Gospel message, Jesus expected his disciples to be agents for positive change. (Luke 10:1-12)

I’d like to make a suggestion about how we can put Jesus’ words into action. It is a cultural taboo in this country to talk about politics in church, even though politicians have no compunction about discussing religion during their campaign speeches. I’m going to take the risk of violating the taboo this morning.

Jesus’ expectation that his disciples act as catalysts for positive change in the world seems to be at least permission for us to apply our beliefs to the choices we make as voters. Further, given all of their rhetoric about religious beliefs, it is reasonable to expect candidates for public office to apply their religious beliefs to their responsibilities as elected officials. Therefore, I have this advice for voters, candidates and those who are elected: try thinking about someone other than yourself.

Jesus repeatedly commanded his disciples to put others first in their lives. He did this for two simple reasons. First, God is present to us in all our experiences, particularly in our experiences of other people. Secondly, in the Scriptures God shows preference for the poor and powerless. Jesus’ command to consider the needs of others seems like an obvious perspective to apply to our political choices and actions.

I am not suggesting that anyone should change their party affiliation or political views. I am suggesting that candidates for public office should, at the very least, treat other people with the same respect they would like to receive from others.

I am also suggesting that voters take to heart Jesus’ teaching. If you are a rabid liberal who thinks that government should provide you with every possible social benefit free of charge, I’m not asking you to give up your sense of entitlement. I am merely suggesting that you consider others ahead of yourself.

On the other hand, if you are a doomsday-prepping arch-conservative who would gladly deport anyone who isn’t directly related to you, I am not asking you to temper your misanthropy. I am only suggesting that you do no more than consider the well-being of others.

In this country we love to think of ourselves as individualistic and self-sufficient, but the truth is that none of us can survive without all the rest of society. Appended to the saying about lighting a fire on the earth is a saying about the divisions that will arise as a result of Jesus’ disciples choosing to follow his commands. (Luke 12:51-53) Most people today cringe when hearing these words of Jesus. None of us want to be estranged from family and friends. This is because none of us are as individualistic and self-sufficient as we claim.

Jesus’ teaching might truly disrupt many of our relationships, if we take his teaching to heart. The idea that we should consider the well-being of others might well earn us the scorn of the society in which we live. It is extremely counter-cultural to suggest that we should consider others’ needs above our own, but it is also the heart of Jesus’ teaching.

To follow Jesus’ teaching faithfully requires much more than merely “being nice.” To be a faithful disciple of Jesus requires much more than acting innocuously or doing no harm to others. Fulfilling God’s will in our lives might cause some distress to demagogues who want simple solutions to all personal and social problems, but authentic faith in Jesus allows no half-way measures or compromises. I recommend that all of you take the risk of giving compassionate consideration to the needs of someone other than yourself; it might lead to the radical transformation of your life and the whole world.

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