Sunday, 4 September 2016

Week 23 Sunday (Year C)

Readings: Wisdom 9:13-18; Psalm 89/90; Philemon 9-10, 12-17; Luke 14:25-33

From the earliest days of the Church, the words of Jesus in today's passage from Luke have caused problems. Truth be told, just one word: the word 'hate'. It survives in the translation referred to here: 'if anyone comes to me without hating his father, mother ... even his own life, he cannot be my disciple'. However, in many other translations 'hating' disappears to be replaced by something closer to Matthew's version, 'if anyone does not love me more than he loves father, mother ... even his own life, he cannot be my disciple'.

The problems with hating are clear. The Bible, after all, tells us to honour our father and our mother, and Jesus himself tells us to love our enemies. What can it possibly mean then to speak of hating our parents, children, spouses, and even our own life, in order to follow him? Preachers, teachers, Fathers of the Church, interpreters and translators - all twist and turn in the face of this word and often come down on the side of translating it in a way that removes the scandal of hatred: you must not love father or mother more than me. We know what Jesus said, as Luke records it, but this must be what he meant.

But that brings other problems with it. One problem is that it becomes acceptable and tolerable to us, and there is nothing too radical or surprising about it. But today's first reading reminds us that 'the deliberations of mortals are timid and our plans are unsure'. And it continues, 'who can know God's counsel or conceive what the Lord intends?' The scandal of hatred, the way it stops us in our tracks, may actually be essential if we are to be lifted out of our normal ways of thinking and be led to think in a new way, opened up to the ways in which God's counsel is inclined, opened up to the purposes God intends.

Here is the second and more serious problem with the softer translation: it places God among the other objects of our love and implies that there is some kind of quantitative comparison we can make between them all. So I can love chocolate, the cat, and my new car. Turning to people, I can love my friends, my spouse, my parents, and my children. And all of this is okay as long as I love God more. Is that what Christianity teaches? One problem with this is that it sets up a kind of competition between my love for God and my love for other people, as if they can be measured against each other, and that cannot be right. The more fundamental problem is that it turns God into another object of my love, one among the objects of my love, when God is the foundation of all love, the reason why there is any love at all.

It is God, who is Love, who makes it possible that there are creatures, and that they are good, and therefore lovable. So God cannot be simply included in the class of lovable objects, even as the most desirable of them. God as Creator and Redeemer is the source of all that is lovable and the originator of all loving. Jesus has come to reveal this mystery of the divine love and in order to do so he must lead us to the limits of our own natural wisdom. He must lead us beyond the limits of our own experience and intentions. Having the mind of Christ, as St Paul puts it, we are lead by Jesus to see, perhaps just in a glimpse, something of the mystery of divine love beneath, within, and beyond all that falls without our experience of love.

The other way in which Jesus speaks of this here is in reference to the cross: 'whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple'. This is also scandalous but we have become so familiar with it that it does not shock us any more. (Don't forget that, although great crowds are still following Jesus at this point, by the time he arrives at his Cross there will be few, if any, capable of staying with him: the whole thing will have become too scandalous, too disturbing.)

Each day we must, in Pope Francis' words, 'enter into the silence of the cross'. The cross is the key, and the door, through which we may glimpse the mystery of divine love that Jesus has come to show us. This is not just 'the biggest love around', one among the others, even if it is the best of them. It is a reality quite other, beyond our imagining, the heart of God revealed in the world's history. The darkness opened up by the cross, into which we gaze, is the darkness of a mystery too bright for our eyes. Our only ways in are through meditation and prayer, and through seeking to follow Jesus each day by living in the way he has taught us, each of us taking up his own cross to journey after him.

It is not through ordinary thinking and reflection that we crack this mystery because 'the deliberations of mortals are timid and our plans are unsure'. It is only by prayer, and by following the way indicated by our own cross, that we come to glimpse the truth into which Jesus leads his disciples. It is a new way of thinking, meditating on a death whose meaning is life, on a slavery whose meaning is freedom, on a 'hatred' that guides us to Love, and indeed to the Source of all loves. 

You will find here another version of this homily

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