05 September 2010

Radical dispossession?

23rd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Blackfriars, Oxford

Jesus is preaching on the Mount of Olives. The crowd is huge. The wind is high. It's difficult to hear him clearly. He says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” A man in the crowd shouts out, “What did he say?” Another man, Gregory by name, responds, “I think it was 'Blessed are the cheesemakers.'” His wife asks, “Aha, what's so special about the cheesemakers?” Gregory explains, “Well, obviously it's not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.” Thus do we have—from Monty Python no less—one of the first instances of Jesus' teachings being read through a hermeneutics of inclusion! Of course, this is meant to be funny; it is also meant to point out our very human tendency to take something we've heard and give it the most benign, the least personally demanding interpretation possible. Today's gospel offers us this opportunity as well. Jesus says, “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.” To add insult to this familial injury, Jesus adds, “. . .anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” So, in order to follow Christ, we're to become homeless, destitute haters of our family. Unless we are willing to “mishear” this difficult teaching, and give it some milquetoast interpretation, we have to deal with it head-on. What are we to make of Jesus' rather unambiguous demand for our radical dispossession?

The first point to be made here is that hating one's family and surrendering all one's possessions are not conditions for discipleship; that is, there are no prerequisites for enrolling in the university of the Lord. There are, however, consequences. And these consequences, Jesus warns, can be and most likely will be dire. To walk willingly into the tomb with him and to rise with him on the last day entails following him on the way of sorrow, carrying one's cross, and dying on that cross when the time comes. Though there will be glories and graces along the Way, a life lived as a disciple is a life lived in self-denial, sacrificial service, and persistent witness. As one who has lost it all, Jesus knows that if we have nothing left to lose, there is everything to gain. In more contemporary terms, we might say, “No Pain, No Gain; No Guts, No Glory.” What Jesus is doing here is making it perfectly clear to those who would follow him that his Way is not about growing in self-esteem, or “being One with the universe,” or just being a nice person, or even living a quietly pious life. There is a cost to discipleship, a potentially heavy even deadly cost, a cost beyond convenience, reputations, and friendships. The cost—ultimately—is your life. Be ready to pay that bill.

To prepare us, Jesus asks, “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?” There are really two questions here. First, “Have you thought about the costs of discipleship?” and second, “Are you prepared to complete the course given the costs?” The disciples already know that the Lord came not to bring peace but a sword. His life and ministry among them will cleave families apart, setting father against son and mother against daughter. The Way is not a tranquil meditative practice leading to a blissful serenity, but a radical commitment to a tumultuous love that puts Christ first, puts Christ squarely in front of any other attachment, any other promise. To hate one's family and surrender all possessions is to set the sacrificial love of Christ on the cross as one's only frame of reference, as one's singular focus and goal. Everything else—mom, dad, kids, house, job, reputation, wealth, health, politics, religious practice—everything else is to be seen, understood, and lived out relative only to Christ and our vows to follow him. Have you thought about these costs? Are you prepared to pay this bill?

If not, have you thought about what it might mean to fail, what it might mean to pit yourself against the King of kings? Jesus asks his disciples, “. . .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?” A king outnumbered 2:1 on the battlefield would be foolish not to consider suing for peace! Jesus' point here is as straightforward as it is frightening: don't play the fool by siding with the Enemy and fighting against your Creator. You will lose and lose catastrophically. Isn't it more prudent, more practicable to ally yourself with the strongest and flourish whatever the costs? Besides, God's terms for our surrender are infinitely gracious and though we must submit our pride to defeat, we gain eternal life. And that bill has already been paid in full.

What will it take for you to complete the course? Jesus tells us what we must be prepared to surrender, surrender everyone we love and everything we own. Nothing and no one we love can be loved apart from or before Love Himself. We might ask the question this way: who or what are you unwilling to sacrifice for Christ's sake? Name it. Name him or her and you will know who and what stands between you and your discipleship. Is this too harsh? Too difficult? We could do our best Monty Python imitation and pretend that Jesus says that we must renounce all our obsessions or all our professions. Or that we must come to him rating or baiting our family members. We could say something like, “Oh, he doesn't mean that literally. . .what he really means is that we shouldn't be greedy; we shouldn't let our parents control us.” What he says is that we must choose him over all those we love now, over all the things we love now. This is the cost of our tuition on the Way. Why? Because one likely consequence of following him is the loss of all we love. 

Therefore, it is better to surrender to God now than to fall in defeat to the Enemy later on.

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1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:07 PM

    That, was very good. Of course, one area I struggle with is, while it's easy to part with things in theory, to say "I place Christ above ALL in my life," in practice it is much more difficult. Few of us face such a clear cut choice, to really choose to follow either Christ or someone or thing we love in one stark moment of decision. Instead, we face a million little choices where we can either put Christ first, or serve Mammon. And, too often I must admit, I make the wrong choice. Putting the very real but incorporeal ahead of the illusive but corporal is quite challenging. I need constant reminders of Who it is that I am to serve first always. Thanks for the reminder.

    I'm a convert. This Catholic Faith, it is not for sissies.