Column: Fire and water are themes of Sunday’s Gospel

by Father Mike Stubbs

When a wildfire spreads through the grasslands and woodlands, it can be interpreted in different ways.

Some may conclude that it results from our misdeeds toward the environment. The concept of global warming encourages that understanding. We are being punished for our sins against ecology.

Others may view it as a means of renewal, a way to purify the terrain of unwanted debris. On the Great Plains, American Indians used to set fires to burn off the old grass, in order to make room for the new. Maybe nature is attempting to renew itself through these wildfires.

Does fire stand for a judgment upon us, or does it mean purification? That is the question we can also ask concerning the opening line in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Lk 12:49-53: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”

Jesus is speaking to his disciples when he makes this enigmatic statement. It is obvious that he is drawing upon a metaphor, that he is not speaking literally. Jesus is no pyromaniac. Fire is a metaphor often found in the Old Testament, and beyond.

The problem is that fire can mean more than one thing in the Scriptures. Fire can stand for judgment. For example, God rains down fire upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in punishment for the sins committed there (Gn 19: 24). The prophet Elijah calls down fire from heaven to consume two captains and their companies of fifty soldiers because of their behavior toward him (2 Kgs 1: 9-12).

On the other hand, fire can also stand for purification. When Isaiah receives his call to serve God as a prophet, he protests his unworthiness. Then an angel appears to Isaiah in a vision. The angel touches Isaiah’s mouth with a burning ember. “See,” he tells Isaiah, “now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged” (Is 6: 7).

So which does Jesus intend, judgment or purification? The fact that Jesus’ statement about fire is coupled with an equally enigmatic statement about baptism suggests the interpretation of purification: “There is a baptism with which I must be baptized.” After all, baptism purifies a person through a washing with water. Is Jesus using the metaphors of fire and water to talk about a purification of the world from sin that must happen through him?

On the other hand, these verses are followed by a discussion of how Jesus’ teachings will result in division among those who hear them: “A father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother.” Those who hear Jesus’ message must make a decision about it. That decision will place them either in the camp of Jesus’ followers or the camp of his opponents. By making that decision, people will bring a judgment upon themselves.

In that case, perhaps Jesus’ statement about setting the earth on fire means judgment after all. The fire of Jesus’ words will envelop this world in metaphorical flames. In that moment of crisis, we must make the decision — in favor of life, or in favor of death.

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