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Bishop's Homily for the Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Jesus wants the world to be set ablaze with his cleansing, purifying love.

By Bishop Larry Silva
August 14, 2022

[St. John Vianney Church, Kailua (60th Anniversary of the Parish)]

“Don’t play with fire!”  This is what the world tells us from our earliest days, and, in a real sense, it is a life-saving teaching.  How many wild fires – fires that destroy forests, wildlife and homes – were started by someone who was careless with just a little spark of fire?  Earlier this week we celebrated the feast of St. Lawrence, the Roman deacon who was tortured by being roasted to death on a fire.  We have fire departments and fire extinguishers to protect us from the ravages of fire.  And, of course, the worst thing we can experience after we die are the eternal fires of hell.  “Don’t play with fire!” is very good advice.

But today we have Jesus telling us he has come to set the world on fire.  It is, of course, a metaphor, and not real fire he wants to set, but he does want us to be fired up, passionate, and totally committed to him and to our faith.  He is reminding us that the salvation he came to bring to the world is so important that he wants us to be fully consumed by it, blazing with the love that sets the world on fire.

But we still have the world’s warning about fire ringing in our ears, and we are often afraid even of the fire of love and devotion that Jesus is talking about.  If we look at our first reading, we see a king who is wishy-washy and who seems to go along with the last person who catches his ear.  First he gives permission to the prophet Jeremiah’s enemies to put him to death, and they attempt to do so by leaving him to die in a miry well.  Then when Jeremiah’s ally goes to the king to ask that Jeremiah be saved, he readily gives permission for him to be drawn out of the well.  Not exactly a man on fire with conviction!  By contrast, Jeremiah was on fire with the Word of God, and it certainly brought him much suffering, division, and rejection.  He even prayed that God would leave him alone and take away his prophetic mission.  Yet he knew that the fire of God’s love and zeal burned so intensely within him that he could not hold it in.

And so it is that Jesus still longs for the world to be set ablaze with his prophetic, cleansing, and purifying love.  But he warns that when we try to light such a fire, we can expect that some will want to throw us out and silence us, which is why he speaks of the divisions that will inevitably come when we do accept his challenge to set the world on fire with our faith.

In my opinion, one of the most destructive attitudes prevalent in our culture is not so much atheism, by which people simply do not believe in God.  The most destructive attitude is what I call “ego-theism,” that is, the notion that I am god:  I make all the decisions about what is right and wrong; I decide when life begins and when it ends; I decide what gender I will be; I decide what truth is.  This attitude has been more destructive to our culture than wildfire.  It is anti-community, anti-family, and even anti-science.  It has only one antidote:  to believe in the true and living God and to put our faith in whom, who alone is the arbiter of good and evil, who alone is the Truth, and who wants noting more than for us to live together in his love.  Our coming here to this parish to worship the true God who reveals himself in Jesus is the spark that will set the world on fire.  It is our way of acknowledging to all the world that I am not god, and that it is perfectly fine that I am not, because there is a God who cares for us more than we care for ourselves.  For sixty years this parish of St. John Vianney has witnessed to the world that there is a true God, and that when we allow ourselves to be set on fire with his love, we are the ones who benefit.

At the same time, Jesus still wishes to set the world ablaze with this fire of his love, and he sends us out to be the torches that bring his purifying fire to the world.  In our baptism, we are given a lighted candle so that we can spend our whole lives setting fire to the world with the light of Christ.  We do so when we reach out to the hungry, the homeless and the poor – even when we are criticized for doing so.  We set the world on fire when we visit those who are in prison to bring light to their darkness and warmth to the coldness of their confinement.  We spread the fire of the love of the true and living God when we teach others about this love in our Catholic schools, our religious education programs, and our Bible studies.  We set the world on fire with Christ’s love when we listen compassionately to those who are struggling with addictions, with depression, or with anxiety and we let them know they are truly loved.  We set the world ablaze with Christ’s love when we insist upon the truth that every single human life, no matter at what stage, is sacred.  We set the world on fire when we go to our family members, neighbors and colleagues, who are too sophisticated to bow down before a golden calf but who spend much energy bowing down before a golden mirror, that true freedom can only be found when we allow Jesus to burn away our self-centeredness and sin.  To do this, of course, will cause divisions at times, and so that ancient prohibition, “Don’t play with fire!” rings in our hearts as a temptation.  But it is Jesus himself, who is with us in the most intimate communion, with his Word and the sacrament of his True Presence, who sets us on fire so that we cannot contain it within ourselves.

The most important thing this parish can do – and has done faithfully for sixty years – is to gather people around this altar, where the dangerously purifying fire of God’s love is truly present, and from which we are sent out in the name of Jesus to fulfill his greatest wish:  setting the world ablaze with the fire of his love!