23rd Sunday of the Year – September 5, 1971 – CNR
The second reading at today’s Mass might prompt a puzzled look or two. It is taken from Paul’s letter to one of his converts, a man named Philemon. Written from prison, it is the shortest of Paul’s letters, barely a page and a half long. It is also the most personal of his letters, a man in Christ addressing his brother in Christ about another brother in Christ.
While Paul has been in prison, he has met a man named Onesimus, a slave of Philemon, who had fled his service, apparently after having done his master some injustice. He has become a Christian by Paul’s ministry, as Philemon had before; and while Paul wished to keep him with himself, he felt bound by law to return Onesimus to his master. This little letter accompanies him on his return.
There is no evidence that Paul demanded that Philemon release his slave, although perhaps he did expect that Philemon would be moved to permit him to return to Paul. Paul offers to make good himself the damage Onesimus had done; in any case the slave’s return gives Philemon an opportunity to practice forgiveness in Christ. For, Paul says, “perhaps he was separated from you for a while for this reason: that you might possess him forever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, as a beloved brother, especially dear to me; and how much more a brother to you, since now you will know him both as a man and in the Lord.”
There is the heart of the matter. It is the worst sort of apologetics to claim that Christianity was a revolutionary social force, at least in the modern sense. It was another 1800 years before Christians saw at all clearly that slavery contradicted brotherhood in Christ; and perhaps we should be both less apologetic and less defensive about the issue. On the other hand, neither can Paul’s claims on Philemon be dismissed as conservative. For Paul’s exhortation to Philemon depends throughout on the central issue, that communion in Christ dismantles social distinctions. “There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, male and female: for you are all one person in Christ Jesus.” We today find it impossible to say that without questioning the social institutions of slavery; but Paul starts from the point we tend to overlook or at least to take too much for granted, namely that conversion of heart is the central problem and that social revolution and reform is merely peripheral if it does not arise from and rest on the recognition that before our God we are all slaves to sin, made freed men only by the liberating word of the Gospel. In that light we cannot but see one another both as men and in the Lord; and that light demands of us a love and respect and service of one another that far transcends the minimal demands of justice and, however slowly, must inevitably effect the wider social transformation.
The wisdom of Paul retains its relevance. We are perhaps uncomfortable with the language of conversion, and nothing I have said is meant to suggest that one may ignore the labor and pain of social involvement. But along with the structures of our interpersonal relationships and social institutions, their heart and substance must also be altered, and that will not be done until we have permitted our gratitude for our own liberation in Christ to become our responsibility to be agents of our brothers’ liberation in Christ, too.
23RD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR – SEPTEMBER 6, 1992 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
The problem with today’s Gospel is not really that it is too difficult to understand. The words are fairly plain: no one can be a disciple of Jesus who is not ready to surrender everything if this should be required. The parables that illustrate the message are direct: people ridicule a man who starts building something he doesn’t have the funds to complete; you don’t go out into battle with someone who has twice your army, you seek peace. Know what you’re getting into if you decide to follow me, Jesus is saying; don’t start unless you’re willing to go the whole way; don’t start what you can’t finish, as the saying goes. Common sense wisdom illustrates a very uncommon demand. We’ll never be able to say he didn’t warn us.
Of course, I expect that we all hope that he won’t require us to surrender all that he says might be required: our parents, our spouse and children, our brothers and sisters, our own lives. And there’s nothing wrong with hoping this: all these are wonderful gifts, things and persons we rightly and honorably love, to possess which and to love which are great gifts of God, for which we should be grateful. But they are not what we should love above all things, and there is a love that should be deeper and higher and broader than the love we have for them, a good to possess which we must be ready to surrender even them.
What an extraordinary claim this is! If we had no Scriptural passages and no Church tradition teaching us that Jesus is the Son of God, a passage like this would draw us toward that affirmation. For what is a person’s God but that for which he would be willing to surrender everything he has and loves? Did not Jesus himself say that the first commandment is to love God with all our hearts and minds and souls and bodies? And what else is he asking of us here but that we love him that totally, that fully?
One day, of course, this is precisely what will be required of us. The day will come to each of us when we will have to surrender all these persons and all these things, see them slip from us, find ourselves as naked as when we came into the world. What will be left of us then, at the moment of death, if we have staked our lives on any one of these things or persons and now know that we must say good-bye to them? We define and make ourselves what we are by what we love most deeply and most ultimately. And Jesus today reminds us that it is only he–only our God–that can still be present, sustaining our existence, defining its center, assuring its goal, when death begins to split us from all else that, even rightly, supported and enriched our lives.
When we decide to become and to remain Christians, then, we are not deciding on something trivial, just another among the many decisions we have to make. We are deciding on what will define the meaning of our lives and determine how successfully we have led them. The building we are constructing with our lives will be finished only when we successfully pass through the darkness of death; the battle in which we are engaged will be won only when the light of the resurrection he promises beyond death dawns on us. We can’t say he didn’t warn us. We can’t say we didn’t know what we were getting into. But he does not demand more than he himself was willing to give–to his Father and to us–and his promise is that we will find again, richer and finer and more fully enjoyed, all that we have been called to surrender.
