The Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
Psalm 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14, 17
Philemon 9-10, 12-17
Our gospel reading we just heard today, is another one of Jesus’ “difficult sayings,” like we heard last week, when he said, “When you hold a dinner, do not invite your friends or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors. Rather, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” There’s often the temptation when preaching on difficult passages like these to explain how Jesus didn’t really mean what he said, and so we don’t really need to make any big changes from what we’re already doing, because we’re already basically good people.
St. Thomas More was the Lord Chancellor of England, when Henry VIII was the King. More was a successful lawyer and a renowned spiritual and political writer. Having failed to have a son with his wife Catherine, and frustrated that the pope would not grant him an annulment so he could marry Lady Anne Boleyn instead, Henry passed into law the “Act of Succession,” and required his public officials to swear an oath which a) recognized the child 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 authority of the Pope, and declared the king the head of the Church in England. Thomas More refused to take the oath. He spent fifteen lonely months imprisoned in the Tower of London. His family implored him, for his sake and theirs, to take the oath, but Thomas refused. He was convicted of treason and was beheaded. On mounting the scaffold, Thomas More proclaimed that he died as “his majesty’s good servant… but God’s first.” St. Thomas More put his discipleship of Christ above his employment, king, security, reputation; above his wife, children, and even his own life. (I highly recommend the movie called “A Man for All Seasons,” which is based on St. Thomas More.)
So we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said. It’s true that most of us won’t have to choose between life and death for our faith. Maybe. It’s also true that the secular culture is falling farther and farther away from the true Teaching of the Church, the Scriptures, and God, and we might indeed have to make the choice between the demands of our Faith and the demands of secular society.
In our gospel reading we might get hung up on the actual words Jesus gives us, “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.” Jesus didn’t mean “hate” in this context the way we normally mean, “hate.” Certainly, we shouldn’t hate anyone. Obviously. To understand any verse of scripture, we need to look at its context and meaning in relation to all of scripture. Just a little while ago, Jesus taught we must love our enemies, we must love our neighbor as ourselves. As the Ten commandments require, we must “Honor thy father and mother.” What’s even better, is that this same scene in our gospel from Luke also appears in a very similar form in Matthew, where Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.” So if we take all this together, we have a much better understanding of what Jesus is teaching us.
However, as we can tell from the martyrdom of St. Thomas More, “better understanding” doesn’t necessarily mean “easy.” “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Criminals condemned to death had to carry their own cross to their execution. They knew they were going to die, and that the suffering was going to be humiliating and painful. It’s potentially true physically, that we may fulfill these words as so many other martyrs have. And it’s definitely true spiritually, that we must die to our disordered appetites, our pride, our apathy, and all of our other favorite sins. And we must forgive and love, especially when we least want to.
As Christ tells us, we had better take stock of what we’re willing to let go of to be a disciple of Christ, because nothing in this world is worth losing heaven. Jesus ends our gospel reading with two images. First, the man who started building a tower without knowing that he would have the resources to finish the project. That of course doesn’t mean that we have to fully understand God’s plan, fully have everything cash in hand, and fully rely on ourselves and not on trust and faith. It means to take stock of what it means to be Christian, and what it could cost, and whether you have the resolve to follow Christ wherever he might lead you, and do whatever he might ask of you. Do you have the trust that, where he leads you and what he asks of you, is for your salvation, even if you don’t understand it at the time? And perhaps a more difficult question, do you believe that the Catholic Church has the divine authority to teach the truth necessary for your salvation, worthy of your sacrifice, as Saint Thomas More did?
The second image Jesus gives is the king with the wisdom to determine whether his army can successfully oppose an attacking enemy who has a greater army. The fool who is proud and impulsive is going to rush in, without considering the losses that would be endured, or the wisdom of planning a successful strategy. The Christian life is not something to be taken lightly. The cost could be everything. We must have the detachment to let go of it. “In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” That doesn’t mean that we have to give everything away; but it does mean that we have to be willing to do that, if that’s what the Lord asks us to do.
As Jesus, and the entire Word of God, reiterates over and over, the most important thing is the discipline and detachment to seek (to love) the heavenly long-term that we cannot see over the earthly short-term which is always grabbing our attention. We need the assistance of divine wisdom. That wisdom tells us, in our first reading, “The deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans. … And scarce do we guess the things on earth. And what is within our grasp we find with difficulty; but when things are in heaven, who can search them out?” Even the limited earthly things we don’t really understand; how could we possibly hope to reach heavenly things, without trusting God? Our psalm reaffirms that the things of this world, and life in this world, are so short and fragile (trivial), yet the things of heaven are true and eternal.
The ancient Greek doctor Hippocrates said, “Before you heal someone, ask him if he’s willing to give up the things that made him sick.” Our Lord loves us. He wants to heal us, to show us his mercy. We must be willing to give up everything for Him.
It’s not a question of what you say you believe, it’s not what devotionals you read, it’s not what sermons you hear. It’s not what goes into a person, but what comes out. It’s a question of, do you completely give yourself to believing and trusting and following Jesus, as his disciple, in his Church, over all else… or do you not?