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Reflections for the XXIII Sunday

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for the twenty-third Sunday in ordinary time. He says that the readings challenge us to the true Christian discipleship of total commitment to the will of God, putting God first in our lives.

Wis 9:13-18b; Phlm 9-10, 12-17; Lk 14: 25–33

Homily starter anecdote: We will drill you and drill you, then drill you again. Each Fall, a lot of young boys aspire to become football players. But only a few will find their way onto the high school or university teams. Every year a coach challenges the hopefuls, explaining the cost involved: “Your muscles will ache from calisthenics. We'll run you till you think you can run no more. We will drill you and drill you, then drill you again, every day, after school. There'll be no drugs, no alcohol. Only if you work hard will you make the team. If you don't, you won't.” The personal, economic, and emotional cost of becoming an Olympic or professional athlete is still higher. Young children spend hours a day practicing their skills and submitting themselves to rigorous programs of diet and exercise to become great gymnasts or dancers. Others accept the cost of dedicating years to study and hard work to become outstanding doctors or lawyers or scientists or writers. In today’s Gospel, Jesus challenges his would-be followers to calculate the cost in following him, because they will have to leave their families and possessions and accept the pain and suffering involved in following him as true disciples. (http://frtonyshomilies.com/).

Scripture lessons summarized: The first reading, taken from the Book of Wisdom, instructs us to ask for the gifts of discernment and strength from the Holy Spirit so that we may do the will of God as His true disciples. The second reading, taken from St. Paul’s letter to Philemon, teaches us that detachment and renunciation are necessary for a true disciple of Christ. As a responsible Apostle and zealous disciple of Christ, Paul had to renounce the service of his new helper, Onesimus, and return him to his master.  As a new disciple of Christ, Onesimus had to leave Paul, face his owner as a runaway slave and accept the consequences. The Responsorial Psalm (Ps 90), instructs true disciples to lead holy lives by remaining constantly aware of the brevity and uncertainty of life.    Today’s Gospel reminds us to count the cost of being a disciple and follower of Christ because the cost is high:  true Christian discipleship requires one to "renounce" both earthly possessions and possessions of the heart (i.e., one's relationships).  In today’s Gospel, Jesus lays out four conditions for true Christian discipleship. i) Renounce too much attachment to family, giving priority to God and His commandments. ii) Break off the excessive attachment to possessions by leading a detached life, willingly sharing one’s blessings with others.  iii) Accept the hard consequences of discipleship which include daily sacrificial service done for others and even the giving one’s life for them. iv) Calculate the cost involved in following Jesus. Using the two parables of the tower-builder and the king defending his country, Jesus says: think long and hard about Christian discipleship before a decision is made.

 The first reading, Wisdom 9:13-18, explained:  tells us that the will of God can only be discerned by the help of God’s Wisdom (the Spirit of God). God gives us this Divine Wisdom directly in the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, and the Spirit empowers and instructs us through Divine Revelation in Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Hence, we must prepare our plan of action in Christian discipleship, relying on the power and light of the Holy Spirit. Our decisions as true disciples of Christ must flow from our religious values, what the author of Wisdom calls “things [that] are in Heaven.” This means that we are called to make decisions as disciples of Jesus, not as merely foolish people caught up in the cultural values of our time. (The book of Wisdom was written in Alexandria, Egypt a century before Christ.  It was the work of a pious Jew and was intended to bolster the faith of his fellow-Jews who were tempted to "assimilate" to the dominant pagan culture). Today’s passage is about deep theological issues, such as the ability of the human mind to grasp the ways of God, and the interaction between body and soul.  God's mind is so unique that we must constantly, and deliberately, pray for Heavenly wisdom.

