Scripture and the Liturgy

Family Values: 20th Sunday in OT

In recent decades, the term “family values” has almost become a code word for “Christian culture” in American society.  Influential Christian organizations have adopted names like “Focus on the Family,” “American Family Association,” the “Family Research Council”; and on the Catholic side of things we have “Catholic Family Land,” “Tradition, Family and Property,” or “The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute,” better known as “C-FAM.”  The natural family unit—based on a husband and wife who have made an exclusive, permanent, public commitment to share a common life and raise children together—has been under such political and social pressure that at times we almost identify Christianity as a social movement to promote family life.

In this context, this Sunday’s Mass Readings can be unsettling.  Jesus says he has “not come to bring peace but division.”  Come again?  Lord, with due respect, isn’t one of your messianic titles “Prince of Peace?”  Then again, the Lord speaks of causing division and struggle within families—strife in the family unit caused by Jesus!  How can this be?  Doesn’t Jesus believe in “family values”?

1.  Our First Reading is Jer 38:4-6, 8-10:

In those days, the princes said to the king:

“Jeremiah ought to be put to death;

he is demoralizing the soldiers who are left in this city,

and all the people, by speaking such things to them;

he is not interested in the welfare of our people,

but in their ruin.”

King Zedekiah answered: “He is in your power”;

for the king could do nothing with them.

And so they took Jeremiah

and threw him into the cistern of Prince Malchiah,

which was in the quarters of the guard,

letting him down with ropes.

There was no water in the cistern, only mud,

and Jeremiah sank into the mud.

Ebed-melech, a court official,

went there from the palace and said to him:

“My lord king,

these men have been at fault

in all they have done to the prophet Jeremiah,

casting him into the cistern.

He will die of famine on the spot,

for there is no more food in the city.”

Then the king ordered Ebed-melech the Cushite

to take three men along with him,

and draw the prophet Jeremiah out of the cistern before

he should die.

The Book of Jeremiah is longest book of the prophets in the traditional Hebrew (Masoretic) text.  Nonetheless, the book is clearly second to Isaiah in its theological and liturgical influence.  There are a number of thematic, literary, and theological similarities between Isaiah and Jeremiah, but a notable difference is that in Jeremiah, the person and biography of the prophet himself takes on a much more prominent role.  Indeed, tradition remembered Jeremiah as the quintessential suffering prophet, and more than one scholar has proposed that the “Suffering Servant” of the second half of Isaiah was modeled on Jeremiah.  Thus it is unsurprising that Jeremiah is the first of the literary prophets that Jesus’ contemporaries compared to him:

“Who do men say that the Son of man is?”  And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (Mt 16:13-14).

The oracles and incidents of the Book of Jeremiah are not evenly distributed throughout the reigns of the kings under whom he ministered, but are clustered around dates of crisis: (1) 609 BC, the year of Josiah’s death, Jehoahaz/Shallum’s deposition, and Jehoiakim’s first regnal year (22:11-23; 26:1-24); (2) 605 BC, the fourth year of Jehoiakim, the year of the Battle of Carchemish [in which Babylon defeated Egypt for control of the Near East], the imposition of Babylonian suzerainty upon Judah, and the initial, small exile of upper-class hostages to Babylon (25:1-38; 36:1-32; 45:1-5; 46:1-28), (3) 597 BC, the year Jehoiachin (a.k.a. Jeconiah) surrendered Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar King of Babylon, the second and largest wave of exiles went to Babylon, and the accession of Zedekiah (24:1-10; 27:1–29:32) and (4) 587 BC, the year of the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, the end of Davidic rule, and the third and last wave of exiles to Babylon. All the words and deeds of Jer 21:1-10; 32:1–34:22; 37:1–44:30; and 52:1-30 occur within a year or two before or after this date.  This includes our present First Reading.

Our First Reading is an excerpt from what is often called the “Passion of Jeremiah,” that is,Jeremiah 37–45, which forms a distinct unit containing the historical narrative of Jeremiah’s experience during the last years of Jerusalem, with ch. 45 forming a kind of epilogue.

While Nebuchadnezzar’s final siege of Jerusalem was underway in the last years of Zedekiah, the king implored Jeremiah’s intercessions with the LORD, but the prophet informed the royal court clearly that the Babylonian armies would prevail, and destruction and exile were inevitable (37:1-10). 