23rd Sunday of the Year – September 9, 2001 – Blessed Sacrament
In the passages we have been following for the last several weeks, St. Luke is describing the long resolute journey of Jesus to Jerusalem, where his message and mission will reach their climax in his passage through death and resurrection. His teaching during this journey sets out the terms and conditions of discipleship, of the decision to step out onto the same dusty road Jesus is walking. Today he warns the merely enthusiastic: the road he is walking is headed toward a cross, and the only ones worthy of him must be prepared to take up the cross themselves. That may lie down the road, but the only way to prepare for it is a radical choice, a choice for Jesus that at some point may have to be a choice against–that is what “hating” means here–hating parents, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even one’s own self, for the sake of Christ and following after him. From the beginning he wanted them to be clear-sighted about what was at stake: don’t start building this tower and then discover you don’t have the funds to complete it; don’t go out for this battle without enough resources to win it.
In fact, in Jesus’ own time, following him often meant this reversal or substitution of loyalties. He called people to prepare for the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom, a liberation through grace that potentially required the surrender of everything else–all one’s possessions, he tells us today. The little band of disciples that now appeared on the social landscape of first-century Palestine constituted a new community, they were now a new family, and this community represented the first impact that Jesus of Nazareth had. Something new was appearing; something new was occurring.
This readiness to surrender all today does not appear to be so evidently required. Catholics have had a tendency to lay this duty off onto others, onto priests or vowed religious, or onto exceptional religious types–they’re the ones who are supposed to take the beatitudes seriously; the rest of us, meanwhile, can continue on our compromising way, content with the commandments. But I don’t think this is a legitimate, permissible option for us. Jesus is not addressing a community of monks in today’s reading. He is addressing us. No one of us should presume that he is not talking to us, individually.
To be able to hear what he has to say, of course, we have to be taking our own lives with a certain degree of seriousness. How do we sum up a person’s life? By trying to find the primary motivating goal, the kind of thing that gave it purpose, character, definition, substance–what he valued most, what she thought more important than everything else, what it was they would hang onto even at the price of seeing everything else slip away. It’s on that level that one has to be reflecting in order to hear what Jesus is saying today. He is asking what we are living for? What counts most in our lives? What story are we telling by our lives? Where is this journey leading? What statue are we sculpting by the decisions and actions of our lives? Multiply the metaphors: we are doing something with our lives, making something with them: what is it? And is it good, true, beautiful? There are answers to such questions, but we’ll never find them unless we ask the questions.
From today’s Gospel we should take away at least the challenge of such basic reflection on our lives, and on where Christ himself fits in, what difference his person and his message make, whether we are walking on the same path he is taking, whether we are ready to pay the cost of following after him.
Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 9, 2007 – National Shrine
The words of Jesus that we have just heard may be shocking to our ears: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” If this is the cost of discipleship, who will be willing to pay it, especially in a society and culture that so prizes family life? But even back in the ancient world, the words were sufficiently shocking that St. Matthew, in his Gospel, tones them down: If anyone loves family more than me, he is not worthy of me…”
But even if one agrees that Matthew correctly interprets the words of Jesus, perhaps it is worth pausing over them for a moment. Jesus is concerned that people recognize what may be called for if they are to follow after Jesus, if they are to be Christians. What is this going to cost? Think like the building contractor: Do I have enough money to finish a tower? Or like a king: Do I have enough troops for this war? Well, he asks anyone who wants to follow him: Am I willing to place even my most sacred relationships and obligations into second place in my affections? Am I willing to lose them, to sacrifice them? If it comes to a choice between love of Christ and love of spouse or child or parent, which will I choose? Where does one’s ultimate fidelity lie?
We may say, and hope, that such choices will never be required of us, and if they never are, then we are fortunate. But Christian history has many examples of moments in which, in order to be faithful to Christ men and women put family, friends, tribe, ethnic group, nation in second place. We can think of martyrs who paid with their lives, or of other more silent witnesses to Christ. But it is not just extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances that we should think of. These words of Jesus are addressed to us, too. In our everyday lives, do we place God and Christ above all else? Or are we always trimming our Christianity to fit with what others expect of us–others in our family, among our friends, in our workplace? Is it because we have made sure we are living a comfortable Christianity that we are made uncomfortable by such sharp words as those we hear today?
The Lord is not saying that these other objects of affection are wrong, that we should not love family, friends, nation. It is in fact a great blessing when family traditions, when ethnic community, when national loyalty coincide with and support our love of God and Christ. In the case of us Slovaks, this has been the case for centuries: our Slovak heritage being so closely tied to our Christian faith and Catholic fellowship. And we may be grateful for it. We may even pray that there will never come a day when we might have to choose between nation and God, between family and God.
