Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time: 9-4-16
Peace be with You,
As we have seen the last several weeks, receiving pedagogical training from Jesus is challenging to say the very least. At one and the same time we hear our Lord warning us of the difficulties that lie in wait for those who choose to follow him on the road he travels and of the peace and hope that a life of discipleship can bring. The message we hear today is no less challenging, and in fact, marks a crossroads as we walk and learn at the feet of the Teacher from Nazareth.
In order to realize the profundity of what is taking place in our gospel today, I ask you to picture yourself in the scene. Over the course of the last several weeks you have found the words of the Rabbi from Nazareth challenging, mysterious, and intriguing. Perhaps because of the latter two aspects, you like many others, have decided to accompany him for a time longer. As you walk in the midst of a group of casual acquaintances that make up the large band of loosely connected disciples of Jesus, he stops, turns to the group, and says: “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Any murmuring that had continued when Jesus had stopped dead in his tracks now falls to a silence. You turn to the person to your left and to your right with a confused look, as if begging for an explanation, only to find that every last person in the crowd shares the same sentiment. What is going on? The difficulty of the words of Jesus is further compounded when he speaks further, saying: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). Stunned silence now turns to panicked whispering, as a sense of bewilderment and terror spreads through the group.
Now, to the modern day reader and/or listener of this opening to today’s gospel reading, it may seem as though I am overplaying what may have taken place on this particular occasion. However, this is the case only because for us, the cross has become a tame symbol of our religious affiliation, with no real practical significance as we have never witnessed a crucifixion. However, for a first century Jew, this was not the case. Rather, for a first century Jew, the cross was no mere symbol, instead it was a terrifying instrument of torture wielded by their Roman occupiers to keep order. If any Jew dared to think twice about trying to subvert the Roman authorities, the cross was a constant reminder: If you cross us, we will literally cross you. Yes, the cross was an instrument of torture, and an instrument of isolation. And to the dismay of those joining you in the crowd today, it seems as though Jesus is calling you to just that.
In order to emphasize the reality of his words, Jesus then speaks of the planning that people do before undertaking a big project, using the examples of building a tower and going to war. He then concludes his message with the words: “In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). The message is clear, Jesus is asking us to consider what it really means to be his disciple and whether or not we are really committed to the task, and therefore, we have a decision to make. However, before we completely give up hope, let’s consider what it is that Jesus is saying here, and for some help on that, we can look to our second reading from Paul.
Today’s second reading comes from Paul’s letter to Philemon. The subject matter concerns a certain individual named, Onesimus, apparently a run-away slave who Paul has taken under his wing. It is Paul’s intention to send Onesimus back to Philemon, but in doing so, he sends his written words as well, in the form of this letter. In order to appreciate what is happening here, we need to understand that in Roman times, the penalty for a runaway slave was death. And yet, just the same Paul is sending Onesimus back. You may ask, is Paul out of his mind? A reasonable question, unless you knew that Philemon and his household were likely members of the Christian Church at Colossae. Therefore, in sending Onesimus back to Philemon, Paul is entrusting that Philemon will act with the Christian charity and mercy which he has experienced himself in Christ. Paul writes: “Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord” (v. 15). It is this line that has special explanatory power with reference to the difficult words of our Lord which we heard earlier. Notice what Paul writes to Philemon, ‘he was away from you for awhile perhaps that you might have him back forever, not as a slave, as a brother and a man (i.e. an individual with full dignity) in the Lord.’
My friends, the message from Jesus this weekend is getting at the very same thing. Does Jesus wish for us to truly hate our family? Absolutely not! What he is saying is that if we cling to anything, our family or even our own life for their own sakes, we have lost everything! Instead, it is only in the person of Jesus Christ and him crucified that we stand to gain everything. You see, Jesus is the perfect example of what it means to be human precisely because of the cross. Because of the opportunity the cross provides Jesus with to display self-emptying love in such a radical and complete way, the cross becomes the moment when human beauty is most fully on display, for there is no greater love than this (cf. John 15:13). It is in imitating this beauty that we at one and the same time become more fully human ourselves and hone the ability to see the beauty contained in all around us. The consequence of this imitation is that we ourselves come to reflect the beauty of Him Who is Beauty. And, by gazing at him, we come to see the beauty of all around reflected in his gaze, allowing us to see the ones whom we love as they truly are, no longer merely aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, or parents, but reflections of the true beauty found only in him who loved us to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Your servant in Christ,