The Gospel for August 14th, 2016: “Jesus: A Cause of Division”
Reflection: The Door to Hell is Locked from the Inside
Do Jesus’s words in this gospel make anyone else uncomfortable?
He states openly:
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.” (51-53)
This sounds pretty Old Testament to me. What is Jesus saying here?
First, I think the disciples’ notion of peace is different than ours. Jesus is not speaking about inner peace here, but rather unity among all of God’s people, especially the scattered tribes of Israel. The Jews expected the Messiah to be a warrior-king in the mold of David. They thought this unity would be won on the battlefield where all opposition to God would be quashed through warfare. On the contrary, Jesus is making it clear the gathering of His people will be accomplished in a non-violent means that will allow for dissension.
Why? This is where the notion of free-will is so critical to our understanding of salvation. Jesus offers a salvation to all His people through the radical act of unselfish love accomplished by his death on the cross. In that sense, we are all pre-approved for salvation. The catch is accepting this salvation means subverting our own will and following God’s will instead. God’s will is for the good of others, the kind of love called agape. It is the love Christ modeled by dying for our sins so that all of fallen, sinful humankind might be perfected and saved. This is what Christ means when he says, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing” (49). Christ’s sacrifice is purifying as fire purifies; it obliterates the sins of the world. It helps us deny ourselves so that we may joyfully participate in God’s perfect agape love, free from the selfish attachments of the world.
In the end Christ knows not everyone is willing to surrender his or her will to God’s will. Some will die clinging to selfish pride and refuse Christ’s offer of salvation so they do not have to give up their attachments. Likewise, they will refuse the opportunity for their soul to continue its purification in Purgatory, where the souls of the departed continue to purge their attachments so all that remains is love of God and His creation. The Lord will not force His love on us. It must be freely chosen to be authentic. You can’t fake it, which is why the real test is actively loving others, including the unlovable. Those who chose self-love over God’s love will create the dissension Christ describes in this gospel reading. Being born of the same family does not guarantee salvation any more than being circumcised did for ancient Jews. Each and every one of us is confronted with the same choice: God’s will or our own; eternal life or sin and death. Some will choose self and blame others, even family members (or especially family members).
In this understanding, Jesus is not suggesting He has come to cast sinners into Hell and sow dissension in families. He has come to save; and for us today, His mission is accomplished and the kingdom is at hand. But He is the ultimate bearer of truth as well. So He must be honest that Hell is a very real possibility if we choose to reject Him. If we fail to repent and build a relationship based on putting God and others first, we can consign ourselves to Hell. This happens not because it is God’s will, but because we have oriented ourselves inwardly for so long that we reach a point of not being able to repent. We have the power to block out Christ’s light permanently.
I think C.S. Lewis has it right in The Problem of Pain when he said, “The doors of Hell are locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of Hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man ‘wishes’ to be happy: but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved: just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.”
Uncomfortable, truth? Yes. Damning? No, quite the opposite. As long as we believe Christ and His Church will help us to be saved—that in fact through them is the only way to be saved—we have the faith which animates the choice of God over Self. Every time we act on that faith, we throw the key to Hell’s doors a little further from us. Granted, we may go back and pick them up again. We are sinners after all. But with each return back to God comes a greater capacity for unselfish love–the strength of Christ’s permanent victory over sin which eventually banishes those keys from view forever.