04 September. Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jesus warns that we cannot share his vision unless we hold our possessions loosely. Without detachment we cannot be full disciples of Christ.

1st Reading: Wisdom 9:13-18

God gives us all the knowledge we need to be saved

For who can learn the counsel of God?
Or who can discern what the Lord wills?
For the reasoning of mortals is worthless,
and our designs are likely to fail;
for a perishable body weighs down the soul,
and this earthy tent burdens the thoughtful mind.
We can hardly guess at what is on earth,
and what is at hand we find with labor;
but who has traced out what is in the heavens?
Who has learned your counsel,
unless you have given wisdom
and sent your holy spirit from on high?
And thus the paths of those on earth were set right,
and people were taught what pleases you,
and were saved by wisdom.”

2nd Reading: Philemon 9ff

Paul appeals to a wealthy convert, for the runaway slave Onesimus

I would rather appeal to you (Philemon) on the basis of love-and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.

Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother-especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.

Gospel: Luke 14:25-33

Jesus calls to self-renunciation with two short parables

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’

Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.


Being Responsible Realists

The examples Jesus uses may be multiple, but his teaching is the same: the one who begins an important project rashly, without thinking whether he has the means and the energy to do what he intends, runs the risk of ending up with a mess on his hands. No farmer starts building a tower to protect his vineyard, without first calculating how he can get the job done, or else the project remains unfinished, and he will  look ridiculous. No ruler will challenge a powerful enemy to combat, without first analyzing if that challenge can end in victory or would be mere suicide.

At first glance, Jesus could seem to be inviting us to a prudent and cautious behaviour, far from the boldness with which he ordinarily asks from his disciples. But that is not really the message of those  comparisons. The mission he wants to commend to his followers is so important that no one should commit self to it in an unthinking way. Jesus calls, above all, to a mature reflection: the two protagonists of the parables «sit down» to reflect. When are we going to sit ourselves down to gather our energies, reflect together and seek out the path we should all be following? Don’t we need to dedicate more time, more listening of the Gospel and more meditation in order to discover God’s call, awaken charisms, cultivate a renewed style of following Jesus?

We are living through an unprecedented socio-cultural change. In light of Jesus calling us to realism, is it possible to spread faith in this new world that is being born, without knowing it well or without understanding it from within? Is it possible to offer access to the Gospel while despising or ignoring the thinking, feelings and language of men and women of our times? Isn’t it wrong to respond to today’s challenges with yesterday’s strategies?

It is reckless to act unconsciously or blindly. We’d be exposing ourselves to frustration, ridicule or even disaster. According to the parable, the «unfinished tower» provoke people’s mockery toward its builder. Remember the realistic and humble language used by Jesus, inviting his disciples to be «leaven» in the midst of the people, or a pinch of «salt» that give new flavour to people’s lives.   [José Antonio Pagola]

Half-hearted Christianity?

Today’s gospel poses a problem for the homily. The listeners will not need anything explained, but they will need some convincing. One of the following experiences might help.

(I) A priest went to Taizé with a group of young people. Among the many tales he brought back was this. One evening as the English-language visitors gathered together for a general meeting he was asked to hold on to two seats beside him. After repeatedly telling others that those seats were occupied he finally gave in and told the next pair: “Yes, these seats are free. Take them away with you,” which they did. From that moment he had peace. Eventually his companions returned to find their places vacant but without seats. They had no bother finding seats for themselves and returning to their reserved places. Everybody was happy with this arrangement. Sometimes we are so concerned with holding on to what we might want that we fail to see other’s needs and our opportunity to help.

(2) Another afternoon at Taizé the whole group had planned an outing. The rain poured all that day and there were many glum faces looking out from the various tents. Making the most of the situation, they decided to come together for an extra session of prayer and discussion. This turned out to be the most memorable evening of the whole trip. Learning how to adjust to unfulfilled plans, waning strength, failing health and uncertain fortunes, is a key to happiness and contentment. We are not masters of all we possess, e.g., talents, health and even life itself.

(3) Again at Taizé, two of the group were deaf. Not being able to hear is a great handicap, a barrier to be overcome. These two could have missed so much of the experience at Taizé, the music, the bells, the prayers, the sincerity of the group discussions. However, for the whole week they were able to participate through the help of their friends who relayed everything to them through signs and lipreading. There was a modern miracle of the deaf hearing, and the others discovered so much about themselves in the process.

