TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (2019)
Psalms 90:3-6, 12-14, 17
Philemon 1:9-10, 12-17
Had Jesus been on the campaign trail enjoying what the gospel calls “great crowds,” He might have seized the opportunity to speak to the great numbers of people in words that would attract and inspire them to become His followers. Instead, Jesus chose to use the most sober language to remind people that following Him would involve challenge, difficulties, renunciation, and some understandably hard “cross carrying.” Not exactly the kind of words that inspire comfort or confidence. Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem, where He knew that, in the eyes of many, things were going to end badly. Jesus needed His listeners to know that if they were going to continue following Him, they would have to know the cost of true discipleship, and that is precisely what our liturgy today is all about.
Perhaps the most troubling part of today’s gospel passage from Luke is the placing of the word “hate” on Jesus’ lips. We are right in recoiling from the word “hate,” for there should be no room for hate anywhere in Christianity. The word “hate,” in Hebrew, does not mean “detest” but to “put in second place.” Jesus is not calling us to hate father and mother but is instead calling us to a commitment above all other commitments, including commitment to family. The word hate, in this case, is Semitic hyperbole or exaggeration-for-effect, a word that may reflect an idiom which means ‘to love less than’ (Oxford Bible Commentary). When Jesus said, “hate your family,” he was talking about spiritual detachment, the ability to put God first, before other relationships and before self-interest. Without such detachment, one does not have the ability truly to follow Jesus. Jesus cannot just be a part of our life; Jesus should be the center of our lives.
Baptism doesn’t just make us ‘members’ of Christianity, it makes us ‘disciples,’ other Christs, and for that to happen there must not only be the renunciation of worldly things, but we must renounce the ways of the world. A true Christian renounces the tendency to place him or her self first, to accumulate things on top of things, to desire the first places at banquets, to strive for power, prestige and influence, to hold on to petty grudges, prejudices, or unfair opinions. Indeed, many of our crosses that we are called by Jesus to bear involve the renunciation of those things closest to us, and sadly our opinions and prejudices are often held tighter than most simple of inanimate objects.
The parables of the tower and the battle show that Jesus is concerned that people understand that there is a need to plan ahead, there is a need to take stock of our strengths and weaknesses so that we are truly prepared to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. The crosses that we carry are not so much a sign of the necessity of suffering, although there is a strong likelihood of suffering happening. Rather, they are signs to all those we come in contact with that we have modeled our lives on that of Jesus. We need to be prepared to suffer out of love for Jesus. As the Catholic Catechism states (618): “Discipleship not only means to follow the Master with our ‘cross.’ It also means to reveal the crucified Christ to others. In other words, through our struggles and the consequences of Faith, Christ is present, to us and to those who see us.” There is a cost to discipleship, and we need to be sure that we are capable and willing to pay that cost.
The saints provide us with innumerable examples of men and women who were willing to pay the cost of discipleship, even when they would have to pay with their very lives. St. Thomas More was the Lord Chancellor, when Henry VIII was the King of England. More was a successful lawyer, a great linguist and a renowned spiritual and political writer. In the year 1534, when More refused to take an oath supporting the Act of Succession, which a) recognized the offspring of Henry and his second wife Anne Boleyn as the heir to the throne; b) declared Henry’s first marriage with Catherine as null and void, and c) repudiated the Pope, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Thomas More could not, with any honesty, approve Henry’s second marriage to Anne, and he could not acknowledge the King as the supreme head of the Church of England. His family implored him – for his sake and theirs – to take the oath. More’s beloved daughter, Margaret, took an oath to persuade him to do so, in order that the family might visit him in prison. With More’s wife and son-in-law, Margaret tried hard, but Thomas refused. He spent fifteen lonely months imprisoned in the Tower of London – in poor health, isolated from the other prisoners, deprived of his beloved books; not even paper and pen were given to him. Thomas More was convicted of treason, sentenced to death and, on July 6th, 1535, he was beheaded. On mounting the scaffold, Thomas More proclaimed that he was “the king’s good servant but God’s first.” St. Thomas More paid the price for his discipleship by loving God more than his wife, children, and even his own life.
One might be discouraged in choosing to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, so difficult is the path required of us. However, we never take that path alone, for we are strengthened by the presence of countless other people who have also chosen to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, and we are always in the company of the very one we follow. On our own, we could not hope to be successful and genuine Christians, but with God’s grace all things are possible. While following Jesus may have a high cost, what makes discipleship possible is the grace of God. We are not alone as we accompany Jesus and move toward the fullness of life in God’s kingdom. We are able to deal with the cost of discipleship, as Thomas More and countless saints like him, only if we are convinced that God is with us, directing and helping us along the way.