23rd Sunday Year C
(5 September 2010)
There is little that is gentle or comforting in the readings this weekend.
In the first reading, the author of the book of Wisdom tells us that we’re hardly able to understanding what’s going on in our own lives and in the world around us without hoping to understand God or the things of heaven. Our physical bodies burden our souls. Whatever understanding we do have about God he says, has been revealed to us through Wisdom, the Holy Spirit sent from heaven; we can only know the will of God through the Holy Spirit.
The Psalm reminds us of the brevity of this life and the frailty of our bodies: “To your eyes a thousand years are like yesterday, come and gone, no more than a watch in the night; we are like grass that in the morning springs up and flowers; by evening it withes and fades.” Relatively speaking, our lives are very brief.
Paul’s letter to Philemon has only 25 verses and we heard eight of them in the second reading. It’s a beautifully crafted letter regarding a slave called Onesimus who had run away from Philemon and who Paul had converted to Christianity and of whom he was obviously very fond. According to the accepted norms of society at that time, Paul was obliged to return him to Philemon and Onesimus should have been punished severely before being allowed to return to service as a slave.
Paul asks Philemon not only to forgive Onesimus for running away (and perhaps even for stealing from him) but also to welcome him back not as a slave but as an equal; as a brother. Paul explains that through our Christian fellowship we assume a new relationship with one another; brothers and sisters in Christ; partners in the service of the Lord. In our actions we are required to go beyond secular laws and the norms of society because life in Christ is of a higher order.
The pressure and obligation that Paul placed on Philemon as his ‘brother in faith’ was probably greater than anything he had ever experienced – even from within his own family …… and that could serve as an introduction to the Gospel reading:
“If anyone comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple.”
I think many of us at some time in our lives have hated our parents, family members, and ourselves…. but that surely hasn’t distinguished us as model disciples of Christ?
The very thought flies in the face of everything that we understand about love being the very essence of Christianity. So we know for certain that this English text cannot be taken literally.
In the Aramaic language spoken by Jesus and his followers there are no comparative degrees in the grammar: there are no adjectives like good, better and best.
One cannot say for example “I like A more than B but I like C best; or “I like my father more than my mother but I love Jesus best.”
To express a dramatic preference in the language, one could use strong contrasts: love and hate; give and take; life and death; all or nothing.
Jesus is not talking so much about hate as he is talking about loving him more than anything else. No other love in our lives should compare with our love for him. Jesus is talking about actions and attitudes rather than emotions.
Discipleship, he tells us, is a tough vocation that cannot be undertaken lightly. Discipleship is not a casual commitment or a flight of fancy.
“First sit down and work out the cost,” says Jesus.
For each of us the cost is different – just as the crosses we bear are different.
For some of us, the mere struggle of daily living is a cross; for others it may be an illness or a disability or an addiction; for some it may be a relationship, the death of a loved one or a bad life experience. We all struggle with crosses and the cost is the pain and sacrifice of carrying our crosses with the heart of Jesus beating in our chest; carrying our crosses and loving until it hurts; never taking our eyes off Jesus.
We could ask ourselves whether in our homes, our places of work or study or retirement, we are using our gifts and skills to build the kingdom. Are we the voice of love, compassion, wisdom and hope instead of gossip and division? Can we and do we pray for those who dislike us or displease us? Have we forgiven those who have hurt us? Are we as generous as we could be in bringing comfort and relief to the hungry, the dying, the lonely and the homeless?
Discipleship comes at a cost and if we’re not finding it difficult then we are probably more like the large crowds who are following Jesus but are not necessarily disciples. Being a follower doesn’t make one a disciple any more than watching cooking programs makes one a chef or attending church makes one a Christian.
We are Christians because the spirit of Jesus lives in each of us. Jesus walks with us every step of the way. He knows all too well the sacrifice and difficulties of discipleship – he has the scars to prove it.
Today marks the anniversary of the death of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and I’ll finish with her words:
Jesus is always there….
To be the joy of our life.
Jesus’ love for us is unconditional, tender, forgiving, complete.
Without counting the cost
He gives until it hurts.
Love, to be true, has to hurt.
It hurt God, the Father, to give his son.
It hurt Jesus to love you and me.