23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) – September 8, 2019
St. Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS
Wisdom 9:13-18b; Psalm 90:3-6, 12-14, 17; Philemon 9-10, 12-17; Luke 14:25-33
In our Gospel today, Jesus really sticks it to us, says some things that, especially as Americans, can really rub us the wrong way. Because the way he says it, what he says, forces us to deal with it. We may have missed it, but Jesus addresses this message to each one of us. “Great crowds were traveling with Jesus” (Luke 14:25). That’s the first line of our Gospel. And how easily that line can describe each of us. “Great crowds were traveling with Jesus.” They are people who are curious, “Who is this guy? Let’s follow him and see what he’s up to.” They’re curious, nosy, maybe just want to be entertained. It’s like us watching all those reality shows and following all of these Youtube and internet sensations. We do it because it fills the time, it’s entertaining, we’re curious to see what it’s like in the lives of the rich and famous.
But with Jesus, it’s different. With Jesus, traveling around with him, just physically following him around, having a mild curiosity about him or using him as a sort of entertainment—all of this is not enough! It can be a beginning, but it is not enough! Because look what Jesus says to these crowds (and again, place yourself in the position of the crowd). Jesus turns to the crowds and lays it down, “If anyone comes to me without hating [his family].…Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me.…anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Hate your family. Take up your cross, carry your suffering, embrace discomfort. Renounce your possessions. These are the laws (if you will) of discipleship. And these laws relativize every other aspect of our life, everything.
We hear these laws of discipleship and think, “Weelll…that seems like a lot,” or, “That doesn’t seem like it’s such a good idea,” or, “How about I be a disciples and love my family, and avoid suffering if I can, and not renounce all my possessions.” We want to follow Jesus, but we want to follow him without giving everything else up. Jesus is just one other thing among many. Like the crowds, we might enjoy traveling around with Jesus, we might be a Christian…but let’s not get crazy, am I right? We want to maintain this “freedom” to forge our own path, “freedom” to do what we think is best. And before anything else, you just have to acknowledge that! We may want to follow Jesus, but we also want the “freedom” to determine the path! We want to follow Jesus, but only so long as it doesn’t cost us too much. We want the freedom to decide what we think is best, and we expect God to understand. But Jesus Christ “fully reveals man to himself” (GS 22); Jesus counterintuitively makes the path to our fulfillment easier…as in, he gives us the path! But Jesus bluntly and unequivocally rejects this “forge your own path” mentality. And he lays down the “Law of Discipleship” and says, “Hating one’s family, taking up our cross/suffering/discomfort, renouncing our possessions. That’s what it’s going to take.”
When we first hear this, I think our initial, knee-jerk reaction is to say, “Oh man, God and religion…just always trying to control us!” God and Jesus become these figures that we perceive as trying to subdue us, domineer our lives, suppress our freedom! But that’s not the case! As we hear from St. Irenaeus, “The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God” (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses). God’s glory doesn’t come from us being subdued, but from our becoming fully alive—that’s what God is after! God entering into our lives doesn’t mean we become oppressed and sad, no! Look at the image of the burning bush: at the same time illuminated and burning, but not consumed. When God comes close, when we allow the Lord into our lives, we are not consumed! Rather, the closer God gets the more radiant and alive we become. So many of the viewpoints that we hear against believing in God, against the Church—we hear that God is a threat to human flourishing (which utterly contradicts the God revealed to us in Sacred Scripture). But as we see, when Jesus Christ comes, when God comes close to us, in the Incarnation—we see man fully alive, the God-Man.
Why is this so hard for us to accept? To really, truly accept? We may agree with it, you may be sitting there and thinking, “Well, yeah, I mean I guess that allowing God into my life is a good thing.” But why is this Law of Discipleship still so hard to follow?
