23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – 4 September 2016

"Carrying the image of God"

Scripture Reading – Luke 14:25-33

Great crowds accompanied Jesus on his way and he turned and spoke to them. ‘If any man comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple. Anyone who does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.

‘And indeed, which of you here, intending to build a tower, would not first sit down and work out the cost to see if he had enough to complete it? Otherwise, if he laid the foundation and then found himself unable to finish the work, the onlookers would all start making fun of him and saying, “Here is a man who started to build and was unable to finish.” Or again, what king marching to war against another king would not first sit down and consider whether with ten thousand men he could stand up to the other who advanced against him with twenty thousand? If not, then while the other king was still a long way off, he would send envoys to sue for peace. So in the same way, none of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions.’

Gospel reading – Courtesy of Universalis Publishing Ltd. – www.universalis.com

REFLECTION

“Carrying the image of God”

by Rosemary O’Connor & Patrick Sullivan

Jesus does not mince his words in this Sunday’s Gospel; he makes it very clear that if we want to follow him we must be prepared to put God before any other relationship or any possessions. He uses very strong language when he says we must ‘hate’ our families and even our life. The word ‘hate’ here should not be taken literally. In Hebrew the word ‘hate’ means to ‘prefer less’.  He is saying that no person or possession should take precedence over God in our lives. He is not referring to us abandoning our families, he is talking about spiritual detachment; the ability to keep God at the core of our being, in everything we do and in every encounter.

When our will clashes with God’s will, God’s will should take precedence. In the midst of the many voices clamouring for our time, money, allegiance and attention we are called to choose God’s way above all other ways. This presents a challenge for us, in today’s world we often define choice not as the freedom to choose one action over another but as the freedom to choose everything at once; freedom of choice has come to mean keeping our options open. The tragedy of this condition is that it is literally impossible to keep our options open and live lives of any significance.  Cardinal George Pell urges us; “Don’t spend your life sitting on the fence, keeping your options open, because only commitments bring fulfilment – one mission is better than a thousand options”.

To gain all we must give all; the payback for us is that when we keep God at our core, our heart becomes filled with God’s love.  St Paul reminds us that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5). This becomes our gift for ourselves and our gift to our world.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was on sabbatical at Emory University.  While he was there, he was asked to teach a class. He agreed to teach one class in the theology department; however he put limits on it – he said he did not want to teach academics, he stipulated that he only wanted the students who were in their final year and would be going into parish ministry the following year.  The limits were placed and the class was called “God’s love”. 

The students showed up on the first day of class, many of them had been in education their whole lives. Desmond Tutu stood up and started talking about the course; he noticed that many of the class were restless; he was very attentive to the audience so he stopped and said he noticed that people were looking around at each other and asked if he had forgotten something. One student put their hand up and asked “Could you tell us what the syllabus (the programme) is for this course? What are we supposed to read?  Will there be tests?” Desmond Tutu replied; “No there is no reading, there are no exams, there are no papers.  In fact, what I thought I would do is just give everyone an ‘A’”. This did not sit well with the class who were used to reading lists and exams and they became even more restless. 

He noticed again how restless they had become; he said to them “this is what we are going to do in this class; all we are going to do is I am going to tell you stories of when I encountered and experienced God’s love and then I am going to invite you to tell stories, to remember and recollect moments where you encountered and experienced and knew God’s love. Because this is why we are doing this; I know you have studied Biblical Doctrine, I know you have taken exams in theology and preaching and hermeneutics”, “however, he said if you leave this University and you don’t know God’s love in the marrow of your bones, you leave here with nothing – you leave here with nothing. Your power, your gift is that down in the marrow of your bones you have encountered and experienced the wonder of God, you know what it means to be free, you are a connoisseur of life – you know what it means to be alive. That is who we are, we are living human beings who carry the image of God and that is our gift that we bring to the people we encounter in our daily lives”.

If we want to feel free, if we want to feel fulfilled and if we want to feel fully alive then we too need to know God’s love in the marrow of our bones, we too need to carry the image of God. In this way we become signs and bearers of hope and of God’s love in our families, in our homes and in our communities.

