We must first consider when St. Luke wrote his Gospel message. It was probably written not long after the great fire of Rome in 64 A.D. The rumor was that the Emperor Nero had himself lit the match that destroyed much of the city so that he could begin a new massive building project. This is how a pagan historian, who survived the fire, described the aftermath.
"Consequently, to get rid of the report [that he started the fire], Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most creative tortures on a class of people hated for their abominations, called Christians by the common people. … Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths...they were torn to death by dogs, or they were crucified on crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as human torches when nighttime illumination was needed." Tacitus, Annals XV.44
The early Christians, in the light of those “current events” would have, no doubt, listened to today’s Gospel and found in it an assurance that Our Lord himself experienced the fire of hell and transformed it into the fire of heaven. Abandoned by his own disciples, betrayed by the very ones he considered family, Christ shared in the anguish of persecuted Christians as non-believers betrayed friends and family when Roman soldiers came knocking on the door.
As case in point, St. Peter. He provides us with the example of a reluctant follower who was scared of being burnt, but finally gave himself completely to the Lord. On the night of the Last Supper when Christ was arrested, he was first content to anonymously warm his hands from the fire in the courtyard while the Lord was being beaten up by the temple guards inside. But a day would eventually arrive when he would allow himself to be consumed completely and forever by the fire of Christ’s love.
Yes, often times we will get burnt, and we will scream and call out in anger and in anguish. But as painful as if often times is, abandoning ourselves to the grace that comes from the cross of Christ, let us pray that we may we never mistake the purifying fire of heaven with the destructive fires of hell. There lies the virtue of Christian hope in the face of every dark and menacing cloud of smoke.
20th Sunday of Ordinary Time