The Cost and Conditions of True Discipleship, 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), September 8, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
September 8, 2013
Wis 9:13-18, Philemon 9-10.12-17, Lk 14:25-33

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The Revolution of Faith in Christian Life

The full transformative power of our Christian faith is shown for us in the second reading today, from St. Paul’s letter to Philemon. During St. Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, he met a runaway slave named Onesimus and baptized him. Slaves under Roman law had no rights because they were considered property. They could be condemned to hard labor, punished with blows of the rod and otherwise tortured. Runaway slaves were to be branded with a red hot iron on the forehead with an F (fugitivus, or runaway) and even crucified. It also seems that Onesimus had stolen from Philemon, which is why Paul wrote that if he had wronged him in any way or owes him anything, Philemon should charge that to Paul’s own account.

But as strong as Roman culture, practice and law were, St. Paul told Philemon that Christian faith should be stronger. He was sending Onesimus back to Philemon and asked him to receive him not as a slave but as a brother in the Lord, to welcome him as Philemon would welcome Paul himself. The reality of the indelible mark of baptism on Onesimus’ soul was to be far weightier, Paul suggested, than the branded F that could be placed on his forehead. And we have every reason to believe that that is exactly how Philemon welcomed Onesimus back, otherwise we almost certainly wouldn’t have had this personal letter of St. Paul preserved.

This points to the type of revolution the Christian faith is supposed to work. Our faith in Christ, and what we know he asks of us, is supposed to be the central reference point for how we look at ourselves, how we look at others, and how we make our decisions. Philemon received God’s grace to welcome Onesimus no longer as a piece of property, no longer as someone who had stolen from him, but as a beloved spiritual sibling.

The truth is that the Christian faith is challenging, but, as we see in Philemon’s case, God gives us his help to meet those challenges. Christianity is not so much about what God demands of us but what he offers us to live up to those standards.

Jesus’ call to true Christian commitment

That’s a fitting introduction to what Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel about the type of commitment to our faith that he expects of us. Just as the Christian faith called for a revolution in Philemon’s thinking, decision-making, and all his relationships, so it’s supposed to transform our thinking, our decision-making, and our relationships. Our faith in Jesus is supposed to revolutionize our relationship with our family, our property, our pleasure, even our own life. To be a faithful disciple, he says, is going to cost us dearly. It’s tempting to try to soften Jesus’ words, as if he really didn’t or couldn’t mean them literally, because they are so challenging. We’re tempted to try to reduce the price tag of the faith, as if Jesus were running a Yard Sale and we could haggle the cost down to something we think a bargain. But Jesus meant what he said and in talking to us forthrightly about what it takes to be a faithful disciple, he wasn’t just giving us towering criteria but promising us his help to fulfill them.

Jesus uses two images that set out why he needed to be so straightforward with us. In the images of building a tower and going into battle, he communicates that we need to know what it’s going to take to achieve our objective — in the spiritual life, being a faithful disciple until death and into eternity —  so that we don’t start something without having the spiritual resources and resolve to finish what we’ve started. I think a stronger image today would be a pilot’s setting out for Europe without enough gas to cross the Atlantic. Unless we have a clear idea of the costs of discipleship and are prepared to pay them, Jesus implies, we’re not going to be able to complete the journey of the Christian life. Jesus is calling us to reflect on what means it’s going to take to achieve the end and to will those means.

If our end is truly to be Jesus’ disciple, we’ve got to face three things we’re tempted to overlook or minimize.

Loving Jesus more than we love family members

The first condition is: “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.” In other words, Jesus must be our greatest love.

The word “hate,” in Hebrew, does not mean “detest” but to “put in second place. Jesus, after all, calls us to honor our parents, not hate their guts. Moreover, if he calls us to love even our enemies then we are certainly called to love our siblings. The point of Jesus’ expression is that we must love him more than we love ourselves or our loved ones. Jesus cannot just be a part of our life but the center. The question for us is: When push comes to shove, who is more important to us, God or our husband, or wife, or parents, or kids, or siblings?

The reason why this is a necessary cost is because so many temptations against faith will come from within the family.

One of the most famous examples happens in the Second Book of Maccabees. In the second century BC, the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes IV had conquered Palestine and wanted to extirpate Judaism and have the Jews take up Greek polytheism. He passed an edict mandating everyone to eat pork. A family of a widowed mother with seven sons came forward. They were first tortured with whips and scourges and then subjected to other horrible evils. Eventually the tyrant tried to manipulate the mother’s maternal love for her children by getting her to persuade her child to have mercy on her and not let her see him get tortured and executed. She took advantage of the opportunity to speak and said to her son, “Son, have pity on me, who carried you in my womb for nine months, nursed you for three years, brought you up, educated and supported you to your present age. I beg you, child,” — and here she shocked her executioners — “to look at the heavens and the earth and see all that is in them; then you will know that God did not make them out of existing things; and in the same way the human race came into existence.  Do not be afraid of this executioner, but be worthy of your brothers and accept death, so that in the time of mercy I may receive you again with them.” If she had loved her children more than she loved God, she would have given totally different advice. But because she loved God, she actually loved her children more and encouraged them on the path to heaven, to lose their lives in order to save them.