LECTIO DIVINA

by Fr Juan José Bartolomé SDB

Introduction to Lectio Divine

Jesus spent some time preaching in Galilee and he encountered a measure of success. He was constantly surrounded by a group of disciples, and often sought out by people who wanted to hear him speaking about God, and to be cured of their illnesses. At a certain point on the road to Jerusalem, Jesus decided to take advantage of the fact that a large crowd was following him to warn his close disciples of the price his followers would have to pay. In this way he told them all, not just the disciples but the crowd as well, that to look for him it is not enough to feel the need for him, and to follow him, it is not enough to rejoice at the benefits to be achieved. Quite the opposite, the consequences of following him are very demanding. Jesus wanted his disciples to take time before deciding to follow him. He did not want then, nor does he want now, to be followed by people who are unaware of where they are going or what they are called to do if they follow him. Jesus was not interested in having a big number of disciples, but rather disciples who would accept the consequences of their ‘yes’. And he wanted them to follow him freely.

Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it

We should take notice of the fact that Jesus addresses this harsh and extremely demanding teaching on discipleship to all who wanted to share the road with him, whether they were disciples or not. It was enough for him that he had a crowd. He wanted to warn them of the conditions they would have to accept if they wanted to be his disciples. The crowd that were with him were already following him. But it seems that Jesus was not satisfied that they simply accompanied him. He wanted even greater sacrifices of them. And he turned to them and, straight to their faces, he made unheard of demands of them.

Jesus imposed three conditions, in a very straightforward manner, with no beating about the bush. It is worth noting that all three conditions were formulated in the negative. Nobody can be my disciple if they do not put me before everybody else (Lk 14, 26), if they do not take up their own cross (Lk 14,27), and if they do not renounce all they possess (Lk 14,33). Anyone who is not able to accept all three conditions should not even dream of being a disciple, even if they are already following him.

Only the first demand, the most difficult and unnatural, is conditional. No duty, however sacred, can be more binding than the decision to follow Jesus as a disciple. Following Jesus relegates love for parents, brothers and sisters, and even oneself, to second place. It is important to note that the love that Jesus deserves is neither before nor after love for others, but at the same time.  We do not have to stop loving our family members in order to follow Jesus. Nor do we have to be his disciples in order to love him more than those who are dear to us. While following Jesus, the disciple’s heart cannot have any other love at the same level, not even the natural and sacred love for family and for oneself.

The second and third demands made by Jesus are brief, and both of them are negative. Only those who can carry their cross and renounce their possessions are capable of following Jesus. There are two details that should not pass unnoticed, because they express an idea that is new.  The cross we must carry is our own, but we have to carry it after him. It is not just any cross, but the cross of one who follows Jesus, the cross that is given to us in order to follow him. Renouncing our possessions is not something vague and generic, and is not just a resolution for the future. The goods are those we possess, all of them. Nothing is excluded. The renunciation must be total.

Following this demand, Jesus invites his listeners to stop and consider if it is worth their while undertaking a journey that could end badly. He uses two images – a man building a tower and a king going to war. The higher the price to be paid, the more prudence is required before undertaking the risk. Jesus does not want followers who are enthusiastic but do not know what they are undertaking.

Meditate: apply what the text says to life

Many of those who accompanied Jesus on the way to Jerusalem had no idea what was ahead of them. Jesus stops along the way to warn them. From now on, not everyone who wants to accompany him will be able to do so, and not even all those he has called, but only those who are ready to pay the price involved. It comes as a surprise that he says this to a crowd of people who are already following him and not just to the few who are his closest disciples. As he makes his demands more radical, he opts for a wider audience, but because his demand is so drastic, he makes it optional. From now on, only those can follow him who are so free as to be able to renounce the best of what they have, their families and all their possessions, everything. We should thank Jesus that he did not impose these superhuman conditions. When he asked us to free ourselves from everything that is dear to us, he left us free. When he announced how much it would cost, Jesus made following him optional. Jesus extended to everyone the possibility of following him, when he stated the conditions for doing so. Anyone who is not capable of renouncing everything – one’s family and all one possesses – cannot follow the Lord.

