23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Mellowing unto Renunciation and Discipleship
Readings: Wisdom 9:13-18b; Psalm 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14-17; Phmn 9-10, 12-17; Luke 14:25-33
Someone commented at breakfast this morning that these are difficult readings today. And indeed they are. Especially in a modern Asian context, where the family is as much valued as it is under threat, how are we to understand Jesus’ stunning declaration in the 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? Do we really have to renounce all earthly ties in order to follow Jesus?
As is often the case, the other readings come to our aid by helping to give some direction to our reflection. And the aid comes through an old man. To be more specific, we refer to Paul in the second reading. Here he is trying to engineer the freedom of a slave, Onesimus, who also happens to be a fellow Christian. But here is a Paul who adopts a noticeably different tone than what we may be used to hearing from him. In contrast to some other places in his letters, here is a Paul who actually begs more than he scolds. Could he be mellowing with age? And not just with age, but perhaps also with the experience of being a prisoner for Christ?
I’m reminded of another recent mealtime conversation, in this case, over dinner. Among those at table was an eighty-year-old priest, who also happens to be a famous theologian. At one point he spoke of how, when he was younger, he had been an ardent preacher and supporter of the social gospel. He shared that he had even gone onto the streets in his cassock to be with the people as together they protested the dictatorship that was then in power. And they had succeeded. The dictator had eventually been overthrown – a wonderful triumph of and for the people, one that the church had helped to engineer. But, sadly, he did not think that things were that much different now. He spoke painfully of how, although the personalities might have changed, the unjust structures remained. Indeed, he thinks that injustice and corruption are present now on a scale even greater than before.
What are we to make of our elderly friend’s sharing? Are we to think that perhaps the passing of the years without any perceived improvement in the state of his beloved nation has led to disillusionment? Or is there not rather a certain mellowing that age, experience and sacrifice have brought about, a mellowing not unlike that which we see in the Paul of the second reading?
For the point of the theologian’s sharing is not that the church should renounce all attempts at battling injustice, at changing social structures, at working for the good of others. No. All that work is, of course, important, and must go on. But the point our wise friend was making was, I believe, two-fold. First, although it is important to work for social justice, the church’s primary mission has to do less with the change of structures than with the transformation of hearts. Without the latter, any external changes can only be temporary and cosmetic. And this leads on to a second point.
Which of us, on our own, has the necessary resources and talents and skills to bring about the required interior transformation? In undertaking such a project, do we not instead need to remember those poignant and profound words of Christ in the gospel of John (15:5): without me you can do nothing? As Christians, even as we might rely on every possible earthly resource at our disposal, our trust and our hope must ultimately be in the One who not only preached and healed, but also suffered and died, so that our hearts might be changed and so that we might all have the fullness of life.
As precious and important as our earthly resources and relationships, and even our dreams of an earthly heaven are, they all find their true value only in Christ who must come first, above all dreams and things and people. Such that, if given a choice between Christ and father or mother, wife or child, our answer must be the former, even if we have somehow to suffer as a result. Isn’t this what Jesus means in the gospel, when he says whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple?
Of course, such a renunciation of all that we hold dear with an accompanying embrace of the cross is far from easy. It calls for a wisdom that often seems to come to us only very gradually. Is it any accident that these insights are those of an aged theologian who has mellowed with the passing of the years? When we are younger do we not tend to have greater confidence, whether or not it is rightly placed, in our own ability to change things and people? Doesn’t this make renunciation that much more difficult?
And yet, the determining factor is perhaps not so much age as it is an openness to the wisdom that comes from God. As we heard in the first reading today, who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom, and sent your holy spirit from on high? And thus were the paths of those on earth made straight. It is only with this wisdom that we can grasp the true value of all that we do. It is only with this wisdom that we can see how central is Christ and his Cross, more so even than our closest relatives, our dearest possessions, our deepest desires and dreams…
Which is why our psalm today is so appropriate. It gives us the words with which to pray for what we need: Lord teach us to number our days aright -- to see things in proper perspective -- that we may gain wisdom of heart…
Today, sisters and brothers, we pray that through our respective life experiences God might also cause us to mellow unto a true discipleship of Christ.
How is God bringing this about in us today?