23rd SUNDAY-C- September 8, 2019
Wisdom 9: 13-18; Psalm 90; Philemon 9-10, 12-17; Luke 14: 25-33
by Jude Siciliano, OP
Let’s admit it: the opening verse of today’s gospel is, at best, going to confuse our congregation. A family together in the pew might look out of the corner of their eyes at one another as they hear Jesus say, "If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters and even their own life, they cannot be my disciple." Is Jesus serious… "Hate" a family member for his sake?!
Those are harsh words. How could Jesus tell us to hate a beloved family member? How does what he says here match with his teachings about loving one another as we love ourselves – neighbor and even our enemy?
One way to understand what he says is to interpret it in light of his Semitic way of speaking. It deliberately expresses extreme opposites to get a point across. So, his hearers might not have been as jolted as we were when they heard what Jesus said. What is Jesus trying to say by his extreme mode of expression? He wants us to seriously consider the cost of being his disciples and make any sacrifice necessary to follow him.
It helps to remind ourselves what Jesus said elsewhere about family. When family members asked to see him (8:21) he replied, "My mother and my brothers [sisters] are those who hear the word of God and act on it." When a woman in the crowd cried out, "Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed," Jesus responded, "Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it." Those responses would have been shocking to his hearers. In their world a person understood themselves only in relation to their family, village and religious community. Unlike us, individual identity was not primary. Rather, blood ties were primary and inviolable sources of one’s identity.. So, how could he possibly include in his "family" those who were his followers, but not related by blood?
Jesus’ point is quite clear. Those who heard him and wanted to be his disciple had to first consider the cost before they decided to follow him. Pain and sacrifice are inevitably attached to committed discipleship. There is no such thing as casual Christianity. Are we willing to pay the costs? Do we have the resolve to keep the promise of discipleship even when it requires serious and ongoing sacrifice? Those are some of the questions raised by today’s gospel passage.
Throughout the gospel Jesus often speaks of loving others, including one’s family. He wants us to be of one mind and heart with them; but choosing to follow Jesus in all parts of our life may expose us to hatred, ridicule, rejection and physical harm – even from our own family. In the early church there were examples of fathers turning over their children to torture and death because they had become Christians.
Luke wrote for a church living in hostile, pagan places where Christians faced persecution. He presents Jesus’ admonition to a suffering church. Today most of us do not live in hostile environments. Still, what kind of response do we get when we join our bishops’ voices speaking against: the horrible conditions on our border; abortion and the death penalty; nuclear buildup; protection for the environment, etc. People may not verbally oppose us, but even some in our closest circles may roll their eyes when we mention any of the above.
Usually the parables have a surprise twist. But the two parables in today’s reading are clear and appeal to common sense. They make the same reasonable point. If you are going to attempt to do something significant, like build a tower, or march to battle, you must carefully consider the costs. Why invest valuable resources in a foolish pursuit that has no possibility of completion and success? Then again, why not invest everything in what gives life – following Jesus and, when called upon, carry the cross he did?
There are moments in the Gospels when people get excited over Jesus and begin following him. But when the way gets difficult, as Jesus predicted, their superficial commitment comes to light. In terms of the parable, they started to build, but could not finish. That is why Jesus called the enthusiastic crowds following him to consider carefully the serious commitment they would be making in following him. Could they really follow him all the way, when it could mean giving up everything else and even result in suffering for Christ?
As he has done before, Jesus calls his disciples to "renounce all his/her possessions." Again, he is asking for a total response from them. They must be willing to give up the security and comfort of even their own families and to spend themselves entirely as his disciples.
When you hear a challenge like today’s and all that Jesus is asking of us, don’t you feel inadequate to the task? We know we will fall short of what he asks; we still seek personal interests over his; hunger for material comfort and possessions and not totally willing to work for the sake of what the gospel asks.
Bottom line: we begin our Eucharist with a moment of penance and always receive an assurance of forgiveness. And we need it. We need to be forgiven for building up the reign of God halfheartedly. When we hear what the gospel asks of us we are tempted to throw our hands up in frustration, "Who can possibly do what he asks, I can’t!"
None of us can on our own, but grace is the subject of the sentence. Grace spurs us to conversion. Grace enables us to recommit ourselves. Grace also promises us not to leave us on our own as we try to throw our whole selves into the gospel project – the "tower" we are called to construct. Grace helps us pay the complete cost of that construction project, which Jesus started and we have been called to share in finishing.
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