Sunday, August 19, 2007

Is Division Always Bad, or Can It Be Tolerated For a Time in Certain Situations?

Mike Sweeney and Jeff Weaver on August 10, 2001

(Twentieth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on August 19, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Jeremiah 38: 4-6, 8-10; Luke 12: 49-53.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twentieth Sunday 2007]

Which is it, Lord Jesus?

We know that “division”—being divided from other people—is a fact of life. We experience division, unfortunately, within our own families; we experience it in school and at work; we experience it in casual conversation with friends; we experience it in almost every situation and setting of life.

Is that always bad, or is it sometimes good?

What confuses us, Lord Jesus, is the fact that in the Gospel of John, chapter 17, you prayed very hard for unity among your people. You said, “I pray that all may be one as you, Father, are in me, and I in you; I pray that they may be [one] in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.”

And yet, in today’s Gospel text from Luke 12, you say to us, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? I assure you, the contrary is true: I have come for division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three . . .”

So which is it, Lord Jesus? We need to know how these two statements can both be true (these statements that seem to contradict each other!). We need to know this, Lord Jesus, so that we can be faithful to your words!

As I reflected on this matter the other day in preparation for this homily, I came to realize that part of the solution to this problem comes with asking the right question. In retrospect, I think it’s wrong to ask, “Is division always bad, or is it sometimes good?” I think Jesus would tell us that division is never “good” in and of itself; ideally it’s not what God wants in any situation. But sometimes it can be tolerated, because of the presence of human sin. So a better way to frame the question would be: Is division always bad, or can it be tolerated for a time in certain situations?

This idea actually helps us to reconcile the two passages of Scripture I mentioned a few moments ago. In John 17, Jesus is expressing to us the ideal: that all people live peaceful lives united in his truth. But because some men and women will refuse to say Yes to Jesus and his Gospel of truth, there will be division—and that division will happen even within families. That’s the message of Luke 12—and I know many of you, unfortunately, have experienced it firsthand. A man in the parish said to me just the other day, “My daughter is very upset with me and with my wife. She wanted to come to visit us with her boyfriend, and we told her that she couldn’t sleep in the same room with him because they aren’t married. Now she’s angry with us.”

Those parents are right; their daughter is wrong. But because she refuses to do the right thing and insists on committing sin right under their roof, the family is divided—at least for the present moment.

Division is never the ideal, but from our personal perspective it can be tolerated for a time if the division is caused by our faithfulness to God and someone else’s unrepented sin. This was the situation that Jeremiah the prophet faced over and over again in his ministry. Division followed him everywhere—because he was so faithful to the Lord and those around him were not. In today’s first reading, for example, we heard about the time he was thrown into a muddy cistern and left there to die—until a court official finally came to his rescue. That happened to Jeremiah because he was speaking the truth to the religious and civil leaders of the land of Judah, and they didn’t like it. And what’s interesting here is that they—the evil leaders—actually accused Jeremiah of being the cause of the division! They went to King Zedekiah and said, “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.”

So if you’re ever being accused of causing division somewhere because you’re trying to be obedient to God and his commandments, know that you’re in good company. Jeremiah had to deal with the same problem—many times.

Now at this point we need to be careful—and we also need to be humble. There’s an old saying, “It takes two to tango.” Someone else’s sin may be the initial cause of division in a certain situation, but sometimes our sin may end up adding to the problem and driving the wedge more deeply between us and the other person. A good example of this can be found on the baseball DVD that John Brodeur was selling a few weeks ago, “Champions of Faith.”

The first player profiled on that DVD is Mike Sweeney, the All Star first baseman of the Kansas City Royals. On August 10, 2001, Sweeney was facing pitcher Jeff Weaver of the Detroit Tigers in a game in Kansas City. Weaver shouted some rather uncharitable things at Mike, then turned around and walked off the back of the pitcher’s mound. Well Sweeney didn’t like what he heard, and charged at Weaver. The two got into a huge fight—one that eventually involved everyone on both teams. It was your classic “bench-clearing brawl”.

Two weeks later, Sweeney—who’s a very devout Catholic and a youth minister at his local parish—went to church for a youth group meeting. Well as soon as he walked through the door, one of the teenage girls who was there ran up to him with tears in her eyes. She said, “Mr. Sweeney, Mr. Sweeney, why did you do that? I turned on the TV the other night and I saw you charging the mound and fighting with that pitcher. That broke my heart. You let me down.”

Sweeney asked her to forgive him. But deep down inside, he knew that wasn’t enough. Weaver had initially caused the division between them by his uncharitable comments from the mound; but Sweeney knew that he had made the division much worse by charging the mound and starting the fistfight.

And yet, for 5 years, he did nothing. It just goes to show that sometimes even devout Christians can block out God’s grace. Finally his conscience was bothering him so much that he decided to act: just before Christmas of last year, he got down on his knees and asked God to give him the right words; then he picked up the telephone and called Jeff Weaver to apologize. Sweeney said to him, “Jeff, I come to you, and I just want to ask that you forgive me.” And, to his great credit, Weaver did forgive him. Sweeney went on to say, “You know, Jeff, I have a two-year-old boy; and someday he’s going to watch that video, and he’s going to ask me, ‘Daddy, why did you do that’? And I want to be able to look my son in the eye and say, ‘Son, I messed up; but, in the end, I did the right thing’.”

Division is never the ideal. If it’s caused by someone else’s sin, we should pray for that person to repent and for reconciliation to occur. And we need to “keep the door open,” so to speak, to the person.

If, on the other hand, it’s caused by our sin—or made worse by it—then we need to follow the example of Mike Sweeney and humbly seek forgiveness (without waiting for 5 years!).

The bottom line is this: Division can—and division must—be tolerated at times. But God wants us—and God expects us—to do everything that we possibly can to make the divisive situation only a temporary one.