23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time
For what man knows God’s Counsel, or who can conceive what the Lord Intends… scarce do we guess the things on earth … but when things are in Heaven, who can search them out? Wisdom 9:13
These words from The Book of Wisdom – who can conceive what the Lord Intends – are certainly borne out when we read in today’s Gospel, a saying of Jesus that is clearly not easy to understand:
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.
Indeed, the words of Jesus are often complex, sometimes quite obscure, not easy to interpret, and Wisdom teaches us that we should expect this since His words concern “things related to Heaven.” Is it not crucial, then, that we should have an official interpreter to help us avoid possible misunderstandings and errors that can be harmful to our faith, if not to our salvation? We Christians definitely need sure guidance to properly understand the Sacred Scripture, and it is precisely in this need that we see the critical role of the official teacher, of the divine guidance given through the Church to help us understand exactly “what the Lord intends to say” in His often difficult words.
For instance, are we literally supposed to “hate” our parents as a condition for being Christ’s disciple? Or are we all literally required to renounce and abandon all ownership of property as a condition for true discipleship? Historically there have been small splinter groups within Christianity who, having rejected the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, came to believe that all Christians must literally renounce all their property to be Jesus’ true disciples, that is, to be among the saved. Other small breakaway sects, from the earliest days, and especially in the Middle Ages, taught that even marriage must be renounced by all. Their way of life was ironically self-destructive, and they passed into history. The Church, whose authority they rejected, interpreted the Scriptures quite differently, and she continues to exist to proclaim her teaching on marriage. The Church is often accused of being too restrictive in her teaching of Christ’s Gospel and its requirements, but often her interpretations of Scripture are far less harsh and restrictive than that of groups who reject her authority in these matters.
What then has the Church taught us about the meaning of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel? First of all, she teaches us that the words of Jesus cannot be understood in a simplistic way, taken out of context from his full teaching, out of the context of His own people’s literary styles or way of writing, etc. Moreover the Church sees these words not simply as bits of human wisdom, but as expressing God’s wisdom; and so she warns us, just like the Book of Wisdom does, that these hard sayings of Jesus are not always transparent in their meaning. There are, literally, layers of meaning in many of Jesus sayings, and multiple applications, and thus we must not treat His words as if they were always immediately transparent in their meaning and implications, like our human words. The words of Jesus require great caution, study and prayer, and they also require the assistance of the Holy Spirit and the intermediary assistance of the Church’s teaching authority to whom Christ entrusted these words and their official proclamation in the first place.
What then has the Church taught down through the centuries related to these hard words in today’s Gospel, both in her written explanations and in the way she herself has created ways of life based upon their true meaning?
First of all, it is clear that Jesus intends these words to have a variety of applications in His church, in accord with the variety of states of life. Next, she teaches us that the words about “hating” our relatives in order to be his disciple can never be understood so as to contradict the 4th commandment, and the natural obligations to love our parents and relatives. God’s word cannot contradict God’s word.
Thirdly, Holy Mother Church teaches us what these words actually mean for us, for all his disciples, that is, they first mean that we must absolutely love Jesus more than anyone else – the opposite of hate — including those naturally closest to us in this world. That means that our love for Jesus and our commitment to his person must far surpass all the natural bonds of love in this world. In short, what Jesus is actually repeating here, using Jewish language, is the law that we must love God above all things, and He is now applying that law to Himself. He uses the word “hate” not to be taken literally but simply as a literary form of hyperbole, exaggeration, common in his day’s literary culture, only to drive home the shocking claim he is making, the absoluteness of this demand for fidelity to Himself as God’s Son.
However, at yet another level, the Church understands these same words as applying in a unique and more radical way to those called to be Jesus co-workers, and in the first place, to be His Apostles. Jesus spoke one way to the crowds, but often in a more demanding way to his chosen 12. To be his co-workers in the vineyard, they must literally leave behind all these human relationships, and adopt His celibate and dispossessed way of life – they had to leave all behind and follow Him. All disciples must love Jesus more than anyone else and place duty to Jesus above duty to all others, but those who share his mission most directly are to live this total commitment in an even more radical way in this world. Their manner of life is to imitate Christ’s more literally, and thus to be a witness and reminder to all disciples of the radical commitment of Christian faith that is the foundation of all discipleship.
Again the examples used by Jesus call for prudence in adopting his radical way of life, and they would seem to be aimed at the Apostles above all. Those who would follow him in this radical sense are to prudently decide whether they have the personal resources to persevere in this special calling to abandon home and family and marriage, or they place their salvation in jeopardy, as the tower builder could lose his honor, or the king lose his kingdom out of imprudence. More discernment is required for this particular form of total commitment to Jesus, a commitment which applies in various ways to all, that is, to every form of discipleship.
But these special vocations within the Church require special, prudent reflection as to whether someone is really being called to this radical life style by God, or whether their natural bonds are such and their conditions of life are such that prudence would suggest that God is not calling them to this radical abandonment of home and family and marriage, but to total commitment in another vocation such as marriage.
The same kind of analysis can be applied to Jesus’ final words about the requirement of renouncing all one’s possessions in order to be a disciple. Again here, all His disciples are truly called to place Christ absolutely above their possessions and even their very life. But there is once again a radical form of fulfilling this teaching, and it applies only to those who would adopt Christ’s lifestyle literally in order to serve His church as a total way of life. Francis is the great example of this radical poverty, yet Francis never suggested that his total poverty was a condition of discipleship or salvation for all. His way of life was tied to his particular apostolic mission in the world, and it was also a radical sign of the Church’s total commitment to Christ, which must be true of all disciples.
The message here is this. You cannot be a disciple of Christ if you value your worldly goods above Christ, if you refuse to accept the Cross in your life, or if you love anyone more than you love Christ. All this commitment applies to all. On another level, you cannot be his Apostle or a member of a consecrated community whose whole way of life is totally dedicated to the service of the Gospel and His Church, that is, without literally abandoning everything to follow Christ. This radical way of life is not the only path to heaven nor the only path to the perfection of holiness, but it serves to remind the whole Church of the awesome radicalness of the personal choice to follow Christ, regardless of one’s state of life. That choice will be lived out in different ways, to be sure, but it remains always a call to put Christ first and above all other things, including family, wealth or even one’s own personal well-being.
In the final analysis, then, the Jesus is speaking here ultimately about the interior detachment from this world and the interior total commitment to Christ that makes one Christ’s disciple and produce holiness in every saint. That interior total commitment will be lived differently externally according to one’s particular vocation and state of life.
However, it is never the mere external renunciation of persons or things that makes one a true disciple or makes one holy. If Francis had merely renounced his material goods but remained attached to them in his heart more than to Christ, he would not have been a saint. On the other hand, when the lay person lives with his possessions in such interior detachment that Christ is absolutely the center of his or her life, that is, when the laity follow Paul’s injunction to treat their possessions as not their own, but His, (1Cor,7:30) then they acquire the same holiness of God by their interior devotion to Christ as it is lived out in their daily state of life.
So in the end, we can say that all must interiorly, intentionally, renounce their possessions, and place Christ above all intimate relationships, if they are to be disciples, that is, all must live in the poverty of spirit. Some, however, are called, in addition, to quite literally reject having a spouse and family and to reject all ownership of property and possessions in order to be freer for their apostolate and to bear witness to the radicalness of the Christian commitment to Christ that all disciples must in their own way live in the world, to live quite truly as if they owned nothing but Heaven and loved no one supremely but God..