 The second reading, Philemon 9-10, 12-17, explained: provides another lesson in the detachment and renunciation necessary for Christian discipleship.  The cost of his discipleship had already landed Paul in prison once, probably in Ephesus (ca. AD 52-54). Philemon was a wealthy Colossian and a personal friend of Paul. Philemon had been converted to the Christian faith through Paul’s ministry.  Philemon had a slave called Onesimus who had robbed his master and fled to Rome. God’s grace led Onesimus to the prison where Paul was being held, and the Apostle took compassion on him, leading Onesimus also to the Christian faith. Then Paul sent Onesimus back to his master in Colossae with a letter pleading with the master, not only to spare Onesimus severe punishment, but also to show him sympathy, affection and Christian brotherhood. We hear this appeal in the second reading. As a responsible Apostle and model disciple of Christ, Paul had to renounce the service of his new helper and return him to his master.  As a new disciple of Christ, Onesimus had to leave Paul, face his owner as a runaway slave and accept the consequences. Paul challenged Philemon to express his commitment to Christ as a true disciple by treating Onesimus "no longer as a slave but a brother,” thus transforming the relationship between master and slave, bravely facing the contempt and scorn of his social equals and incurring social and economic liability as well.   (The traditional belief is that Onesimus was later made the bishop of Ephesus and suffered martyrdom in Rome.) 

Gospel exegesis: The context: Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem where he would be crucified. But the crowd thought that he was going to Jerusalem to oust the Romans and to reestablish the old Davidic kingdom of Israel.  Jesus was enormously popular with the crowds as a great healer, brave teacher and miracle worker. Looking at the cheering masses, however, Jesus frankly put before them the strenuous conditions for discipleship.  

1) We must renounce family relationships, giving priority to God.  Today’s passage in Luke puzzles a lot of people, because in the Middle East, anyone who deliberately cut ties with family and social network would lose the ordinary means of making a living.   Further, a person’s life and family relationships were a necessity for security and identity, regardless of social position.  Why was Jesus, who had been recommending that his followers love everybody --including their enemies--suddenly announcing that no one could be his disciple unless he hated his own family?  The word hate, as used in this case, “is Semitic exaggeration and may reflect an idiom which means ‘love less than’ (Oxford Bible Commentary). So it is clear that Jesus’ “hating” one’s family is a Semitic hyperbole or exaggeration, spoken for effect.  Matthew’s Gospel makes it clear. “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 the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Mt 10:37-38).  When Jesus said "hate your family,” he was talking about spiritual detachment, the ability to put God first, before other relationships and before self-interest. Without such detachment, one does not have the ability truly to follow Jesus.

2) We must bear our crosses: Though “bearing a cross” is often equated with welcoming chronic illness, painful physical conditions, or trying family relationships, it also includes what we do voluntarily, as a consequence of our commitment to Jesus Christ.  Further, it is the spirit in which we freely and deliberately accept and endure the pain, difficulties and even the ridicule involved with these choices, that transforms them into real cross-bearing.  For the early Christians, however, cross-bearing had a far more literal meaning.  Just as Jesus went to the cross, some of his followers would also taste death for their devotion to the Master.  Only if the disciple is firmly committed to Christ will he be able to spend his life in sacrificial service for others.

3) We must calculate the cost of discipleship: Using the two parables of the tower-builder and the king defending his country, Jesus says: think long and hard about Christian discipleship before a decision is made. In the first parable, the builder was not financially able to finish the building. The second parable spoke of a king planning strategy against a belligerent opponent.  Could the king win the battle against an army twice the size of his own?  Or should he sue for peace?  Perhaps these parables also illustrate that discipleship is not a one-time decision and that the commitment involved needs to be an ongoing decision to persevere in the ministries that are integral to following Jesus.  When we first decide to follow Christ, we know simply that there will be a price to pay.  Only as life unfolds can we begin to assess the full cost.  Jesus warns us to expect significant cost overruns because the cost for him was the cross at Calvary.

4) We need to say good-bye to possessions: The fourth condition for being a disciple of Jesus means not only surrendering material possessions but sometimes one’s very life.  In today's reading, we hear the phrase, “whoever does not renounce all of his possessions and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”   When Jesus says that we must give up all our possessions in order to follow him, he doesn’t mean that we must all hold a giant yard sale and live as mendicants on the streets.  He means that we should lead a detached life, willingly sharing our blessings with others. The four conditions of discipleship as outlined by Jesus indicate a kind of total commitment that every follower of Christ should be prepared to live. The radical demands of Jesus call us to center our lives on the suffering and risen Christ.

