Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, (Year C)
Peace be with you on this, our celebration of the Mass for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time. You know, as I initially began to meditate on this Gospel today I thought, “whoa, hate father and mother, wife and children, are you kidding me? What can I say about such extreme words from Jesus that sound so ugly and threatening?” I don’t know about you but when I was raising my own children and heard any of them use the word “hate”, especially when talking about their feelings for other people, I would cringe. It would often generate one of those, “Oh Dad!” type conversations. Hatred is just such a strong and negative emotion.
Is this really what Jesus meant in today’s Gospel? Well, in the context of our own modern English language, the short answer is no. In context of Jesus’ 1st Century Jewish audience his use of the word hate would have referred to love versus a strong preferential love. His Jewish listeners would have probably reflected on Genesis where it says God loved Jacob and hated Esau. In that context God loved them both but his strong preferential love was given to Jacob. Perhaps the way Matthew wrote about this same event in his Gospel at 10:37 might seem a little more acceptable to our 21st Century sensitivities where Jesus says; “Whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me.”
There is a phrase from today’s Gospel that would have completely shocked to Jesus’ 1st Century audience however, when he said, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Today we easily think of the loving spiritual message offered by the symbol of the cross but in 1st Century Israel it represented brutal torture, cruelty, death, and perhaps most difficult to comprehend, absolute and complete public humiliation.
So what is going on here in these nine short verses from Luke? Where are those words of love, mercy, and forgiveness we’re used to hearing from Jesus? I think the answer comes in the very first verse when Luke tells us, “Great crowds were traveling with Jesus.” It sounds like Jesus was rapidly becoming the ancient equivalent of a modern rock-star. It probably deserves some serious contemplation on our part right here to think about these great crowds in this scene – compared to the few disciples at the foot of the cross during Jesus’ Passion and death. And while we’re contemplating those two scenes, enthusiastic crowds versus his passion on the cross, we probably should do a little soul searching ourselves.
In these nine verses Jesus uses the phase “my disciple” three times and each time he ties it to what our modern secular culture might call negative motivators; suppress love of family, take up your cross, and set aside possessions. If Jesus were a modern rock-star and used language like this to encourage album and t-shirt sales his manager would go crazy. This is the whole point to this reading though. Jesus is not trying to sell earthly popularity, merchandise, or entertainment. He has turned to this huge crowd and told them this whole discipleship thing is not going to be easy and it probably will be painful. He was trying to make it very clear to his listeners 2000 years ago and the reading is sending exactly the same message to us today, just being a fan of Jesus isn’t good enough. We always have to ask ourselves, “Am I a true follower of Jesus Christ or just one of his fans?” And perhaps one of the best times to ask this question is when we leave Mass today.
In his book “Theology for Beginners”, Frank Sheed says this, “To see ourselves merely as spectators at Mass is to miss the opportunity to take our part in the highest action done on earth.” The highest action done on earth, wow! You see my friends, in the Mass Jesus has given us the perfect form of worshiping God and that is exactly why we are supposed to be here today – giving worship to God,,, not to be entertained. And of course the pinnacle of our worship is the intimate and personal reception of Jesus himself in the Eucharist. If we walk out of Mass feeling board or disappointed because we just weren’t appropriately entertained, we just might want to think about that question; “am I a true follower of Jesus or just a fan?”
Today’s Gospel makes it perfectly clear; if we love God first everything else in our spiritual lives will fall into place. If however, we let love of something or someone else in this physical world move ahead of God, our spiritual lives will never be right.
You know last Thursday, Sep 5th was the Feast Day of St. Teresa of Calcutta, or simply called Mother Teresa. I can’t imagine anyone in my own lifetime who most clearly defines being a true follower of Christ. She chose to live in one of the most horrible places on earth to bring Jesus to societies’ most despicable people. She called them all, “Jesus in disguise.” And I’m not sure if you’ve ever read any of her little books but she had an amazing gift for expressing profound wisdom using very few words. Personally, I’ve always liked to call her the little Saint of one-liners. One of my own favorites that perhaps also helps sum up her own life was this; “I know God will never give me more than I can handle. I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.”
She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and in keeping with her gift for wisdom expressed with few words, as she stood there on the world’s great stage with everyone watching and listening, the moderator asked her what we can do to promote world peace. Instead of a speech, she answered with six simple words, “Go home and love your family.”
And finally, in all of her humility, I’m sure Mother Teresa never dreamed she would one day be canonized a saint yet she said this many years before her own death. “If I ever become a Saint – I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from Heaven – to light the light for those in darkness on earth.” So, whenever you feel a little darkness in your own life or you feel like that cross, you’re carrying is just too great, you have a special saint in Heaven ready to intercede for you. For myself however, I like to meditate on Mother Teresa just a little whenever I’m really challenged by that “fan or follower” question.