Sunday, September 05, 2010

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Worth Playing For?

Readings: Wisdom 9:13-18b; Psalm 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14-17; Philemon 9-10, 12-17; Luke 14:25-33
Picture: cc CBS

Dear sisters and brothers, have you ever watched Survivor? Those who have will know that in this reality TV game show a bunch of people allow themselves to be stranded for more than a month at some remote location. They willingly say goodbye to family and friends, and are left to fend for themselves, with little more than the clothes on their backs. Not only do they have to construct their own shelters, and catch and cook their own food, they also have to compete with one another in physically and mentally demanding challenges in an effort to keep from getting voted off the show. In the words of the show’s tagline, they have to outwit, outplay and outlast one another. It’s not a game for wimps. As the days go by, and more and more of them get voted off, the remaining participants grow visibly thinner and thinner for lack of nourishment. Some get sick or injured. Others break down emotionally. And all of this on national television.

Even so, despite the difficult conditions, there seems to be no shortage of people willing to play. As you know, the show’s 21st season – Survivor: Nicaragua – will begin airing in a couple of weeks. Why do people do it? The reason is obvious enough. Not only do they stand a chance of winning a million dollars, they also attain instant celebrity status. All their suffering is not for nothing. Which is also something that the show’s host, Jeff Probst, continually reminds the participants. At the start of each challenge, after having shown the players what they stand to win, Jeff always asks them the same question in three words: worth playing for? Is this worth renouncing the companionship of family and friends for? Is this worth being exposed to the elements and suffering malnourishment for? Most of the time, the survivors’ answer is yes. Yes, of course it’s worth playing for!

Like the survivors, it would appear that we Christians also need continually to ask ourselves a similar question. For the spiritual life is not any less demanding than the game show. As Jesus, our host in today’s gospel reading, tells us: anyone who does not hate family and friends, and even his own life, anyone who does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. The demand is clear and uncompromising. The word hate is used to emphasize that in all situations, the Christian must act in such a way as to place the Lord first, above even family and self. This, of course, is not an easy thing to do. Which is why, Jesus insists that those of us who wish to follow him need to examine our commitment. Like the survivors, we need continually to ask ourselves: Is it worth playing for?

But, in order to answer this question, we need to reflect more deeply upon the game we are playing, upon what exactly it is we are being asked to sacrifice, and for what reason. Notice, for example, how Jesus concludes his speech in today’s gospel with a call to renunciation. Anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple. With this statement, Jesus helps us to understand what it means for a Christian to hate family and friends, and even one’s own life. Could it be that what we are being called to hate, what we are being called to renounce, is our tendency to see and treat everything and everybody in our lives as possessions, as things that we can use purely to further our own selfish interests? When spouses take one another for granted, for example. Or when parents ignore their children’s dreams but pressure them to fulfill the parents’ own desires. Or when siblings fight over their inheritance. In such situations, aren’t people relating to one another purely in terms of possessions?

Also, we may do well to remember that even when we might have a legitimate right of ownership over something, that right does not entitle us to use that thing without regard to the interests of others. Although the Church recognizes the individual’s right to private property, she also tells us that this right does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of humanity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that in our use of things we should regard the external goods we legitimately own not merely as exclusive to ourselves but common to others also, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as ourselves (CCC 2403-4).

Our readings today invite us to reflect upon what happens when we relate to things and people purely as possessions. When we do this, everything and everyone in our lives become obstacles preventing us from knowing and fulfilling God’s plan for us. As the first reading tells us: the corruptible body burdens the soul and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns, such that we are unable to conceive what the Lord intends. In order to seek and to fulfill God’s will, we must first be willing to renounce our possessions, so that the holy spirit from on high can transform these obstacles into pathways to God.

This is precisely what Paul is asking his friend Philemon to do in the second reading. Writing from prison, Paul asks Philemon to renounce his right of ownership over the slave Onesimus, whom Paul had earlier converted to Christianity. According to Paul, if Philemon is willing to do this, Philemon’s relationship with Onesimus will be transformed. Paul writes: Perhaps that is why he was taken away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but… a brother... in the Lord. What Paul is asking Philemon to do is to renounce a possession in order to gain a relative. By giving up his claim over Onesimus, Philemon would be fulfilling God’s plan. He would be allowing the Holy Spirit to transform the obstacle of slavery into a pathway of love in the Lord. For this to happen much depends upon whether or not Philemon is free enough to say yes. Much depends upon how he answers the question: Is this new relationship in the Lord worth playing for?

It thus becomes clear, sisters and brothers, that what is at stake, what we Christians are playing for, are the very things that we prayed for earlier in our opening prayer. You will recall that we asked God our Father to give us true freedom and to bring us to the inheritance you promised, the inheritance that is the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to proclaim, the Kingdom in which all bonds of possessiveness and domination will have been transformed into relationships of love in the Lord. In this Kingdom, people will no longer be forced to work as undocumented aliens in a foreign land, under unsafe and unhealthy conditions, for less than a living wage. In this Kingdom, the environment will no longer be polluted for the sake of economic advancement. In this Kingdom, the love and peace of God will prevail over all.

Sisters and brothers, there are many people who are willing to endure considerable suffering just for the sake of winning a million dollars – before taxes – and the title of Sole Survivor. Can we who claim to be followers of Christ do any less, especially when what’s at stake is the very Kingdom of God?

Sisters and brothers, what do you think? Is this worth playing for today?

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