5) The paradox of Jesus’ strenuous conditions: Jesus commanded us to make disciples of all nations (not "make members").  On the one hand, our text repeats the necessity of putting Jesus first – an extremely demanding condition.  On the other hand, even "street people” were generously invited to the banquet.  The only "demand" was to come and eat and enjoy the feast that had been prepared. Do we live in this tension between free grace and costly discipleship?  Is there a difference between believing in Jesus and being a disciple?  Yes!  Just being an active Church member is not enough.    Jesus doesn't want disciples who just "go along with the crowd."    He wants committed Christians -- those who are aware of the costs of following him -- who choose to follow him anyway.  Being Jesus' disciple has never been convenient.  It is costly -- costly in terms of money, time, relationships, and priorities.

6) Cheap grace and costly grace: According Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian, martyred by Hitler, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, Baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, and grace without Jesus.” “Cheap grace costs us nothing (in the short term). Costly grace costs us our life, but it is also the source of the only true and complete life.”   (Cost of Discipleship). (http://peterfaur.com/2012/12/18/study-guides-for-dietrich-bonhoeffers-the-cost-of-discipleship#axzz4JI86fUOI)  Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field and the pearl of great price for which the believer is willing to sell everything he/she has. Costly grace is the Gospel which must be lived and preached; it is the gift which must be asked for, the door at which every disciple must knock. Costly grace means following Jesus, aware of and prepared for the pitfalls of discipleship but still willing to meet them and manage them daily with his help. “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing. “(Martin Luther). It is strange to see how the present followers of Martin Luther preach and practice a diluted, cost-free Christianity, assuring eternal salvation to all who accept Jesus as Lord and Savior and ask his pardon and forgiveness for their sins.  Preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance.

7) Cafeteria Christians versus committed Christians: Soren Kierkegaard said that there are a lot of parade-ground Christians who wear the uniforms of Christianity, but few who are willing to do battle for Christ and his kingdom. When it comes to doing battle for the Lord, too many church members are just sitting on the premises instead of leaning on the promises of God. Jesus does not want a large number of “half-way” disciples who are willing to do a “little bit” of prayer, a “little bit” of commitment, a “little bit” of dedication, a “little bit” of love. Jesus wants disciples who are truly committed to prayer, to discipleship and to being ruled by him as their king.  With a few such dedicated disciples, Jesus could change the world.  Today, more than a billion people gather to worship, but many of them are half-hearted Christians. We are tempted to forego the call to faithful stewardship, faithful worship attendance, faithful sexuality, honest business practices, accurate tax returns and compassion for the less fortunate.  Ironically enough, Churches with high standards attract people with high standards.   Integrity and commitment attract others.  On the one hand, Jesus makes it very difficult to be his disciple.  On the other hand, Jesus is making it impossible to be his disciple just using our own abilities. When we confess, "I can't," then we are open for God's "I can." With God’s grace everything is possible.

Life messages: 1) We need to practice true Christian discipleship.  In the book Power Surge, Mike Foss lists "six marks of discipleship for a changing Church" which he expects Christians to practice: 1) daily prayer, 2) weekly worship 2) weekly worship by participating in the Eucharistic celebration 3) diligent study of the Bible 4) service in and beyond the parish, 5) spiritual friendships, and 6) giving time, talents, and resources to the Lord’s work.

2) We need to accept the challenge with heroic commitment: Jesus’ challenge of true Christian discipleship can be accepted only if we practice the spirit of detachment and renunciation in our daily lives.  Real discipleship demands true commitment to the duties entrusted to us by life, circumstances, the community or directly by God Himself, and by loving acts of selfless, humble and sacrificial love offered to all God’s children around us.  Let us remember that all this is possible only if we rely on the power of prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. (Fr. Antony Kadavil).

05 September 2019, 09:00