The issue, however, is this: What do we love more? Whom do we love more? Family, country, friends? That is where the matter rests: Whom do we love more?
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 5, 2010 – St. John’s, Goshen
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Let us hear that again, in all its shocking clarity: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” This is the first of three statements in today’s Gospel in which Jesus sets out what it will require of anyone to be his follower. The other two are no less startling: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” The cross was a horrible instrument, a torturing means of execution, but that is what Jesus says following him, being his disciple, means. After two small parables about counting the cost beforehand, he repeats the demand: “Anyone of you who does not renounce all that he possesses cannot be my disciple.”
If a serious inquirer were to ask, “What does it mean, what does it require, to be a Christian?” I doubt that many of us would immediately answer: “Well, you have to renounce all your possessions. You have to carry a cross. You have to hate your closest relatives.” These are not the sorts of statements we usually see on advertisements that invite people to consider becoming a Christian. But, to refer to the two parables, this is the cost of building that tower, and these are the troops that king needed for his war. What are we to make of it all?
Yes, it is true that Jesus did not mean “hate” in the sense of positively wishing harm, and St. Matthew’s version softens the saying somewhat: “Anyone who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,” thus explaining that Jesus means something positive: that we are to love him more than father or mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters. But St. Luke’s version, which we heard, is useful for posing us before the radical claims that Jesus was making, that Jesus is still making, only now to us who hear his words today. He is claiming what only God can claim: a commitment, a dedication, to him that surpasses in importance any other commitment, any other dedication, any other loyalty, any other love, no matter how legitimate, no matter how good. If it should come down to it, one has to choose Christ and his cause over all those other objects of our loving devotion.
Christ, then, is making a total demand, which can be met only by faith, a surrendering of ourselves in trust to God. Cardinal Newman spoke of it as “the venture of faith,” the dare, the risk, of faith: “our duty lies,” he said, “in risking upon Christ’s word what we have, for what we have not; and doing so in a noble, generous way, not indeed rashly or lightly, still without knowing accurately what we are doing, not knowing either what we give up, nor again what we shall gain; uncertain about our reward, uncertain about our extent of sacrifice, in all respects leaning, waiting upon Him, trusting in Him to fulfil His promise, trusting in Him to enable us to fulfil our own vows, and so in all respects proceeding without carefulness or anxiety about the future” (“The Ventures of Faith,” PPS, IV).
Newman’s words remind me of the exhortation that used to be read at the beginning of the marriage-rite which described the venture of faith that a couple make in choosing to share the future together. “That future,” it said, “with its hopes and disappointments, its successes and its failures, its pleasures and its pains, its joys and its sorrows, is hidden from your eyes. You know that these elements are mingled in every life, and are to be expected in your own. And so not knowing what is before you, you take each other for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death.” That is a good description also of the depth and breadth of the commitment Christ asks of us.
There are Christians who from the beginning have made that commitment by deciding to give up everything to follow Christ–think of St. Francis of Assisi or of Mother Teresa. There are many more Christians who have done that when faced with great challenges that required them to oppose family and to risk losing everything for the sake of fidelity to Christ. But of those of us who have not been called in fact to make that kind and degree of commitment, we have to ask how ready we are to make it. In the same sermon Newman wondered how much the typical Christian was willing to risk, to surrender.
I really fear, when we come to examine, it will be found that there is nothing we resolve, nothing we do, nothing we do not do, nothing we avoid, nothing we choose, nothing we give up, nothing we pursue, which we should not resolve, and do, and not do, and avoid, and choose, and give up, and pursue, if Christ had not died, and heaven were not promised us. I really fear that most men called Christians, whatever they may profess, whatever they may think they feel, whatever warmth and illumination and love they may claim as their own, yet would go on almost as they do, neither much better nor much worse, if they believed Christianity to be a fable.
His point is a valid one. It could be asked in a different form: What is different about our lives because we believe that the Gospel is true, because we believe there is a God, because we believe that Jesus Christ died for us, because we believe that he has made us to share in his own risen life? It probably will not happen that many of us, or even that any of us, will be required to choose between family and Christ, between possessions and Christ, between job and Christ, but that is the choice that Christ wishes us to be ready to make. The day will come, of course, sooner or later, when all that we love will slip from our hands, when we will have to say farewell to all those we love, when the hour of our death finds us alone before Christ. Today’s Gospel reminds us that the lives we are living now are supposed to be a preparation for that final surrender. “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” were the words of Christ’s final surrender on the cross. We cannot prepare for our final surrender better than by a willing and loving surrender into God’s hands of all that we are and all that we have. The beautiful prayer of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, could be one way of daily committing ourselves to Christ:
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding, and my entire will.
All I have and call my own,
Whatever I have or hold, you have given me.
I return it all to you and surrender it wholly
to be governed by your will.
Give me only your love and grace:
with these I am rich enough and ask for nothing more.