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Homily notes: 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, 8 September 2019

29 August 2019

Lectionary readings
First reading:
Wisdom 9:13-18
Psalm: 89(90):3-6, 12-14
Second reading: Philemon 9-10, 12-17
Gospel: Luke 14:25-33

Link to readings

Not the easiest of readings today. The First Reading, from the Book of Wisdom (9:13-18), reflects the pessimism about the human body prevalent in some strains of Hellenistic Judaism.

“A perishable body presses down the soul ...”. Such sentiments found their way into Christian spirituality and had a long life there, despite Christianity’s sense of God’s embrace of the material in the Incarnation. A more balanced spirituality will recognise that is it not the body as such but rather selfishness that “presses down the soul”, preventing release of the spirit. More on target is the text’s scepticism about the ability of the human intellect, unaided, to know the mind of God. Such knowledge, essential for our salvation, is the gift of God. It comes in the form of Wisdom, imaged here as a kind of friendly companion that God sends among human beings for their instruction.

RENUNCIATION OF WEALTH

The Gospel, Luke 14:25-33, contains some of the most demanding utterances attributed to Jesus in the New Testament. Certainly, the concluding statement, “None of you can be my disciple unless he or she gives up all possessions”, is the most extreme statement on renunciation of wealth in the Gospel of Luke.

By prefacing the Gospel sequence and the warnings it contains with the passage from Wisdom the Lectionary seems to want to assert: “These extreme utterances of Jesus are nonsense to reason alone. They can only be grasped and accepted by those imbued with divine Wisdom, the gift of God”. As Paul says concerning the “word of the cross” in 1 Cor 1:21-25; 2:14-15, such things are foolishness to the person operating purely on the rational level.

In a sense what Jesus is doing in the Gospel is simply being honest with his disciples. He foresees that those who follow him will inevitably become caught up in the suffering and death he now sees to lie ahead of him. It is no kindness to followers to keep them in ignorance of this. He must prick any illusions they have about where following him might lead.

LOVE FOR MISSION

He does so, initially, in the strong language about “hating” one’s “father, mother, wife, children, etc.”. In this kind of language we must see a Semitic idiom operative. It is not a matter of literally coming to “hate” one’s family members in the way the English expression might suggest. Semitic languages, by and large, do not have a word for “prefer”. When a person prefers one thing over another, he or she is said to “love” one (the thing preferred”) and “hate” the other. “Hate”, then, is simply an expression of rejecting something (possibly something quite good in itself) in favour of something considered more desirable. While it would be wrong to water down the strength of Jesus’ prophetic utterance, what he is saying, then, is that family allegiances ­– so strong in the Palestinian culture of Jesus – have to take second place as far as following him is concerned. Those who adopt his mission, his commitments, and his way of life will inevitably cause some pain and sacrifice to their loved ones, who perhaps have other plans for them.

COUNT THE COST

Hence the need to count the cost – a process Jesus illustrates with the two parables that follow. The force of the one about the builder of the tower derives very much from the sense of societal shame that was so strong in the Palestinian culture of Jesus’s day. The one about the king marching out to war draws on a mathematical calculation valid in the strategy of any age. The early Church may have particularly related these parables to the situation of persecution in which it so often found itself.

Christianity would hardly have survived beyond the first couple of generations if everyone had adopted the very radical concluding challenge about the need for a would-be disciple to give up “all possessions”. The challenge has to be heard in the context of the invitation to the Kingdom central to Jesus’ message. In comparison with this supreme good the losses entailed in the present conditions of discipleship find some proportion. It was consciousness of such divine generosity that led saints such as Francis of Assisi to embrace radical poverty so wholeheartedly.

SUBTLE PERSUASION

St Paul’s message to Philemon in the Second Reading, Philemon 9-10, 12-17, is a masterpiece of subtle persuasion in the name of the Gospel. Rather than simply commanding Philemon to release his runaway slave, Paul seeks to have him look upon Onesimus (who has since become a believer) in an entirely new way: not now as a slave, but as a brother in the Lord. It is from this new way of seeing a person that the consequences for Onesimus’ acceptance and freedom should flow. As so often in the New Testament, right action flows from conversion of mind and heart.

 

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