The Cost of Discipleship
Homily for the Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Back on the last Sunday of the month of June, we began to observe the second part of the Season of Ordinary Time. At that time, I made the observation that the Season of Ordinary Time had as its theme the cost of being a disciple of Jesus. For the past ten Sundays, I have used the second reading of the Lectionary for Sunday Mass (C Cycle) to help us appreciate how the writers of the apostolic era came to understand the person of Jesus whom they had chosen to follow. These readings have identified Jesus as the visible image of God, the firstborn from the dead, and the head of the Church. We have been reminded of what our ancestors have accomplished through their faith or trust in God. We have been taught that we are to fix our sight on Jesus who stands at the finish line of the race that we are all running in this life.
Today the second reading is taken from one of the shortest books in the Christian Scriptures, St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon. The entire letter is concerned with the disposition of a man by the name of Onesimus, a Greek slave of Philemon. After stealing from his master, Onesimus ran away, finding his way to St. Paul who converted him to Christianity and then sent him back to his master. St. Paul offered to pay back everything that the slave had stolen from his master and urged Philemon to welcome Onesimus as a brother in Christ.
Because the letter deals with of slavery, an accepted institution at the time that St. Paul wrote the letter, we have a difficult time reading it. If the man had only been a thief, we might not have had the same difficulty. If we can get beyond our natural distaste for the subject of slavery, we might be able to see that St. Paul is urging Philemon to forgive the runaway slave and to treat him with love. Forgiveness is, after all, one of the most important aspects of our Christian way of life. Consequently, this excerpt from a very short work of the New Testament does, in fact, teach us about the cost of being a disciple of Jesus.
The Gospel for this particular Sunday also offers us an aspect of our discipleship. It too is difficult for us to read because in it Jesus tells us that in order to be his disciples we must hate our father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even our own life. There are no two ways about this statement. In a society and culture which places such importance on family, we would rather simply turn away from such thinking. We ask ourselves, “How could Jesus ask such a thing of us?”
The fact of the matter is that only one person could claim to being more important than our family relationships; namely, our Lord and God. While we are not used to Jesus claiming divinity, we must understand that St. Luke, the author of this Gospel, is offering his understanding of who Jesus is. Remember, St. Luke never met Jesus during his lifetime. He was a Gentile and only came to Christianity through the preaching of St. Paul and the other apostles. In reflecting on the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, St. Luke and the other New Testament writers had come to understand Jesus as God incarnate. While Jesus himself may have never claimed to be divine, by the time the Gospels were written, it had become evident to his followers that this was simply the only explanation that made sense of his life. Consequently, the conclusion calls us to remember that if God does not come first in our lives, we have not adequately understood our relationship to the Divine Person who has created, redeemed, and sanctified us. Jesus is asking us to love him more than all others, to make him the priority. In that light, this harsh language makes more sense. If we claim to be disciples of the Christ, then the Christ must be a priority in our lives, must come before all other relationships. Just as St. Paul reminds Philemon of this, St. Luke reminds us that being a follower of Jesus means walking in the footsteps of our crucified Savior who must come before all others.