"Wild and Untamed"
-At the Desert Retreat House -
I just came across a little–quoted passage from the Christian gospels in which Jesus says of himself:
I came to bring fire to the earth.
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?
No, I tell you, but rather division.
Most people find it hard to imagine that this is how Jesus might describe himself and his mission. We think of major religious figures like Jesus or the Buddha as “nice guys,” gentle and sweet, someone everybody liked and respected. And yet, as I think about it, the idea of Jesus bringing “fire” and “division” may be a far more accurate picture of who Jesus was and what he taught than that of the image of gentle Jesus - the nice guy.
Back in his day, there were lots of people who didn’t think Jesus was such a “nice guy.” He was an avowed enemy of the state and a thorn in the side of the religious institution of his times. He stood against almost everything that went on in the popular culture of his day and lots of people wanted to see him dead.
“Back in the day” when Jesus lived, the oppressive Roman empire that controlled the culture operated according to an ethic of domination - only the strong and weak were acceptable and everyone else was an crushed and thrown away. And although Jesus was a Jewish rabbi he often stood against the prevailing temple doctrine whereby only good law-abiding Jews were viewed as acceptable and worthy in eyes of God. Sick people, weak people, poor people and sinners were all pushed to the margins of the society.
Jesus teaching set all of this “on fire.”
Jesus was on fire with a “fierce love”- a love that never counted the cost as he stood boldly in defiance of the empire and the temple by leveling the playing field of life and teaching that everyone belongs, everyone has dignity, no one is an outcast on the margins. Jesus was, in fact, a bold, revolutionary, rabble rouser who was ultimately executed for his sedition.
To this very day, those of us who follow in his “way” are called to to be just as bold, fierce and fiery in the cause of love.
A few years ago I remember reading a newspaper op-ed piece in which a mother offered her teenage daughter a rather unusual piece of advice when she told her:
I don’t want you to be nice, I want you to be kind, generous and compassionate!
As I see it, there is a big difference between being nice and being kind, generous and compassionate. People are often “nice” because they don’t want to make waves or rock the boat, they are sometimes nice to others because they want others to like them, or they are nice to “cull the favor” of others. But kindness and compassion are very different - compassion involves laying down our lives for the welfare of others without counting the cost, even if it means rocking the boat or making waves in life.
The poet Chris Wiman once defined compassion as:
Someone else’s suffering flaring in your own nerves.
As I think about it, when Jesus says that he came to bring fire to the earth, he may well have been saying, “Don’t be nice but instead be kind and generous and compassionate.” The suffering of others flamed in the heart and soul of Jesus and of people like the Buddha- they were on fire with love. They came to bring fire to the earth and they invited any who would follow in their way to be just as “fierce” in the way they loved.