(4) Many of the saints discovered their true freedom in the practice of voluntary poverty. Francis of Assisi comes to mind as the example par excellence. By renouncing all earthly possessions he discovered how much he possessed and shared with all of God’s creatures. All the teaching of Jesus is marked by this same spirit of freedom. Like prayer, voluntary poverty is a gift to be savoured and treasured.

(5) One of the two parables in the gospel, found only in Luke, might provide the basis for a homily. Building a tower is not a useless exercise in vanity. It had a practical use in the vineyard. A modern parallel might be a grain silo or shed. It is ironic that Luke and Jesus pick an example of progressive investment in farming to illustrate a lesson on detachment from property. Obviously, they approve of the venture as it shows where half measures will not do. Half-hearted Christianity is not a profitable affair either.

How God Treats His Friends

The ways of God are mysterious, and our inability to understand them is stressed in Today’s reading from the book of Wisdom, and were we seriously to consider the message of the other two readings we should perhaps find ourselves asking the question, why should St Paul, having devoted most of his life to the spread of the gospel of Christ, end up a prisoner in chains, with death by violence to follow. Or indeed, why should it be, as stated in the gospel reading, that in order to be a disciple of his Christ says we should carry a cross. Again and again, on our journey through life, we come up against the mystery of suffering, the mystery of the path of the cross which Christ calls us to tread.

One of the saints who suffered all her days, and despite this led a most active life, never allowing herself to be overcome by her troubles, was St Teresa of Avila, foundress of the Discalced Carmelite Sisters. She was an extraordinary person, uniting sublime and mystical holiness with practical good sense and humour. When she heard that her close associate, St John of the Cross, was imprisoned, and being punished as a renegade from the Carmelite Order, she wrote, “God has a terrible way of treating his friends, and in truth he does them no wrong, since that was the way he treated his own Son, Jesus Christ.” If Christ then, the all-holy Son of God, submitted to suffering and death, then we his servants cannot expect to be treated any differently from our Master. And this he states for us quite categorically. “Anyone who does not carry his cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.”

But we should not picture God as being one who takes an unholy delight in seeing his children suffer. If no earthly father worthy of the name would adopt such an attitude, then how much more so our heavenly Father, who sent his Son to show his love for us, to the extent of sacrificing himself for us. This raises the question, why did Christ, in compliance with the Father’s will, have to suffer? Indeed, why should any of us have to suffer? We can approach the problem differently by saying that all sufferings, especially those associated with death, are concrete evidence of the mystery of evil, our tendency to upset God’s purpose, in other words to commit sin. At the end of the creation story in Genesis (1:31), we are told that “God saw all he had made and indeed it was good.” We can therefore say that everything is truly good in so far as it serves God’s purpose. But here and now it is obvious that, both physically and morally, the world is not all good. The culprit is sin, which is not only the root of all evl, but tends to blind people’s awareness of this fact.

Evil entered the world because of a human will which opposed the will of God. “Through one man, sin came into the world,” St Paul says, “and through sin death. And so death has spread through the whole human race because everyone has sinned” (Rom 5:12). But, he adds, our Saviour Christ Jesus, abolished death and gained life and immortality, because of his utter and absolute dedication to the will of the Father. “If you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, then you will be saved” (Rom 10:9). Note Paul does not say if you believe in your mind, but if you believe in your heart. The heart we associate with emotions, love, trust, confidence. These are the things which give rise to faith, and not intellectual arguments. After the example of Christ we are called to abandon ourselves to the will of God, to take up our daily cross, and to identify with Christ suffering.

But this also means identifying with Jesus accepting all the evil that the sinful will of mankind could subject him to. There is nothing in the gospels to suggest that Jesus liked suffering. On the contrary, his prayer in Gethsemane was, “Father if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me” (Mt 26:39). But the example of Jesus, as well as that of his sinless mother, shows us that it is impossible, even for the just and virtuous person, to avoid suffering and the effects of the evil power which humanity has unleashed on the world. When St Paul begged God three times to cure him of his mysterious ailment, the answer he got was, “My grace is all you need; for my power is strongest when you are weak” (2 Cor 12:9f). How well Paul learned this lesson is clear from something he later wrote: “It makes me happy to suffer for you, and in my body to do what I can to make up all that has still to be undergone by Christ for the sake of his body, the Church” (Col 1:24).

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