During a break in the siege, Jeremiah attempted to go to Anathoth to visit his ancestral property, but was accused of desertion to the enemy, and imprisoned in “the court of the guard” (37:11-21).  The princes of Judah were not satisfied with this punishment, as Jeremiah’s continued preaching of Judean defeat was demoralizing the populace, so they had him thrown into a cistern to die.  An Ethiopian royal servant, Ebed-melech the eunuch, succeeded in gaining the king’s permission to rescue the prophet from slow death in the cistern, and place him back in custody in the court of the guard (38:7-13).  The King arranged to meet privately with Jeremiah to inquire about the LORD’s word concerning his fate at the hand of the Babylonians, but though warned, the king did not heed or act on the warnings from the prophet (38:14-28).  In the remaining chapters of “Jeremiah’s Passion,” the inevitable takes place: Babylon conquers and destroys Jerusalem, and Jeremiah ends up being taken to Egypt by force with a surviving remnant of Jews.

One of Jeremiah’s other major contribution to salvation history and Christian theology is his own person as a type of Christ, more so than any other prophet.  Biography plays little role in Isaiah, but a large role in Jeremiah.  In many ways, the person of Jeremiah the prophet becomes absorbed into his prophetic ministry, such that his own experiences as much as his words become transformed into “prophesy.”  The Church has long recognized the striking correlation between the character and travails of Jeremiah and Jesus, beginning already in the lifetime of the Lord (cf. Matt. 16:14).  The similarities abound:

(1) chosen from the womb (Jer 1:5; Lk 1:31); 

(2) destined for rejection and conflict with their people (Jer 1:18-19; Lk 2:34-35),

(3) called to celibacy (Jer 16:1-4; Mt 19:10-12),

(4) likened to a sacrificial lamb (Jer 11:19; Jn 1:29,36),

(5) betrayed by his own family (Jer 12:6; Jn 13:18,38 etc.):

Jer. 12:6 For even your brothers and the house of your father, even they have dealt treacherously with you; they are in full cry after you; believe them not, though they speak fair words to you.”

(6) found preaching against the Temple and predicting its destruction (Jer 26:2-6; Mk 11:15-19, 13:1-2)

(7) opposed and persecuted by the chief priests for doing so (Jer 20:1-3; 26:7-9; Mk 11:18)

(8) condemned to death for doing so (Jer 26:8-9; Mk 14:57-58)

(9) tried by a vacillating, partly sympathetic, yet weak-willed civil magistrate (Zedekiah is a type of Pontius Pilate; Jer 37:16-38:28; Jn 18:28–19:16)

(10) cast into a pit and raised up from it again (Jer 37:6-13; cf. Jn 19:40–20:18).

Thus, in many ways, both Jeremiah and Jesus fit the profile of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant of the LORD, though ultimately Jeremiah is not the royal figure the Servant is. Nonetheless, the Church’s memory and liturgy holds up Jeremiah as a proto-type of the suffering prophet fully realized in Jesus of Nazareth. 

2. Our Responsorial Psalm is Psalm 40:2, 3, 4, 18:

R. (14b) Lord, come to my aid!

I have waited, waited for the LORD,

and he stooped toward me.

R. Lord, come to my aid!

The LORD heard my cry.

He drew me out of the pit of destruction,

out of the mud of the swamp;

he set my feet upon a crag;

he made firm my steps.

R. Lord, come to my aid!

And he put a new song into my mouth,

a hymn to our God.

Many shall look on in awe

and trust in the LORD.

R. Lord, come to my aid!

Though I am afflicted and poor,

yet the LORD thinks of me.

You are my help and my deliverer;

O my God, hold not back!

R. Lord, come to my aid!

Psalm 40, together with Psalm 41, end Book I of the Psalms on a note of lament, with David in distress and seeking the LORD’s assistance.  This is typical of Book I of the Psalter, in which David is usually in distress and beset by his enemies.  Psalm 40 is a todah psalm that makes explicit reference to some aspects of the todah (thanksgiving sacrifice) ritual in the sanctuary, such as giving public praise before the assembled worshipers (v.10).  However, Psalm 40 is unusual in that it reverses the typical progression of a todah psalm.  Most todah psalms begin with a lament, or at least the recollection of a time of lament, and then move toward praise and thanks.  Psalm 40 beings with thanks and praise for God’s deliverance, but takes a “left turn” at verse 11, as a new threat to the peace and health of David seems to have arisen.

In this liturgy, we are struck by the similarities of David’s experience with that of Jeremiah:

The LORD heard my cry.

He drew me out of the pit of destruction,

out of the mud of the swamp;

he set my feet upon a crag;

he made firm my steps.

The remembrance of God’s faithfulness to us (and to Jeremiah, and to David) gives us confidence to cry out to God for help against the obstacles that still confront us:

Though I am afflicted and poor,

yet the LORD thinks of me.

You are my help and my deliverer;

O my God, hold not back!

3.  Our Second Reading is Hebrews 12:1-4:

Brothers and sisters:

Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,

let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us

and persevere in running the race that lies before us

while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus,

the leader and perfecter of faith.

For the sake of the joy that lay before him

he endured the cross, despising its shame,

and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.

Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners,

in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.

In your struggle against sin

you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.

Our Second Reading is a providential fit for the themes of the First and the Gospel.  The author of Hebrews recalls Christ’s “descent” into the suffering of the cross, and his “ascent” out of that pit of suffering to the right hand of God.  In his embrace of and triumph over suffering, Jesus continued the great tradition of the Hebrew prophets like Jeremiah, only in a more perfect manner.  We recall Jesus words from the Beatitudes:

Matt. 5:11   “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The phrase “the prophets who were before you” implies that we, in some sense, have entered into the prophetic tradition; and this is indeed the case (see CCC §783).  Let’s not have a “woe is me!” attitude when we face opposition—even within the Church!—for attempting to be faithful to Christ and the successors of his apostles.  If we are alive to be reading this, we have not yet resisted “to the point of shedding blood.”

4.  Our Gospel is Luke 12:49-53:

Jesus said to his disciples:

“I have come to set the earth on fire,

and how I wish it were already blazing!

There is a baptism with which I must be baptized,

and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!

Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?

No, I tell you, but rather division.

From now on a household of five will be divided,

three against two and two against three;

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,

a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law

and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

In this Gospel, Jesus reminds us that there is a commitment higher than family bonds: the commitment to God Himself.

Sometimes the commitment to God and family are mutually supporting.  The Fourth Commandment is “Honor your father and your mother.”  The son who repents of his selfishness and turns to God will be instructed by the Ten Commandments to show honor to his parents, and will then become a better son.  Likewise, St. Paul commands husbands: “Love your wives as Christ loved the Church.”  And to fathers: “Do not provoke your children to anger.”  So the married man and father who repents and turns to God will be instructed by these verses and become a better husband and parent. 

However, there are also occasions where commitment to God, and specifically Jesus Christ, is in conflict with expectations that family members have for us, and then the resulting conflict is very difficult to bear.  However, the truth of the faith and the call of God on one’s life are not things that can be negotiated in order to avoid family friction:

He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me… (Matt 10:37)

The eminent American rabbi and scholar Jacob Neusner points out that in making claims like this, Jesus was essentially claiming divinity, because within Judaism family ties could only morally be repudiated for the sake of God or His law.  In this, Neusner supports the major argument Brant Pitre makes in The Case for Jesus (available here), namely, that Jesus claims to be divine in all four Gospels, but one needs a thorough understanding of Jewish culture to recognize this fact. 

There are about six million converts to Catholicism in the United States, and many of them had to face the reality of Matt 10:37 and Luke 12:52-53 at some point in their spiritual journey, when it dawned on them what the reaction to their conversion would be among their non-Catholic family members.  Others walked the road toward the Catholic Church and stopped before “swimming the Tiber” because they were not willing to provoke conflict with a family that was staunchly Protestant.  Yet conversion to the Christ in His Church in the American context is hardly to be compared with the sufferings of those few who have made the journey from Islam.  One man tells his story here. The division within families over Christ is not just some past phenomena.  It’s a reality daily with us now. 

Conflict within families arises not only because one member desires to follow Christ or enter his Church.  Other forms of obedience cause conflict: not a few young men and women have entered the priesthood or religious life despite the opposition of their parents.  Despite growing up in the same household, different children often embrace (or reject!) the faith to varying degrees, leading to aggravation at family reunions between a sister who lives all the Church’s teachings and her brothers who selectively reject the more “politically incorrect” ones.

All these forms of conflict need to be borne in union with Christ, who suffered the cross for us.  Ultimately, the Family of God trumps the natural family:

“My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (Luke 8:21)

In hindsight, we realize that salvation history is full of familial conflict that has its origins in differing relationships to God.  Cain envied Abel’s intimacy with God, and slew him.  Jacob wanted the promises of the covenant whereas Esau despised them.  Joseph’s brothers sought to kill him out of offense at his prophetic dreams.  Moses’ own brother and sister tried to remove him from leadership over Israel out of envy of his prophetic status.  And many other examples could be cited, including Jeremiah as discussed above (Jer 12:6).

This Sunday’s Gospel reminds us that, as good as peace is, Jesus’ primary mission was not to establish social peace in this world and in this life.  If that had been his mission—and many think it was!—he obviously has failed.  Instead, Jesus’ mission was to reveal, to those who desire it, the “narrow way” that leads to salvation (Matt 7:13-14), the Way that is Himself (John 14:6).  There is a price too high to pay for peace.  And that price is infidelity to Christ.  So while it is good and proper to work for legislation and social support for marriage and the family, and to love our family members and build “cheerful Christian homes,” as St. Josemaría described it; nonetheless, we also need to be prepared to endure the strife and conflict that may ensue when we follow the path of truth to its destination, which is a Person.

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