Jesus asks, "Do you think I have come to establish peace on the earth?" We thought the answer was "yes." At his birth the angels announced "peace to men of good will" (RSV: "peace among men with whom he is pleased" Lk 2:14). But Jesus says the opposite, "I assure you the contrary is true. I have come for division." He wishes to "light a fire on the earth." (see Lk 12:49ff.)
Before trying to explain the meaning of this paradox (the Prince of Peace bringing division) let me give an example of a local group, inspired by Jesus, who are causing a controversy. Operation Rescue created a storm by demonstrating at some local high schools. They carry placards showing aborted fetuses and attempt to engage students about the reality of abortion. The school district has sought court orders to restrain their actions.
Now let me clarify that I am not a member of Operation Rescue and, like most of you, what I know about them I have gained from reading the newspaper and watching the local news, activities which I do somewhat sporadically. Still they are an interesting group in the context of today's Gospel. What I saw on the news was an interview with a student who felt the protest was disruptive. She said that in their math class all the students could talk about were the posters of aborted babies. The television reporter said they could not show the actual pictures because they were too violent and gruesome. It wasn't possible to even give a standard warning ("the following sequence contains images which may be upsetting. If there are little children present...") and show them anyway. All in all the news report left one with a fairly negative impression of Operation Rescue.
The same news did a review of the hit movie Saving Private Ryan. It was touted as a "realistic" World War II movie, the first one with the courage to depict war in all its horrible reality. I understand the movie has a soldier whose arm is shot off and who later picks up his own limb with the other arm. Such realism is lauded and it gets high marks for not backing away from the gruesomeness of battle. A surviving D-Day soldier is then interviewed. He was happy someone produced a movie about that event "as it really happened."
A different movie was made several years back which showed the physical reality of abortion. It was done by Dr. Bernard Nathanson shortly before he left the abortion practice. It presents an ultrasound of a pregnancy being terminated. A long steel instrument is inserted into the woman's uterus. On the screen we see a doll-like figure pulling back from the point. When it finally reaches the target, the fetus' tiny mouth open as if screaming in pain. Thus the title of the video, The Silent Scream.
A few years back there was attempt to have the video shown on television, even to pay for it like a long commercial. It was rejected*. Too brutal and gruesome for a general TV audience. Yet it is not about a violent event which happened a half century ago, but one going on this very moment. In fact, the video can actually stop violence. I know a woman who wanted to abort her baby. A midwife practitioner asked her to watch Silent Scream before making the decision. After viewing it, she herself was silent. She then made the beautiful choice to keep the baby. About seven months later she gave birth to a precious baby girl. I saw her again a couple years later. I picked up her daughter and held that child in my arms. I asked her if she would give up her daughter for anything. "Nothing," she said.
Back to Operation Rescue. One could debate their confrontational tactics. But we should not do so on the tacit assumption that the followers of Jesus must always be meek, gentle, mild, comforting. Jesus make it clear that there will be times when we must be the opposite, in fact we might even come across as obnoxious or divisive.
Having said that let me now add a huge caution. This is one of those gospels that we have learned too well. It's like the parable of the Pharisee in front and the publican in the back. We've learned it so well that it hard to get Catholics out of the back pews. The same with this gospel. Instead of listening to negative criticism, it easier to quote Jesus' words "I have come for division" and and feel personally confirmed.
This is sometimes the tactic of those who give ambiguous teaching about homosexuality. ("We must learn to overcome bigotry toward our brothers and sisters with same-sex orientations...") I remember talking with someone who had delivered that kind of message and got a call or letter questioning him. He concluded the questioner was exactly the kind of bigot he had in mind. Then he added wistfully, "I guess I wouldn't really be preaching the Gospel unless I got some opposition!" It does seem that today's is a gospel we have learned too well. What was originally meant to shake us out of our complacency has been interpreted as a source of questionable comfort.
Is the comfort true or false? How can we tell if we are correctly applying the Gospel or misinterpreting it? We get a clue from the second reading. "Since we for our part are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every encumbrance of sin which clings to us..." (Heb 12:1) The cloud of witnesses are those who have gone before us, the saints who are now in heaven. To know if our message is really in accord with Jesus, we can ask how this cloud of witness would react to what we are saying. Be honest. Would they be delighted by a teaching on homosexuality which might mislead a young person? On the other hand, are they concerned about the life of an unborn child? That he have the opportunity to be baptized and make a personal choice for Jesus?
It is not so hard to get an answer to such questions. Even tho the saints are now in heaven interceding for us, they have left an abundance of writings. We can examine what the Fathers of the Church had to say about homosexuality and abortion. The saints of the Middle Ages and right up to our modern times have given us very clear teachings on those and other subjects. There is little doubt what the cloud of witnesses have to say about the most important issues of our life. In fact their teachings are summed up for us in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. If you are uncertain about what Jesus teaches on a particular subject, you can find the truth there.
Not only do we have Jesus' teaching, we have have his example. After mentioning the witness of patriarchs and prophets, the author of Hebrews speaks about Jesus. I will conclude with that verse. It one we could do well to memorize and repeat to ourselves several times a day. "Remember how he endured the opposition of sinners; hence do not grow despondent or abandon the struggle." (Heb 12:4)
*Evidently much milder commercials have also been rejected, including one of Mother Teresa speaking about the trajedy abortion.
From Archives (20th Sunday, Year C):