Sunday Homily – 23rd Sunday C
Philemon 9b-10, 12-17
It’s September again, and so many people in Australia are thinking about which football team will win the premiership this year. It’s a time of both agony and ecstasy, as we see our hopes and dreams for our favourite team either smashed to pieces bit by bit, or else completely and deliriously fulfilled. when our team of heroes is making its victory lap around the sacred turf of the Grand Final ground.
To be a league footballer takes an exceptional dose of raw talent, skills in marking, kicking, passing, reading the play, running, jumping, and tackling, as well as at least a little bit of sheer luck. What is often not realized or not given enough attention, is the tremendous personal cost of becoming and staying a champion. The many nights of laborious practice at the ground, the fitness training, the sacrifice of recreation and leisure time, the self-discipline, the humiliation of being singled out by the coach for some merciless correction, the disruptions to family life, putting a promising career on hold, and deferring some important studies, etc., etc.
To become the best in other occupations, careers, and pursuits, involves just as much cost. The great novelist, Charles Dickens, author of such favourites as A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, and The Old Curiosity Shop, did not receive a cent for his first nine novels. Lawrence Tibbet, a star tenor at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, was so poor before his dazzling career took off, that on his first visit to the Opera, his ticket took him to the Standing Room only section. John Rockefeller, famous for both his fortune and his philanthropy, started life hoeing potatoes at four cents an hour. Every good wife, every good husband, and every good parent knows just how much it costs to hang in there, doing all that has to be done on what has been labelled ‘the terrible every day’. It costs energy, it costs courage, it costs feeling inadequate, it costs being misunderstood, and it costs doing one’s very best regardless of the outcome.
It’s the same with being a follower of Jesus. It’s going to cost, it does cost, and it costs a heap. It costs being both single-minded and single-hearted. That’s very clear from his teaching today. It’s a message put in stark words. Jesus speaks of walking in his footsteps carrying our cross as we go. He speaks of giving up our possessions. He even speaks of ‘hating’ our father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters.
Does he possibly mean us to take that last one literally? Surely not! For isn’t one of two basic commandments, to love our neighbour as another self? And isn’t our neighbour our very own family, first of all, those whom we call ‘our nearest and dearest’?
To make sense of what Jesus means, but without watering down his message, we must realize that Jesus speaks as a first-century Middle Eastern Jew. As such, he gets the attention of his listeners by using shocking, even exaggerated images. So, when he tells us that we must be prepared to ‘hate’ the members of our own family, we don’t take his words literally. We understand that to mean we must not prefer anyone else to him, that he must be the number one love of our lives. Even if our choice to follow him and belong to the Church, his community gives us grief and costs us a lot of hostility from family and friends, we must not flinch from our commitment.
In the early Christian communities, this was often the case. Those who took the plunge of getting baptized, joining the Church, and living like Jesus, often found themselves dumped and ostracized, by family and friends The same thing has happened in every other century. The same thing is still happening today. You might even know of people who have been thrown out of their own home when they announced they were joining a Church and told never to come back home again!
Being a disciple of Jesus is neither a hobby nor a part-time activity that we pick up when we are interested, and drop when we get bored or when the going gets tough. The opposite applies, that ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going.’ Being baptized is belonging permanently to the family of Jesus, that new family that he spoke of, in which the basis of the relationship is not having the same blood or the same genes but ‘hearing the word of God and keeping it’.
So being baptized is like being married. It’s a life-long relationship, an ongoing relationship with the person of Jesus, and with the other members of his body on earth, our fellow Christians.
The bonding that we have with Jesus personally and with his Church. is both a priceless gift and an enormous daily challenge. Like any lover, Jesus has for us high hopes and great expectations. In his story of the man who began to build the tower but left it an unfinished shell, Jesus challenges us to keep living the commitment we make to him at Baptism, Confirmation, and First Holy Communion.
So, it’s appropriate for each of us to ask what aspects of our lives remain ‘unfinished business’? Does Jesus Christ mean more to us, when all is said and done, than anyone else or anything else in the world? If the crunch came, would we be willing to die for him?
It’s also appropriate for us to pray, and during this Eucharist, for the grace to see him more clearly, love him more dearly and follow him more nearly, day by day, and especially in our relationships with all our fellow followers of Jesus.
Brian Gleeson is a Passionist priest, and a member of the Passionist community in Endeavour Hills, Melbourne.