TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR


Commentary on the Readings Wisdom 9:13-18; Philemon 9b,12-17; Luke 14:25-33“GREAT CROWDS ACCOMPANIED JESUS on his way…” Many of our famous personalities today feed off the adulation of the crowds. They may be presidential candidates, pop stars, film personalities or sports champions. They are mobbed when they appear in public and people remain glued to their television screens as they perform. Popularity with the fickle public is an important element of their “success”. Once they begin to lose the crowds they know they are on the way down and out.

During his public life, Jesus had some of the star quality that we recognise in personalities who capture the public’s imagination. In a world that was much simpler than ours, Jesus must have been a kind of sensation in otherwise drab, dreary and sometimes poverty-ridden lives. Stories must have spread around like wildfire about the healings he had performed and there was that extraordinary occasion when no less than 5,000 men (not including women and children) were fed to satiety.

Sensation seekers

In the parable immediately preceding today’s Gospel passage, Jesus spoke of those who had been invited to the banquet of his Kingdom making all kinds of excuses not to come. Instead, said Jesus, people would be called in from all the “streets and lanes, the poor and maimed and blind and lame” to come and fill the unoccupied places. (The implication is that many of Jesus’ own people had rejected his invitation to be his disciples so he would reach out to the despised and sinful pagans.)

It is implied that the crowds following Jesus were sensation seekers. They were out to get something from Jesus, not altogether unlike some of those who today converge in large numbers wherever some modern “miracle” or “apparition” has been reported. And, indeed, how many of us look on God or Jesus as someone to turn to when we want something we cannot get ourselves?

Challenging words

With the people in today’s Gospel Jesus suddenly stops in his tracks. He turns round and says words that were quite shocking to his hearers and sound pretty harsh to us too: “If anyone comes to me without hating father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes, and his own life, that person cannot be my follower/disciple.” The Jews, like a number of other ethnic communities, are recognised for their close family ties. What were they and what are we to make of such an extraordinary statement? And surely we have an incomprehensible contradiction here. Jesus, who tells us to love our enemies, now tells us to hate our nearest and dearest! Is this the same Jesus who cured the mother-in-law of Peter? The same Jesus who told the story of the Good Samaritan? The same Jesus who enjoyed the hospitality of his good friends, Mary and Martha?

Most radical

Of all the gospels, Luke’s presents the following of Jesus in the most radical terms. In following Jesus, we have to go with him the whole way. We have to accept totally his way of seeing life and then putting that into practice in the way we live. There cannot be, as is the case with practically all of us, a kind of wishy-washy compromise, trying to have our cake and eat it.

I suppose the majority of us follow a lifestyle largely dictated by the surrounding culture and our goals are the goals of that culture and, somewhere on the side, we try to fit in some aspects of Christian living. In most of our modern, urban societies that lifestyle is for the most part competitive, consumerist and materialistic. We would not want our Christianity to get in the way of that. But it is precisely to people like us that Jesus is speaking.

Not to be taken literally

It is quite obvious from the overall context of Luke’s gospel that Jesus could not mean us literally to hate our parents, brothers and sisters. Nor does Jesus literally mean us to hate our own lives. People who feel that way effectively commit suicide. (Hate and the anger and violence that it produces are the product of fear.) On the contrary we are called to have love and compassion for every single person, irrespective of who they are or what their relationship may be to us. True love casts out fear. What Jesus is saying today is putting in another way what we have already seen in discussing other passages, such as, the story of the Good Samaritan and the Lord’s Prayer. Namely, those who are truly disciples of Jesus recognise that, as children of one God, we all belong to one family, that we are all brothers and sisters to each other.

We are therefore bound to love our close family members – but not only them. If we find, for instance, the wants of family members are being put before the genuine needs of others, then we are acting unjustly towards members of our wider family. In not recognising those other brothers and sisters, we fail in being disciples of Jesus. “As often as you refused it to the least of my brothers, you refused it to ME.” That immigrant, that streetsleeper is my brother or sister. That African waiter in the cafe, that streetwalker is my sister. I owe them my love and care. I may, in fact, in certain circumstances owe them more love in action that my own family needs.

“My family – right or wrong”, “My country – right or wrong” can never be the slogan of the disciple of Christ. And so, there may be times – and they can be painful experiences – when we would have to reject family members who want us to join them in behaviour that is harmful, unjust or unloving to others. We cannot support family members who cheat in business; we cannot support family members who practise racism or other forms of discrimination. To do so would not be really loving them. On the contrary, we would show our concern for their wellbeing precisely by opposing any immoral behaviour.

Loving our family

While saying all this, we might also draw attention to another common but unfortunate phenomenon. For there are those who have become totally or partly alienated from their own family. They will do anything for others but nothing for their own flesh and blood. Quite obviously, such behaviour is as much against the Gospel as making one’s family the beginning and end of all living. That is certainly a kind of hate that Jesus is not promoting

To sum up, as true followers of Jesus, we enter a new family where we recognise every person as a brother or sister. Family members are obviously included but so are others. There are times when the needs of others precede family concerns. At the same time, “Charity begins at home”: this is very true and, in our day, there is often little love in the home. But charity does not end at home; it is constantly reaching out. Sometimes we have to challenge the wishes and expectations of our family. A boy wants to be a priest, a girl to be a sister; one decides on a career of service rather than one that wins prestige and money; one refuses to condone immoral behaviour in business or sexual abuse…

A good example

The kind of love Jesus speaks about is described beautifully by Paul in today’s extract from the Letter to Philemon (the shortest of Paul’s letters and the shortest book in the New Testament). He is writing to his friend Philemon asking him to take back a slave who had apparently done something wrong but who, under Paul’s influence, had become a Christian. Paul speaks with the greatest affection of this young man, “whose father I became while wearing these chains [in prison].” The boy, Paul says, is “a part of my own self”. Paul asks Philemon to treat the young man, Onesimus, “not as a slave any more but…a dear brother… Welcome him as you would me.” This is a call for forgiveness. Onesimus may well have done wrong but it is clear that, with his conversion, he is now a changed person who can be trusted and relied on. Even more, as a Christian, he is in a special way a brother to his owner, Philemon.

Hating our own life

We have yet to comment on the phrase “hating our own life”. This is just an extension of the earlier part. Jesus wants our lives to be lived in total truth and love. Our lives are not to be determined and manipulated by attachments, desires, ambitions or fears and anxieties which can become very much part of ourselves. We are to live in total freedom. “None of you can be my disciples unless he gives up all his possessions.” It is the ability to let go, even of health and life itself. Any aspect of a person or any thing that lessens that freedom to follow truth and love is to be “hated” and transcended.

Are we ready for that? That is the meaning of the two parables, which Jesus gives as illustration. “Great crowds” were following Jesus with enthusiasm but were they ready? Did they realise what it really meant? If not, they are like a general who goes out to war totally unprepared to deal with the opposing side. They are like a man who started out to build a house and then ran out of funds or material. He becomes a laughing stock.

If we try to walk on the Way with Jesus without being aware of what is involved, we will not exactly become a laughing stock (there will be so many people with us!). However, we will miss the joy and happiness of a totally fulfilled life that Jesus, despite the apparently negative language of today’s Gospel, is holding out to us.

 

 

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