Jesus anticipated the request of his listeners and told them to take time before deciding to continue to follow him on his journey. This was because he did not wish then, not does he wish now, to be followed by people who are unaware of where they are going, or what they are being called to if they continue the journey with him. For Jesus, the important thing was not how many disciples he had, but that they should be willing to accept the consequences of following him.

What Jesus asks of those who want to follow him is, to put it bluntly, outrageous. No matter how much we try to play down the radicalism of his words, it is still unreasonable that he demands of us, as a prior condition, even just to become his disciples, that we love our dear ones less than we love him. Even God did not ask that much in the ten commandments. It is true that God commands us to love him first and above everything else, but he also commanded us to love our parents and our neighbour as ourselves. By expecting them to love him more than any other person, Jesus claims from his disciples more than any other master has ever claimed or could ever claim.  By demanding such an exclusive love, he expects those who follow him to give up all other love, however good and worthy it may be.

That the love between parents and children, or between brothers and sisters, or between husband and wife, should give way to the love due to the master, is an unheard of demand, if not an impossible one. It is certainly not a normal request or one that is easy to fulfil. It is true that Jesus does not insist that we renounce our love for others, but it is unusual that he demands from those who follow him that they should love him more than their dear ones. He is not content with being one among the people we love. He must be the first and the principal one. The disciple must not love even himself of herself more than the master.  The fact that this condition is optional, leaves us more freedom in our decision to follow him, but does not make following him any easier.

If any doubt remained, and so that no one would have any excuse, he goes on to add that anyone who does not take up the cross and follow him is not worthy to be his follower. If they want to be followers of the master who is journeying towards the cross in Jerusalem, the disciples must take up their own cross. Jesus had already said so many times (Lk 9, 22-23.44). Jesus does not just expect of his disciples that they be faithful when the time of suffering comes. He asks them to journey with him carrying their own cross. It is not enough, then, that they do not get scandalized at the cross of Christ, and abandon him. Only those who carry their own cross can be his companions. If they want to follow the master who is to be crucified, they must carry their own cross. Unless they can carry their own cross, they will not be able to follow him all the way to Calvary. Anyone who chooses to follow a master who is going to be crucified, cannot expect to escape unscathed. If we refuse the suffering that goes with the cross, we cannot follow Jesus.

It may seem to us very harsh, but the claim makes sense. The disciple is not greater than the master. The Christian cannot expect to escape better than Christ. The life of the disciple must follow the road trod by the Master. Anyone who finds the cross repulsive and refuses it, or is unwilling to accept it and to bear the weight of it, may be a very fine person but will not be a good disciple. We do not have to carry Christ’s cross, but our own. Maybe we already carry a small image of Christ’s cross, but we do not feel the weight of it. We have to carry our own cross, the one that causes us so much suffering, because it is ours and ours alone. Jesus reduces the whole of his teaching to taking up our cross. Only those who bear the weight of the cross can be his disciples.

The conditions are so radical that Jesus himself invites those who are thinking of following him, to take their time and to think over it well. He adds two short parables which insist on the need to measure our capability before we take the decision to follow him. Precisely because he wants a conscious decision from his followers, he does not want them to follow him blindly. They need to know if they have the strength to meet his demands. Nobody can say that Jesus did not warn us. We need to take him seriously when he tells us to take our time and think well to see if we really have the means like the builder, and the available forces like the king.

Jesus has set down two stages in the journey of discipleship. The first is the initial “follow me”. The second is “if anyone comes to me, if anyone wants to be my follower”.  Personal attraction and curiosity are enough to sustain someone at the first stage. At the second stage, only those remain who are willing to give up everything in order not to lose him.  Where do I find myself? Am I still following Jesus because I am fascinated by him and what he says and does? Or do I follow him because I have left everything that I possessed? Can I honestly say that it costs me something to follow him and that I am renouncing something in order to be with him? I will know how precious my following of Jesus is only when I know the price I am paying to follow him.