A second example happens with young people trying to follow their vocations, so many of whom get opposition from their family members. When I was in seminary in Rome, it used to break my heart how many of my fellow future priests came from homes in which their parents opposed, rather than supported their vocations. Last night I traveled into the Archdiocese of Boston to preach a Mass for a young woman entering a monastery today. She had asked me to do so because her parents were having a really difficult time accepting her vocation and she hoped that I might be able to get through to them. I told a story of a young woman I knew who was the youngest of a family of three girls. After the oldest sister got her Master’s degree in Business Administration, she got a lucrative job offer to go to Japan to work for a multinational company. Her parents were upset that she was going to be going thousands of miles away, but they were happy for her, because she was going to be doing something she loved to do and was going to be making a lot of money doing it. When the middle sister graduated from college, she married her college sweetheart who was in the Air Force and they immediately moved thousands of miles away to a base in South Dakota. The parents were likewise very sad to see her go, but they were really happy for her, because she had found a really good husband whom she loved, who loved her, and with whom she was going to be able to have a good life and be happy. When the youngest announced that she was going to be entering into the convent and moving a few hours away from where she grew up, her parents had a very difficult time accepting it and gave her a very hard time, saying they didn’t want to lose her. She replied that they were not going to be losing her any more than they lost her two older sisters. She reminded them that when her eldest sister moved thousands of miles away for money, and when the middle sister moved away from human love, her parents were sad, but they supported them, because, basically, her sisters were happy. But when she had received a spiritual marriage proposal from Jesus himself and was happily going to be going a much shorter distance to another state to share Jesus’ life and love, somehow they were now giving her a hard time. It was basically because her parents loved her more than they loved God and they through her love for God above all other loves was excessive, whereas loving money or a physical husband more than parents was somehow acceptable.

But we can make the application even more practical. I remember one of the shocks early in my priesthood was how many Sunday Mass goers actually missed Mass on Christmas. When I spoke to them and asked them how it was that they who are faithful 52 Sundays a year could miss such an important feast, many divulged that it was because they had family coming over and they needed to prepare food and get the house ready. Obviously hospitality is a really important thing, but we can’t love family more than we love God.

There is clearly a cost to loving Jesus more than all our family members, but Jesus wants to give us his help to do so. And when we love Jesus most, we love our family members more, not less.

Loving Jesus enough to die for him

The second condition is, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Jesus tells us that we cannot be his disciple unless we’re prepared to suffer out of love for him and others.

There are many Christians today who seem to behave as if the life of a disciple is supposed to be easy, as if Jesus said, “Pick up your pillow, take up your teddy bear and warm cuddly blanket and follow me.” Jesus talked, rather, about the Cross.

He stresses that unless we’re prepared to suffer for our faith, we will not be able to finish faithfully the journey of the Christian life.

Again, the clearest example of this is the martyrs, who were prepared to die rather than to sin, who were prepared to embrace the Cross all the way because they knew that the Cross would unite them to Christ. In the ferocious anti-Christian persecutions of the Roman empire, Christians were given the chance to save their lives before a magistrate if all they did was take a pinch of incense and put it on burning charcoals before statues of the pagan gods. They refused. They remained faithful under pressure because they were capable of embracing the Cross. The loved the Lord even more than they loved their life.

Unless we’re intent on embracing the Cross, eventually we’ll reach our breaking point and be unfaithful to Jesus.  Unless we’re prepared to pay the full cost of fidelity, someone will eventually find our price. It might not be 30 pieces of silver, but others will eventually find it.

You have probably heard the sad joke about the beautiful married woman and the millionaire, the premise of which was made into a movie starring Robert Redford, Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore several years ago. A millionaire meets a beautiful married woman from a family with some financial problems and asks if she’d be unfaithful to her husband for a million dollars. She begins to think about how many bills that money could wipe out and eventually consents. After her infidelity, the millionaire takes out a $5 bill and throws it at her. She’s offended. He says to her, “Ma’am, we’ve already established what type of woman you are. Now we’re just haggling about the price.”

For us the question is: Do we have a price that we’re willing to take to be unfaithful to Jesus? Would we be unfaithful to him for a million dollars? A billion? The size of the US debt? Time-and-a-half at work on a Sunday or tickets to the Patriots game?

The only way not to have our own price for selling out the Lord is when we resolve that we would never betray him for any sum of money or any other reason, just like a truly loving husband or a wife would never betray each other now matter what the cost.