I think a lot of it has to do with how we understand our freedom. Here is the Western world, especially in the United States, we love freedom. Love it. Wanna make a good red-blooded American cry? Give an impassioned speech about freedom. But our idea of freedom comes from places we don’t expect. John Locke, a British philosopher in the 17th century who really influenced the Founding Fathers—John Locke said, “So far as a Man has a power to think, or not to think; to move, or not to move, according to the preference or direction of his own mind, so far is a man free” (E2-5 II.xxi.8: 237). What’s he saying? He’s saying, “If I can choose to do what I want without anyone telling me what to do, then I’m free.” I’m free if I can choose to go to a baseball game or to the movies; if I can root for the Chiefs or the Broncos. Take it just a slight step forward and you hear things like this: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, of the mystery of human life” (U.S. Supreme Court, Casey vs. Planned Parenthood, 1992). Do you know who said that? Justice Kennedy of the Supreme Court in Casey vs. Planned Parenthood, the case which could have overturned Roe vs. Wade but instead upheld it. Why? Because in order to be free, being free means having “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, of the mystery of human life.” Why do I bring this up? Because if this is what we think freedom is, if this is how we understand freedom, then God’s Law, by necessity, is a threat to my freedom! I can not longer choose, I have to do what someone else says!
Contrast that with Biblical freedom. Biblical freedom, true freedom, is the freedom for excellence, for flourishing, for becoming fully alive. It is a disciplining of desire to make the achievement of the good first possible, and then effortless (c.f., Servais Pinckaers). Let me say that again. True freedom is a disciplining of desire to make the achievement of the good first possible, and then effortless. Let me give you an example. Right now I’m up here as a relatively free speaker of English; I can say pretty much anything I want to say in English. But in Spanish, especially when I first started learning, when I first got to the parish, I was “shackled” by my incapacity to say what I wanted to say. I mean, I was terrified to do the simplest things in Spanish, like make a phone call in Spanish. And so I had to learn a lot of grammatical rules, and study, and discipline myself. But now, now I am much more free to say what I want to say. Another example: as many of you know I play the cello. When I first started playing, I sounded like garbage. But over time, as I learned the rules and laws (if you will) of playing the cello; as I learned the disciplines, playing the cello became effortless. I became free to play almost anything. I didn’t learn Spanish or to play the cello freely because I just said, “I’m going to choose to say whatever I want and play however I want to play.” No. I submitted to the rules, to the laws…and in that way became free.
Do you see now why the Law of Discipleship shouldn’t be interpreted as oppressive, or a test to see how obedient we are, or anything like that! No! The glory of God is not a submissive, shackled, imprisoned person; it is man fully alive! This law Christ gives us, if it is truly from God, can only result in our becoming fully alive! If we are more than just a crowd of people traveling with Jesus, if we are truly disciples, in relationship to the Lord, following his teaching, listening to his “laws,” then this Law of Discipleship is something we should embrace. “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9); “Hating [one’s family]…carrying one’s cross…and renouncing all his possessions,” this is what one must do (Luke 14).
If we live with an American and Modern understanding of freedom, then this is crazy-talk! It would mean so much sacrifice. (Family) How many of your kids run your life? How many of you place everything about your family and everyone in your family above everything else? I know parents that think taking their child to a soccer tournament on a Sunday in Kansas City is more important than mass. (Cross) Or how many of us try so hard to avoid our cross, try to avoid suffering or making sacrifices? How many of us will do anything to avoid any discomfort? Sometimes the hardest sacrifice isn’t saying “yes” to something, it’s saying “no” to three other things by saying “yes.” (Possessions) Or how many of us are so concerned with the newest whatever that we want to buy, that our entire life is consumed by it? The list goes on and one. But again, with an American understanding that freedom is about choosing what I want, and defining my existence, my meaning and the meaning of the universe, the mystery of human life—then yes, what Jesus says is crazy-talk!
But if we begin to see freedom as this ability for our own flourishing, then this law of discipleship begins to make sense, and become something we can embrace.
Don’t hear what I’m not saying! This doesn’t mean that what Jesus commands is easy. It’s hard, it will cost you, sacrifice is inevitable. Like the parable he tells, no one constructs a tower without first calculating the cost. And the cost here is everything. The parable pretty much says, “Don’t start if there is not a willingness to spend all that you have.”
When I preach, I always preach from my experience. There has been and still exist so many “family members” I hold on to, or “crosses” I do not accept, “possessions” I cannot renounce. I’m often part of those “crowds of people” just traveling with Christ. Yes, he initially turns to the crowd and says, “You are here, great, this is a start. But why are you here?” And then he lays down the law: “I wish it could be easy, that you could just do whatever you want. But that’s not really what’s going to lead to your freedom, to your flourishing, to the fullness of life.” The law, the law that counterintuitively frees us, is this Law of Discipleship