By Martin Jumbam
Mother Church celebrates August 18, 2013 as the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C. In the entrance antiphon we pray, “Turn your eyes, O God, our shield, and look on the face of your anointed one; one day within your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. Amen.” In the first reading, the prophet Jeremiah, like Christ, is persecuted and rejected by his people for telling the truth. Like Christ, his words bring division among the people who are bent on getting rid of him. His persecution is proof that anyone who confesses his faith in God and remains steadfast has to pay a heavy price for it. However, the experience of Jeremiah also shows that he who abandons himself wholly into God’s hand has nothing to fear because God always comes to the rescue of those who fear and obey him. In the second reading, the sacred writer of the Letter to the Hebrews exhorts us to be faithful to our Christian calling and advises us to keep our gaze permanently fixed on Christ who inspires us and perfects our faith We should therefore never be tired of the cross on which hangs our hope and salvation. In the Gospel, Saint Luke tells that Jesus’ words are like fire that brings division in society and in families. His words are like fire that cleanses, purifies and sanctifies all those who accept to follow him, but to those who reject him, the fire brings destruction. With these strong words, Jesus inspires us to live for God and for God alone. Let us pray, in the course of this Holy Eucharist, that the fire Jesus brings should enkindle the flame of love in our hearts so that we can love God with all our heart, with all our strength and our neighbour as ourselves.
In those days, the princes said to the king, “Let this Jeremiah be put to death, for he is weakening the hands of the soldiers who are left in this city, and the hands of all the people, by speaking such words to them. For this man is not seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm.” King Zedekiah said, “Behold he is in your hands, for the king can do nothing against you.” So they took Jeremiah and cast him into Prince Malchiah’s cistern, which was in the court of the guard, letting Jeremiah down by the ropes. And there was no water in the cistern, but only mire, and Jeremiah sank in the mire. Ebed-melech went from the king’s house and said to the king, “My lord the king, these men have done evil in all that they did to Jeremiah, the prophet, by casting him into the cistern; and he will die there of hunger, for there is no bread left in the city.” Then the king commanded Ebed-melech, the Ethiopian, “Take three men with you from here, and lift Jeremiah, the prophet, out of the cistern before he dies.”
V/ The word of the Lord.
R/ Thanks be to God.
The prophet Jeremiah is the second of the Major Prophets of the Bible, the first being Isaiah, the third Ezekiel and the fourth Daniel. Jeremiah lived in the last decades of the kingdom of Judah – a very important period, since it saw the collapse of the Assyrian empire, the rebirth of the Babylonian empire and the complete disappearance of the kingdom of Judah with the deportation of its leading families to Babylon.
The African Bible tells me that Jeremiah lived in Judah when the forces of King Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem in 587 BC and deported its inhabitants to Babylon. Jeremiah was well placed to see all these events and was familiar with the conditions in Judah after the deportation. He was born into a priestly family and received his prophetic mission from God round about the year 626 BC, while still a young man. During his long ministry that lasted over forty years, Jeremiah never tired of reminding his people of their covenant obligations and warning the incompetent leaders that their infidelity would bring down God’s anger and punishment on the whole land. Even though he was a peaceful man, Jeremiah was constantly in conflict with his people, kings, priests and false prophets, even suffering imprisonment in the process, but he was not afraid because he knew that he was only doing God’s work.
His warning of impending doom for Judah went largely unheeded until King Nebuchadnezzar’s forces came storming into Jerusalem in 587 BC. They conquered the Holy City and exiled most of its population to Babylon. Some Church historians believe that Jeremiah stayed back in Jerusalem for a while before being taken to Egypt by force by some Jews, who fled after the assassination of the king the Babylonians had put in place. This tradition holds that Jeremiah was eventually assassinated by his fellow Jews and is therefore thought to be buried on the African continent.
Shortly before the passage the Church has selected for our meditation, Jeremiah is heard warning the people that those who remain in the city of Jerusalem, which is surrounded by the Babylonians, will all perish by the sword. He therefore urges them to leave the city before the attack. The ruling leaders of the aristocracy are not happy with the prophet’s prediction of doom for the city. So they go to the king to ask that the prophet be killed for “demoralizing the soldiers and the people left in the city.”
The prophet does not back down despite the threats to his personal security. He remains calm and lucid and, in spite of the risk to his life, he continues to proclaim his conviction. He is eventually arrested and lowered into a well that is empty of water but is muddy at the bottom. It is then that a black man, Ebed-melech, a servant of the king, intervenes with the king not to let the prophet die. This Ethiopian, who seems to have some authority in the royal court, succeeds to convince the king to rescue the prophet from death, which the king does.
What do we, as Christians living in the city of Douala this day, learn from this reading? It is obvious that what is happening to Jeremiah in this reading is not an isolated case at all. We all know that it has not been rare in our country for those who announce and proclaim the word of God to suffer persecution in one form or another. Don’t we all know of Church leaders, be they Catholic or those of other Christian denominations, whose message has clashed with the interests of the powerful, and who have also been persecuted? Some have even been physically eliminated, others have been exiled and have died far from their land and from their loved ones; while others continue to suffer persecution of one form or another because they challenge the rich and the powerful.