Said in another way, the only way we will remain faithful to Jesus is when we have no price, when we’re prepared to die for him, just as he paid the supreme price out of love for us.

The whole purpose of a Catholic parish, the whole ministry of a pastor, is to prepare you ultimately to remain faithful to Jesus even if you were to have to die. You probably know that in the early Church, catechumens were not able to be baptized until they were resolved to remain faithful even during persecution and the threat of torture and death.

Jesus, likewise, wants us to be aware of the cost of discipleship, that we have to be willing to carry the Cross, to die to ourselves, in order to follow him faithfully. But he likewise is willing to give us all the help he knows we need to do so.

Loving Jesus more than our stuff

The third condition is,  “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

We cannot help but think of the Rich Young Man, who when presented by Jesus with the path to true fulfillment through giving up what he owned, bestowing the money on the poor and storing up treasure in heaven and then coming after him, chose his stuff rather than Jesus. Jesus says that we cannot be his disciple unless we’re prepared to choose differently from the Rich Young Man, to give up our possessions for the treasure of Jesus.

Jesus said that we would be as foolish as a man’s building a tower without sufficient supplies and funds, or a king’s going into a battle he cannot win, if we were to try to be his disciple without giving up all we own. He didn’t say it would be “hard” to be his disciple if we continued to grasp on to our material possessions, but impossible. It can’t be done.

This seems to be a shockingly challenging condition, but Jesus was driving at something he had said elsewhere in the Gospel.  “No one can serve two masters; for he will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other,” he said during the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 6:24). He then gave that sentence a clear practical application: “You cannot serve both God and money” (Mt 6:24). Unless we give up our love of money, unless we make the choice not to serve money, then we cannot be his faithful follower.

Jesus does not mean that we necessarily have to liquidate our bank accounts tomorrow. But what he is saying is that all of our possessions need to be given to God, to be put at the service of his kingdom. All we have and are must be part of our service of God, our unselfish love of him and others.

One application of what this principle is about happens very frequently today with regard to those who work on Sundays rather than come to Mass. So many say they “have to work,” pretending as if they really don’t have to put God first on the Lord’s day and come to worship him. Very often this happens to earn money and what money can buy, because at a practical level, people prefer money to trusting in God’s providence. That’s why Jesus says we cannot remain faithful unless we’re prepared to renounce all of our possessions. Is there anything we couldn’t give up to follow God? If there is, then we know that that thing is, in fact, our deity, not the one true God.

Jesus who calls us to love him above all our things is prepared to give us all the help he knows we need to be poor in spirit, but we have to receive that gift and act in accordance with it. The price of discipleship is, in some sense, the actual value of all we own.

There’s no such thing as a cheap Christianity

These are all, what we might say, are preconditions we need to remain faithful to the Lord as a disciple: we need to love him most, we need to be willing to suffer with him who suffered for us, we need to treat him as the greatest treasure, worth more than all the possessions or “kingdoms” of the world. If we’re faithful in these matters, the odds are that we’ll faithful overall. But if we are unfaithful here, Jesus is saying, we have no chance of being his good and faithful servants, especially in the midst of severe temptation. There’s no such thing, in other words, as a “bargain discipleship,” a “Christianity on the cheap,” in which we’re somehow able to have God and all our idols, too. Such a Christianity really doesn’t exist. It’s not enough to be a “fan” or a “groupie” of Jesus. To believe in Jesus means to believe and do what he says, not just when it’s easy to do or pleasing, but even and especially when it’s hard and challenging. Jesus brings these three conditions up because they’re among the typical compromises people of his era, of our era, and of every era try to make. “I can be a good Christian,” the devil tries to tempt us, “while putting other loves ahead of him, without the cross, and still being attached to mmmon.” Jesus tells us that we cannot. To be Jesus’ disciple, to enter into his kingdom, requires a hard choice, a decisive choice. One has got to be willing, as Jesus says elsewhere, to “pluck out one’s eyes,” “to cut off one’s hands” if that’s what it takes to follow him (Mt 5:29-30). We have got to be willing even to lose our life, because it is only the one who loses his life that will find it again it God (Mk 8:35)

The formation of a plan of life

There’s one last thing I want to bring up from today’s Gospel because it’s crucial to what Jesus teaches us today. There’s an important verb. Jesus says called to “reflect” before we build a tower, and “consider” before we go into battle. We’re called to think about the costs. But we’re also called to have a strategy. To build a tower or anything else, we need an architectural plan, a budget and supplies. To win a war, we need a battle plan, soldiers and training. To cross the Atlantic without crashing, we need a plane, a pilot and sufficient fuel. Likewise if we’re intending to try to build a tower to heaven, to be victorious in the battle against principalities and powers, to ascend into the heavens, cross the sea of death and land in eternity, we need to have a plan that’s adequate and we need to follow that plan.

