23rd Sunday, cycle C:
Wisdom 9: 13-18b
Philemon 9-10, 12-17
Luke 14: 25-33
We are familiar with the terms, “mass hysteria.” or “group psychology.” Or you’ve heard the myth of the tiny arctic rodent, a lemming, and their behavior of mass suicide when they migrate in large herds, following blindly even to their own deaths. We see large groups moving to the beat of music during rock concerts, or young girls screaming uncontrollably in the days when the Beatles arrived on the scene here in America. There's no doubt that sports fans can be whipped to a frenzy during an intense football or soccer match. We do it with our political candidates and nearly deify them at times. We certainly know on the darker side, that such tyrants as Adolf Hitler used his gathering of the masses to propagate his sinister message of ethnic purity with evil success.
But, it isn’t all dark by any means. If you’ve ever been to a public Papal audience at the Vatican, the vast crowd which gathers takes on an almost carnival – like atmosphere. When the Pope appears, everyone is energized and rushes to get as close as possible to the “pope mobile” as he passes by. Watch out for those Italian nuns by the way!
In the same way, we hear of large or massive crowds wherever Jesus went. He could barely find solitude. Remember the miraculous feeding of more than 5,000 with bread and fish, the raising of Lazarus, the Sermon on the Mount, his entrance to Jerusalem riding on a donkey as the crowds proclaimed, “Hosanna!” In this Sunday’s Gospel from Luke we hear: “Great crowds were traveling with Jesus . . .” Quite the superstar, this Jesus.
What was it about his presence, his word, his power that brought so many to seek him out? Was it mass hysteria? People following like sheep or lemmings? Jesus does refer to himself as the Shepherd and uses images of sheep in reference to his followers as, “sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus taught with great authority and his miraculous power just added to his attraction and mystery. But, something more fundamental is at work. What is more fundamental we find ultimately in the Cross and Resurrection so even before those salvation events, he connected discipleship with what was yet to come.
Our Lord never minced his words when it came to the more personal subject of discipleship. In this Sunday’s Gospel we hear: “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 . . .” Well, there go the crowds! Not exactly.
We must first take into stock Hebrew hyperbole; exaggeration to make a point. It’s true that Jesus was asking total loyalty; not a lukewarm following of the crowd in mindless pursuit of an illusive dream. It does seem extreme – to hate my very parents and siblings is simply not in the picture. If that’s what it takes to be a disciple of the Lord, then I would much rather disappear into the general population.
Today’s second reading from Paul to Philemon, a very brief personal letter actually, in support of “my child Onesiums” who “I am sending him, that is my own heart,” as a “brother.” No, Paul did not have any biological children for he was never married. But it is about the young slave Onesimus that he speaks with such affection – nearly as a father. So, Paul certainly did not follow the requirement of Jesus to “hate” your family members.
Jesus’ intent is to call us to detachment, not to destroy precious family ties. To see the conditions of discipleship as a process to clear away obstacles and attachments to “possessions,” for example, that keeps us from standing out in the crowd. Our pursuit to be noticed by others, our friendships and family ties, may even be labled as possessions if they are obstacles to my spiritual life. The great saints of our Church are not those who simply hid among the general population but stood apart, rose above, or went way beyond their level of comfort in order to follow Jesus. Granted such saintly examples inspire us but we are not sure that we have the courage, time, and faith to follow Jesus so literally.
We can’t all be spiritual Olympic athletes such as Blessed Mother Teresa or Francis of Assisi. The vast majority of us are simply trying to get by day by day. Although I have served as priest and pastor for a number of years, I have been successful at some things but I well know my limitations. As much as I love music, for example, singing is definitely not my forte. I have mercy on my parishioners and keep it to a minimum. However, in the shower, I'm Placido Domingo!
But, one thing seems true for all of us. When we hear the word of God proclaimed, share in the Eucharistic feast, find ourselves called to personal prayer, are faced with a problem whether from ourselves or others, we cannot sit by idly or simply fade into the crowd. We are called to holy living.
To follow the Lord demands a response. Yet, I know I resist. There might be resistance from family members, from parishioners, from my fellow priests, but more likely than not, for most of us, we only need look in the mirror to find the greatest obstacle. To do good and avoid evil is a full time job for sure. Jesus call to, “anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions . . .” is most certainly not a negative opportunity but an invitation to detach from attachments, live a more simple life, and to concentrate on what it means to be an authentic Catholic and Christian; to “love and serve the Lord,” each in our own way. This is an extension of our Eucharist – to be the presence of Christ to others. To do all with love as an ambassador for the Lord counteracts any hate among us.
I found this rephrasing of Jesus’ words in the Gospel today that may be of some help:
“If anyone of you comes to me without hating your friends, associates, and any part of the culture around you, and even your own life – insofar as through these you are being shaped by any values contrary to the Gospel – you cannot be my disciple.” (Online ministries: Creighton University).
Although we find comfort and safety in the crowds, Jesus calls us to stand apart from the masses when necessary. How true is my loyalty to Christ as his disciple?