23rd Sunday in Ordinary
A Homily - C Cycle - 2003-2004
First Reading - Wisdom 9:13-18b
Psalm - 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14-17
Second Reading - Philemon 9-10, 12-17
Gospel - Luke 14:25-33
Luke writes to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
Great crowds were traveling with Jesus, and he turned and addressed them "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. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work the onlookers should laugh at him and say, 'This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.' Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops? But if not, while he is still far away, he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms. In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple."
Last month, athletes from around the world gathered in Athens for the Olympics. I have to admit that I am and have been a huge fan of the Games. There are so many fascinating human interest stories. For example, there are athletes competing for their country for the first time in an event, such was the case with the Iraqi and Afghan women who were running in track and field events for the first time. They all got crushed by the competition, but it didn't matter - they were there for love of the sport and to have the honor of representing their country for the first time ever. There are also stories of underdogs, like the Italian and Argentinean men's basketball teams who beat heavy favorites, including the once mighty US men's basketball program.
Then there are stories of personal triumph - athletes whose entire lives, it would seem, are defined by a victory or defeat in the Olympics. Take the gymnast or track and field athlete who, outside of the Olympics, gets little attention when compared to football or basketball or baseball or soccer icons. These gymnasts and track and field athletes practice for years on end and it always come down to a 100 meter sprint that takes less than 10 seconds or one gymnastics routine that lasts less than 2 minutes. All that work, all that sacrifice, all that practice, for a moment in the spotlight - to be recognized as the best or the fastest in the world. We marvel at the utter determination that such persons possess in order to achieve their goal. There's a cliché that says that it's just an honor to represent your country in the Olympics but if you study the athletes closely, they all want to win and for many, anything less than the gold is considered a failure. The gymnast or the track and field athlete practices time and time again to perfect their technique. Every move, every step, ever stride is perfectly calculated and measured so as to achieve the highest result. Every detail is accounted for and each athlete has a little ritual to mentally prepare themselves to perform.
This determination and attention to detail and this drive to achieve is a wonderful metaphor for the message of today's readings. Our Gospel is a call to plan and to prepare for that great race - the journey to heaven. Our Lord gives us a specific regimen of what it will take for us to win the gold - heavenly glory. We're not in this to finish with the silver or bronze - that's called purgatory. We're in this race to win it all. Second place is not good enough for us - it's the lesson that gold medal Olympians teach us.
So, what does our Lord tell us? First, He tells us that if anyone comes to Him without hating his father, mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be His disciple. That's a tall order. What does it mean? Does it mean that we ought to literally despise our families and our lifestyles? Does Christ really mean that hatred is the key to heaven? A literal read of the Gospel would suggest as much. Here is a wonderful explanation of the passage given to us by St. Jose Maria Escrivá, a saint canonized in 2002. He says,
True 'hate' does not exactly express what Jesus meant. Yet, he did put it very strongly because He doesn't just mean 'love less' as some people interpret it in an attempt to tone down the sentence. The force behind these vigorous words does not lie in their implying a negative (or pitiless) attitude, for the Jesus who is speaking here is none other than that Jesus who commands us to love others as we love ourselves and who gives up his life for mankind. These words indicate simply that we cannot be half-hearted when it comes to loving God. Christ's words could be translated as 'love more, love better,' in a sense that a selfish or partial love is not enough: we have to love others with the love of God.
In other words, our Lord's use of the word "hate" should cause us to take pause and consider whether or not we love God with our whole heart, mind, and soul and that it is He whom we must love above all others, even our spouse and our children and our family and friends. It's not as if God competes with these persons in our lives for our affection and love - rather, it is love for God that should direct and guide and give context to our love for others. Sometimes that love means that a wife won't cooperate with her husband who wants to use contraception in marriage. Sometimes that love means that a parent won't attend their child's wedding because the child will not marry in the Church. Sometimes it means that parents have to tell their children "no" or teach them the tough lessons of love by giving the children what they need and not necessarily what they want. This is what it means to be a gold medalist in the race to heaven.
In our second reading and at the end of our Gospel, Our Lord also tells us that unless we renounce our possessions, we cannot be His disciple. In the second reading, St. Paul is sending back Onesimus, a runaway slave, back to his owner, Philemon. Rather that be harsh with Onesimus, St. Paul exhorts Philemon to treat the slave as Christ - a brother. Both the second reading and the end of the Gospel are calls to detach, even completely, from things that might be obstacles to a total love of God. It is a call to be generous with our material things and to be always ready to part with them if that is for the greater good. It is a call to not let material things consume our energies and attention and therefore control us. Sadly, I have met many persons who are more concerned with their car or home than they are in their desire to grow in holiness. A Catholic who is content in this life is on the sure road to a bronze medal or even worse - not even placing on the medal stand at all. God will not transform a heart that does not think it needs transformation and conversion and reform. Like any good coach who can want their pupil to excel but can't run the race for them, God desires our salvation, but won't force it on us. It takes a real humility to admit that our coach is right and that we need to perfect our technique if we're going to even have a chance at victory. When we want to be holy, but not too holy because we know what true holiness will demand of us, then we need a lot more coaching. When we want to put limits on how generous we will be in handing over our lives to God within our vocations to marriage, the single life or the priesthood and religious life, then the coach can only do so much.
Finally, we should take a moment to ponder the gold medal - heaven. What does it mean? How can we understand it? If we don't even know what the prize is like, then why would we even bother competing for it? An athlete who has never won an Olympic gold medal doesn't exactly know what it's like to win it and yet they have no hesitation in devoting themselves to attain it. Shouldn't at least the same be true for us in our drive to get to heaven? Do we dream of getting to heaven? Or do we merely put heaven in human terms and sooner or later loose interest in the gold because it at times seems so far off. The Catechism teaches us that heaven is "the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme and definitive happiness." It is the state of perfection - where there is not only bodily glory and the total fulfillment of the senses - but a joy and a state of euphoria that never ends. Olympic gold medal athletes stand with pride on the medal stand as they hear their national anthem played. Eventually, the euphoria and the joy fade and life gets back to normal. For the gold medalist who has been given the reward of heaven, the joy never ends and the euphoria is beyond our human comprehension.
Through the prayers of the Blessed Virgin Mary, let us pray to desire that great gold medal - to do whatever it takes to get there; to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve it by God's grace and to always live with the awareness that loving God above all things and persons is the only sure way to win it all.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Now and forever!
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