Too many Christians “wing it” with regard to their spiritual life. Tom Brady didn’t begun an NFL quarterback winging it. He had a goal and he willed the meals to that goal. He worked out. He ate differently than others. He practiced. He got coached. He learned from his mistakes. He watched film and so many other things. We need to be as serious about our life as he is about the game of football. Life is a marathon and we need to approach it like we would approach a marathon. Some Christians approach it like a high school tennis teammate of mine approached the Boston marathon back in 1987. He decided the day before the marathon he’d just run it. He didn’t train. He didn’t prepare. He thought he could run with tennis sneakers. Even though he was an athlete, he ended up getting injured about a third of the way through, was in enormous pain, it took him weeks to recover and he was lost to the team. Just as in order to finish a marathon successfully, we need to train to have the right equipment, to eat the right things, to develop stamina, so with our spiritual life there are various parts of our training and preparation. This is what is called a “plan of life,” which is a series of practices we need to do in order to finish the race of life. Some are every day. Some are weekly. Some monthly. Some yearly. But they need to be done.

I’d like to propose to you the basic components that I think should be part of a lay person’s plan of life. In giving you these today, my intention is not to have you try to do them all tomorrow, but to begin doing one or more that you’re presently not doing and over the course of time, just like a good athlete, start to add other elements.

On a daily basis, I’d encourage you to begin your day, as soon as you wake up and get out of bed, with a morning offering, a prayer that goes something like this, “Thank you, Lord, for the gift of another day. Help me to live this day in union with you and offer to you all my work. You already know everyone I’ll meet today; help me to see you in them. You know already all the temptations I’ll face; strengthen me to choose you when tempted.” Then one can add any particular prayers needed for appointments, tests, presentations, that you’ll have on that given day for which you especially need God’s help. The second daily practice is at 20 minutes of quiet mental prayer, opening yourself up to God’s guidance and growing in the loving friendship he seeks to establish with us. Third is to unite yourself to the Mass, which is the source and summit of our Christian life. Even if you cannot attend daily Mass, remember that Christ is coming down from heaven to the altar in order to lift us up to heaven. Unite your prayers, your work, your sufferings to Christ’s being offered on all the altars of the world that day. Fourth, read five to ten minutes of Sacred Scripture each day, to let your life happen according to the Lord’s word. Fifth, unite yourself to Mary, whom Jesus on the Cross gave to us in order to help us to grow to be like him. If you can pray the Rosary, great; if you don’t believe you have time for the Rosary, at least pray the Angelus, or a Memorare or a few Hail Marys. Finally examine your conscience each night before you go to bed. This is a different type of examination than we do before confession, where we’re just looking for sins. It’s an examination to see how aware and responsive we were throughout the day to God’s constant presence. It should lead to three verbs: first, “thank you, Lord,” for all the ways you were there for me today; “sorry, Lord,” for the times I didn’t remain in your presence and chose against what you were asking; and “help me, Lord,” to do better tomorrow. Those are the basic things we should be trying to do each day of our marathon.

On a weekly basis, obvious there’s Sunday Mass and there ought to be some scheduled in times of charity, so that our charity isn’t just happenstance but that we’re prioritizing serving and helping others.

On a yearly basis, we should make a retreat, a weekend away or a few days during summer vacation when we focus entirely on going away with the Lord from the crowd and bustle of life, to be with him, to examine our life with him, to see where we are compared to last year, and what resolutions we want to make to be more united with him in the next year. There are a lot of good retreat programs, for different types of people and different types of needs. But we should make a retreat.

Finally there are some practices we should be trying to do “always.” One is to try to be aware of God’s presence with us at every moment. A second is to remember that we are God the Father’s beloved sons and daughters, what we call awareness of our divine filiation. A third is to seek to love God and love others.

Jesus, who calls us to “reflect,” to “consider,” and to have an adequate plan, will give us the help we need to make and keep one, especially today when he reminds us of how important one is to remain faithful in our discipleship. This is what will help us to build a tower that reaches heaven, to win the war against principalities and powers, to ascend into the heavens and arrive safely on the eternal runway. This is the path toward real human happiness. This is the revolution the Christian faith brings about.

The reward is always greater than the price tag

Jesus reminds us today that is always a great cost to our discipleship, but the rewards are even greater. Jesus promised us as much in the Gospel after Peter asked him, “Lord, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus responded, “Truly I tell you, … everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life” (Mt 19:29). There’s no greater promise than that! Like a man building a tower or a king heading into battle, we must count the cost of discipleship and with God’s help, pay the price, knowing that in return we will receive Christ, who is the pearl of great value and the treasure buried in the field, worth sacrificing all we are and have to obtain!