23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Wisdom 9:13-18b; Ps 90; Philemon 9-10, 12-17; Luke 14:25-33
Jesus taught: “Try to enter through the narrow way” and one can say that all of Jesus teaching is about this ‘Narrow Way’. Some of the things that Jesus taught seem very narrow, almost impossible. Case in point: today’s Gospel! “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.” Notice – Jesus does not say, “Let me explain that to you – it’s kind of radical.” And to our ears it is, even shocking!
If Jesus meant those words as they sound to us, then they cancel out anything he ever said about love. And with that, the Sacred Word loses its meaning; it ceases to be “The Good News”.
For the people of Jesus’ time the verb “to hate” did not mean what it means for us today. For us, to hate means to loathe, to detest, to have animosity – obviously it is a very strong, negative feeling. For Jesus’ audience it meant: to put someone or something in the second place and the Lord in first place. What the Lord is saying is: in all our loyalties, in all our relationships the claim of Jesus and the Gospel not only takes first place but, in reality, redefines them. We are not to love people less but to love them in Christ.
To hate, in this passage, means that this will involve some detaching, some letting go but never not loving.
The second reading – a portion of Paul’s Letter to Philemon – is a perfect example of this kind of hate. Through a very delicate letter, carefully worded, Paul writes to his well-to-do friend and fellow Christian, Philemon, and asks him to do something very difficult. It will mean hating his own life, that is, detaching himself from very human but unchristian feelings, surely, anger, perhaps rage, revenge, a desire to punish.
Philemon had a slave, Onesimus, who had stolen from him and run off. Now, Paul, who calls Onesimus his child sends this man back and strongly invites Philemon, not only not to punish him but to have him back no longer as a slave, in Paul’s words: “but more than a slave, a brother…” And in a most personal way Paul adds, “So, if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me.” That is quite a request: “…welcome him as you would me.”
In very loving words, Paul applies pressure and since we do not possess Philemon’s response, we have no way of knowing how this prominent Christian acted. Did he give in to his own anger, ignore the letter or did he, with a bit of difficulty, swallow his pride and hate his own life by welcoming Onesimus as his brother. Such a welcome would be kind of a revolutionary kindness to someone who had been a slave and a thief. What do you think Philemon did? What would you do? What would I do? It would not be easy.
All of life is relational. All of us relate to others by blood, by friendship, by our humanity; it is impossible to live and not relate in some way with others, even if it is only a nod. All of us have loyalties, feelings of devoted attachment and affection, loyalties that we cherish. The question that is raised today for us through these readings is: What place does God have in my relationships, in my loyalties? In first place as the God of my life? One loyalty among many? Somewhere near the top or actually, near the bottom, the least important?
Of course, there is a further question: Why? Without the “why”, without looking at our life honestly, how can we grow in faith – that is, if I really want to grow in my faith life. What place DOES God have in my life? Could it be better? Do I care?
Psalm 90 is the Responsorial Psalm for today and the last verse provides a prayer, a desire of the heart if we want to live Jesus’ way – “Fill us at daybreak with your kindness, that we may shout for joy and gladness all our days. And may the gracious care of the Lord our God be ours” – be yours, be mine!