23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Carrying Crosses
Today’s Gospel parables of the tower builder and the king waging war are simple enough to understand: in order to ensure success, one had better be fully prepared. But the sayings on discipleship that surround these parables are some of the most radical in the gospel. They, too, are not difficult to understand, but are immensely demanding to practice.
Jesus names three of the strongest attachments that would be difficult for anyone to leave aside when called into the community of believers and to participate in his mission. If he were looking for popularity and a large mass of followers, what he says today would certainly not help him achieve his goals. Jesus turns to the crowd and speaks bluntly about what it means to follow him. It’s clear that one can’t be a part-time or casual disciple of Jesus.
Jesus was a man driven with a singular purpose, whose ministry revolved around the sense of “jubilee justice” handed down to him in the Scriptures. He was convinced that the presence of God's Spirit is evident in the very basic human interactions of mercy, compassion, forgiveness, working for peace and justice, generosity and respect for human dignity. His whole life reflected these convictions: His words were "good news" for the poor, they would bring freedom to those held captive, bring sight to the blind and would set the downtrodden free.
This message brought excitement to those who listened. The reign of God was "at hand." He told them how to recognize this kingdom: by living in God and living in love… clothing the poor, caring for the needy, being ready to forgive, feeding those who hunger, overcoming cultural prejudices… this is how the world would recognize the name and presence of God's Spirit in their midst.
But this comes with a cost. There is no escaping the urgency and total response Jesus requires of those who follow him. Sit down, he suggests, weigh the costs and make a decision. He uses military terms about entering into battle; but we understand what he means. Following him is no superficial venture; it requires full engagement and will, at times, be a struggle. We can’t accuse Jesus of making false promises to us or offering special favors and rewards if we enlist as his disciples. Quite the opposite, he makes it quite clear that following him will cost us.
At its most fundamental level, Christianity is an altruistic religion. It is “other-centered” - and goes way beyond our own personal relationship with God. At the heart of the Gospel message is the challenge to lose ourselves in concern for others. If we truly love every other person as Jesus has loved us, then we don't look at the risk, or color, or public opinion, or all of the other excuses for walking away. This week’s Gospel makes that abundantly clear.
We are invited every day to turn our lives around and choose again to be Jesus’ disciples. We know we have been less than fully responsive to this invitation. But day by day, inspired by the Spirit, we can renew our “yes” and continue following him on the road. Certainly today’s gospel should leave none of us feeling complacent or saying in response, “I am doing all that Jesus has asked me to do.” Going to church week after week and doing simply what is expected of us still falls quite short of what Jesus requires of his followers. He is asking us to be prepared to make some radical decisions; because to follow him as disciples we need to have a full-time and “all-the-way-to-the-end” commitment to him.
The Gospel says that to be a disciple of Jesus, one must be willing to let go of what one values most: familiar relationships, possessions, and even one’s own life.
I don’t know if Jesus is asking all of us to leave our families, liquidate our finances, sell our possessions and lead an itinerant life for him. Some our great saints have done that in the past. Most of us have far too many responsibilities to do that.
But maybe the challenges and choices of our daily life need to be just as radical. How well do we reflect Christ’s love and compassion to the gay couple who has just moved into our neighborhood, or the Muslim family which now sends their children to our son’s/daughter’s school? How well do we really serve the poor and homeless of our cities? How willing are we to engage others of different faiths in dialog to work for peace? How easily do we fit into a culture steeped in greed, violence, war and selfishness?
The challenge of the Gospel goes far beyond attendance at weekly Eucharist and mouthing the words of the Creed.
The task that lies ahead of those who commit themselves to the way of Jesus is not easy. Jesus is counter-culture - always counter to accepted societal mores and political correctness, often counter to institutionalized religion itself. The early Christians knew what they were doing when they called this new movement of theirs “The Way of Jesus.” They kept the Calvary story as the central lesson of the Gospel narratives and no one can miss it today,
It is not an easy lesson.
But the Book of Wisdom reminds us that only with the gift of God’s wisdom, the Spirit of God, can we know how to respond to the daily challenges we face as Christians. We have been enlivened with his extraordinary Spirit. That’s the only way we stand a chance of following the one who has turned toward us with his invitation/challenge. He has given us his Spirit - and through that Spirit we can begin, at least, to pick up the cross and make straight the paths of those on earth.