Good will is not enough, no matter how much of it we have. We must also have the means and resources. Jesus did not want to deceive his followers with false promises, nor did he hide the truth from them. He wanted his disciples to know the consequences before they take the decision, and to be willing to take the risks. Precisely because he is demanding so much of his followers, he wants them to be conscious and free. This shows great sensitivity on his part and we should be grateful for it, accepting his invitation and thinking about it calmly. Jesus does not want disciples who are like a man who starts building a house without being sure if he has enough to finish it. Because he did not check beforehand to see if he had all he needed, he is left with an unfinished house. All he achieved was to make himself a laughing stock in the eyes of the people who knew him.

More serious is the example of the king who went to war without stopping to think that his enemy might be better prepared for battle. He was defeated, not because he did not have sufficient forces, but because he did not foresee that the enemy might have just as much or more. He lost his kingdom because he was not prudent and did not make good use of the resources he had. Jesus wants to spare his followers the shame of having to leave their work only half done, and the disaster of losing the decisive battle. For this reason he warns us that following him will not be easy. He wants us to know if we have all that is needed to finish what we begin when we decide to follow him. Jesus is not happy just because we follow him. He asks us if we are able to follow him, or better still, he wants us to ask ourselves that question.

With his warnings, he makes us realize that he is well aware how extreme his demands are. Before we take them on, he wants us to know if we are able for them. Jesus does not want to see himself surrounded by people with great illusions and little responsibility, all enthusiastic about his promises but unable to accept the conditions. Neither does he want to be followed by people who later will feel they have been deceived, because they committed themselves to him without knowing how much it would cost to follow him. Being a disciple of Jesus is a serious matter and needs to be faced seriously. What he is asking is not small and is not easy. Jesus gives us time to reflect for a while before accepting.

And there really is need to think about it. Before asking us to check if we were able for it, he asked his disciples if there was anyone they loved more than him. None of the people nearest and dearest to us is more important than he is. After he has given us time to reflect on it, he demands of us that we possess nothing apart from him. Giving up all our possessions may seem impossible, but it is the inescapable condition for following Jesus. Just as he does not want to share our hearts with our loved ones, so he does not want us to think of anything else as being good, no matter how good it is, unless we make him our supreme good.

We can understand that he does not want us to take the decision to follow him lightly, because the consequences are far from light. Jesus expects his disciples not to love anyone as much as they love him. He wants to be considered the first in our affections and the greatest of all our possessions. It is a high price just to be a disciple! And this is why we need to take time to think about it a bit more.

Being the companion of Jesus implies giving up the things that are best in this life. Jesus does not want to be shared with other passions, no matter how good or how natural they may be. He is the best, better than the best families, greater than the greatest of possessions. Only those who are capable of renunciation know what they really love. And those who love are able to renounce other things without suffering because they are leaving something good. They know that they are getting something – someone – better. With what level of renunciation do I live my Christian life? Is Christ sufficient reason for me to put in second place everything else that is good in my life?

We cannot deny that the conditions put by Jesus, when he made following him optional, are almost inhuman. But when they get over this surprise, the disciples know that they can count on their Master as their only good and all they need for the journey, if other things and other people count as nothing compared to him. We need to think twice before we say we are ready to follow him at all costs. But there is no doubt that it will be worth all the pain – and the cross – to have Jesus as our companion and guide on our journey in life. Jesus wants those who follow him to love him more than they love their family, and to be more attached to him than to any of the other good things we possess.   He does not ask us to hate the people we love, nor to get rid of the good things we have but only – if we can say only – to love nobody more than him and to consider good nothing other than him.

PRAYER

Since it is from you, God our Father,
that redemption comes to us, your adopted children,
look with favour on the family you love,
give true freedom to us and to all who believe in Christ,
and bring us all alike to our eternal heritage.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Amen.

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