Let us remember in our prayers all those who preach God’s word in our land and beyond, especially those who have suffered persecution for the Lord. Amen.
Second Reading: Letter to the Hebrews 12: 1-4.
Brethren, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
V/ The word of the Lord.
R/ Thanks be to God.
What we said last Sunday is worth repeating. The Letter to the Hebrews is one of the most imposing and important books in the New Testament. It was written principally to show the superiority of Christianity over the Old Covenant. It focuses on the idea that Christ's priesthood and sacrifice are superior to those of the priests of old. The author clearly indicates that the Law of Moses is not capable of saving mankind which has fallen through Adam’s sin. Christ has therefore, through his cross, abolished and replaced the Old Law with the new Law of the Gospel, which is the law of grace, freedom and interior challenge. This sacred writer uses this teaching as the basis for encouraging his readers to persevere in the faith despite the difficulties they may face in their Christian life. The Letter to the Hebrews is therefore a word of exhortation to steadfastness in faith, which is anchored on Jesus Christ in whom we believe.
In the passage of our meditation, the sacred writer exhorts us to be faithful to our Christian calling by referring to the Old Testament examples, especially Abraham, whose faith in God was total. But we should not have as model only the patriarchs, kings and prophets but also Christ himself, who is the “pioneer and the perfecter of our faith.” In other words, Christ is the perfect example of obedience, of faithfulness to his mission, of union with his Father and of endurance in suffering.
Christ is depicted as a strong persevering athlete who runs a good race, who starts and finishes well and who wins. As Christians we should imitate Christ whose example should help us to face to face any obstacle on our way, including humiliation and hostility. In love of us, Christ submitted to torture and humiliation but he knew that death would not win. A heavenly home awaited him and he has prepared the same for those who endure trials and tribulations with him.
That is why Christians are urged to run the race of life with perseverance while keeping their gaze permanently fixed on Christ, the pioneer of our faith. He leads us in faith and brings it to perfection. He is the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega. He is the perfecter of our faith because he leads us to perfection in faith. Everything he did on earth is a perfect example for us to follow.
The sacred writer seeks to inspire us with hope and strength as we contemplate Christ’s suffering and death on the cross for our salvation. Following Christ’s example, we Christian should strive to avoid sin, put up with trials and tribulations because it is in such adversity that our faith grows.
This reading encourages us to imitate the example of saints, whom the writer calls a ‘great cloud of witnesses’, who lived exemplary lives and are now with Christ in heaven. We should have our sight only on Christ in much the same way as the athlete keeps his sight and mind on the trophy he will win at the end of the race. We keep our gaze on Christ by avoiding all occasions of sin, even venial sin.
Let us pray and ask the Holy Spirit to strengthen our faith so that in our race to the Father’s house our eyes should be kept fixed on Christ, the final trophy. Amen.
Gospel: Luke 12: 49-53.
At that time Jesus said to his disciples, “I came to cast fire upon the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptised with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division; for henceforth in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.
V/ The Gospel of the Lord.
R/ Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem and to his supreme sacrifice on the cross. He continues to instruct his disciples, preparing them for the life after him. In this day’s passage, he tells them that he has come to light a fire on the earth. Fire is frequently used in Sacred Scripture as a symbol of God’s love, a love that cleanses us of our sins. On the day of Pentecost, for example, the Holy Spirit came down on the Apostles in the form of tongues of fire, to purify their hearts and prepare them for the mission of preaching Christ’s Gospel to the four corners of the earth.
Fire has many effects: it burns and destroys but it also gives light and warmth. Christ came into the world that all may be saved. That is why to save us he came with fire that destroys sin but save sinners and renews life. The war we wage is between truth, which Christ’s fire renews, and falsehood, which it destroys. We therefore have to choose between good, which is pleasing to God, and evil, which the Devil spreads among us. It is this evil that Christ’s fire is out to destroy.
To live with Christ entails suffering. We see in the first reading of this day how the prophet Jeremiah, who is faithful to God, pays for his loyalty with his life. Jesus too was faithful to God and it cost him suffering and death on the cross. So Christ is preparing his followers to understand that their faithfulness to him is also going to cost many of them great suffering and even their lives. Followers of Christ must be ready for the supreme sacrifice because Christ has come to the world with a fire of contradiction that splits society and even families.
Opposition to our commitment to the Gospel from those close to us is usually difficult to take since our hearts are pulled in two ways as we wonder whether to listen to the call from God or to our family. Our society, that is so prone to materialism, sometimes attacks us either openly or indirectly through amused indifference or patronizing contempt.
In the face of such opposition from family and society, we need the fire of Christ to burn in our hearts and give us the zeal for the mission so we can proclaim Christ without fear. We embrace the flame of fire that Christ brings because it enlightens the world that still lies in darkness. We follow the flame of his fire when we empty ourselves by carrying our cross behind him because it is that cross that will lead us to the joy of resurrection. The fire that burned in Jesus is the same fire that has burned in the hearts of so many Christians, leading some to abandon everything and follow the Master.
We Christians should therefore be the flame that enkindles. No one who meets us should leave without feeling that Christ’s love is in us. Our love should be something alive, a burning fire that sets off fires of love in others. We call on the Holy Spirit to enkindle in us the fire of love, through Christ our Lord. Amen.