People didn’t care very much for what the Prophet Jeremiah had to say. He was telling people that unless they repented, Jerusalem was going to fall and the people of Judah would be taken into captivity by the Babylonians. This was going to happen, Jeremiah said, because people refused to repent and return to the laws of God and the practice of the faith and their covenant with God. It wasn’t merely a question of whether “God was going to punish them,” but the people of Judah were making these choices themselves, and they were going to have to reap the consequences of those choices…the consequences of their sins. The people of that day did not like to hear the message that sin has consequences, just as many today don’t like that message (here we are many centuries later, and there is nothing new under the sun). People very often mistake speaking the truth in charity and love for rendering judgment. Jeremiah was telling the people of Jerusalem and Judah what the consequences of their sins and poor choices were going to be if they did not repent, and they didn’t want to hear it…so some of the “princes” wanted to “shut Jeremiah up.” This can happen when we take a stand for what is right. History would prove Jeremiah’s predictions correct. Today when we speak of the ancient history of the Jewish people, the Babylonian Captivity is something that features prominently in the discussion.
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews (we can’t say for sure who that was, but tradition has held that it may have been St. Paul) calls on his readers and hearers to “rid ourselves of every burden of sin that clings to us” and to keep “our eyes fixed on Jesus,” saying that we need to remember the kind of resistance Jesus received from sinners for proclaiming the truth. We should recall this so we don’t grow weary and lose heart…
And then we have the very words of Jesus. It needs to made clear, lest anyone take the words of Our Lord completely out of context, that Jesus is not calling on any of us to foment conflict with our family members, or our friends, or anyone else in society. He isn’t calling on us to be deliberately hurtful to people, such a posture would not only be the opposite of the life Jesus calls on all of us to lead, but it does a disservice to the faith we profess to sow such discord on purpose. Remember that St. Peter and St. Paul both went out of their way in their sacred writings to encourage people to pray for their leaders and be appropriately loyal to the state…despite the horrendous persecution the Roman Empire was subjecting them to for being Christians. Neither Jesus nor any of the Apostles in their sacred words or writings, however, said that because we loved and were charitable to our enemies that conflict would not happen. What Jesus is reminding us of is the reality that we can’t fail to stand up for the truth of God, we can’t fail to believe and act fully as a disciple of Christ because we are afraid it might bring conflict with others, even in our own family or among close and dear friends. The truth inevitably will bring that conflict without our intentionally trying to bring it about.
If there is anyone here who is a convert to the faith, you might have some idea what Jesus means when he warns that conflict will happen if we stand for the truth. I am a convert myself, and while I can happily share with you that there isn’t much conflict over my conversion today, back when it happened it was no small thing indeed. I came to understand that I was going to have to stick to my guns, even with members of my own family who I dearly loved and had no wish to quarrel with. Perhaps some might have a son or daughter who has left the faith, or is not living a life fully in accord with it. Maybe the situation could be reversed, and it is a parent who is even in error (yes, it happens!), or a brother or a sister…and we feel called to hold to those principles and teachings of the faith by taking a principled stand on some matter that may seem trivial to the World, or even to some fellow Catholics, but we might feel that we would be condoning a wrong if we participate in that activity, attend that event, or do something we don’t feel comfortable with in fully-formed good conscience. Conflict is not what we want in a situation such as this, but we will almost certainly get it.
Jesus is warning us that if we are going to be his disciples, conflict with others is not what we should seek, but sometimes it is going to be what we find ourselves having to endure. This is certainly true in today’s culture, which is growing increasingly relativistic and pagan, even in our part of the country, the so-called “Bible Belt.” If we are going to live the faith, conflicts with family and friends, as well as with the wider world, will almost certainly be unavoidable. As Jesus himself reminded us, “you cannot serve God and Mammon.”
When we might experience those conflicts in our lives, even though it can be difficult, we are not called to respond in anger, but in love, in charity, in kindness, and also in firmness and resolve. If those we cherish see that our fear of giving offense causes us not to stand for the faith we claim to believe, then they will believe, at least subconsciously if nothing else, that our faith and our beliefs are only as deep as our lips.
It is very hard for any of us to be a doer as well as a hearer of the Word. In times of conflict it is especially difficult, but we should remember that those people around us are watching us to see if we believe what we profess, if we have the consistency that Jeremiah did. We often hear Father Patrick speak of priests who have been persecuted or killed for the sake of the faith. When this happens, it isn’t because the priest wanted to die, but because they were willing to sacrifice everything for the faith, even their life if necessary. Jesus reminds us that this call of self-sacrifice applies to each and every one of us, not only a precious few.