This is the paradox of Jesus’s coming. While he brings peace and eternal life, those who refuse to receive the fire of purification, conversion and renewal that he offers bring upon themselves discord and death.
In the gospel passage today, Jesus describes his mission in terms of fire and baptism. By doing this, he makes it clear that there is no neutrality to his presence, his words and his deeds.
Early in Jesus’ public life, John the Baptist presents Jesus as one who is coming to baptize with Spirit and fire (Lk. 3:16). Patricia Datchuck Sanchez notes that fire, a familiar biblical symbol, “is a frequent metaphor for God Himself and for his intervention among his people.” For example, God communicates his presence to Abraham (Gen. 3:16), to Moses (Ex. 3:2), to Israel in the desert (Ex. 13:21-22) and on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19:18) through the phenomenon of fire. The prophet Jeremiah compares God’s word to fire (Jer. 23:29). Fire is also a symbol of God’s holiness and protection (Zech. 2:5) and is considered as God’s servant (Psalm 194:4; Heb. 1:7).
Fire possesses destructive and purifying qualities. As such, it is also a fitting symbol for the action of God among his sinful, disobedient and wayward people. Zechariah associates the Day of the Lord with the cleansing fire of God’s intervention (Zech. 13:9). The Israelites’ exile in Babylon is described as a purification by fire (Is. 43;2; Psalm 66:12). Sanchez notes that “in his desire to ignite fire upon earth, Jesus is aware that he is to be the crucible wherein all humanity will be judged, purified, refined and enkindled in an eschatological conflagration.” Furthermore, he manifests “himself as filled with an ardent longing to illuminate the world by the fire of the Spirit, which is the ultimate goal of his work” (Days of the Lord, Vol. 6, 169).
Baptism, in the context of the gospel passage, does not refer to one
of the seven sacraments of the Church. From the Greek “baptizein” (Hebrew, “tabal”), baptism here means, “to be bathed, dipped or immersed.” Jesus is referring to the inevitable ordeal that he will suffer in the hands of those who will reject and oppose him and his message. The gospel of Mark renders this baptism as “a bath of pain,” referring clearly to Jesus’ passion and death (Mk 10:30). The biblical scholar C. Talbert, according to Sanchez, says that “Jesus’ baptism is the precondition for the release of fire upon the earth.” Through the baptism of passion and death of Jesus, the fire of divine judgment and purification is unleashed.
Jesus’ igniting of fire brings about inevitable discord and division because his presence of a blazing fire cannot be ignored or downplayed. No one can remain neutral in the presence of the Son of Man. Walter Brueggemann et al. declare that “the very presence of Jesus precipitates a crisis, a division among people in terms of how they respond to him.” By the radical nature of his presence, words and deeds, Jesus demands of a choice, a decision. Those who receive the fire of his purification and penetrating truth are converted and those who reject it perish. In other words, in Jesus’ coming, each person is presented with an ultimatum. Each must decide whether to accept him and his message or not and the terms of this decision are more binding and demanding than the blood ties that keep the family together.
Family members, because of the decision that each has to take in favor or against Jesus and his message, must be ready to face the possibility of division. This is the paradox of Jesus’ coming. While he brings peace and eternal life, those who refuse to receive the fire of purification, conversion and renewal that he offers bring upon themselves discord and death.
Actually, “the pivotal point,” as Joyce Ann Zimmerman et al. assert, “is that neither Jesus nor we choose division and strife.” These result from our being true and faithful to Jesus and his message. The gospel of Jesus can be jolting. Fidelity to the gospel of Jesus can bring about “a clash of values, of principles, of priorities.” As we try to receive the fire that Jesus brings into the world and as we do our best in helping set the world on fire with the Kingdom values of love, peace and justice, we must be ready, following the lead of Jesus, to be baptized into the waters of suffering and pain. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (The Cost of Discipleship).