Commentary on the Readings
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 8, 2019 – Year C
The Cross: A disgrace becomes a sign of glory
The saying of a desert father is famous: “The time will come when men will go crazy. And in seeing someone who is not mad they will pounce on him saying, ‘You’re crazy!’, because of his dissimilarity from them.” Paul has been through this experience: “The Jews ask for miracles and the Greeks for a higher knowledge, while we proclaim a crucified Messiah. For the Jews, what a real scandal. And for the Greeks, what nonsense!” (1 Cor 1:22-23). Where is true wisdom? The logic of the cross is not that of the world. Man is born and grows to assimilate that of the world. When the “folly of the cross” was announced to him as normal and the outcome even healthy, he is seized with doubts and misgivings and he sits down to reflect on the choice to make.
We search for life, not death. We want to avoid what makes us suffer and the cross, unfortunately, does not evoke the idea of salvation. Certain forms of mortification, penance, and ascetic practices have not made a good service to the understanding of the call made by Jesus to take the cross.
The Christian does not aspire to pain (even Jesus did not seek it), but love. However, when love is “lived up to the end” (Jn 13:1) it comes to the gift of life.
That’s why the cross, from a sign of death, becomes a symbol of life.
Until the end of the 3rd century, the Christian symbols were the anchor, the fisherman, the fish but never the cross. It will only be from the 4th century, with the famous discovery of the instrument of execution of Jesus by St. Helena, that the cross will become the symbol of victory, not on the enemies of Constantine at the Milvio Bridge but on death and all those that cause death. To choose the cross is to choose life. But it is not easy to understand.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
Give us, O God, the wisdom of heart.”
Chapter 9 of the Book of Wisdom contains a beautiful prayer to ask God for wisdom. The reading presents the third and final part.
The wisdom which the Bible speaks about should not be identified with erudition, knowledge, education received in school.
The author of the Book of Wisdom was a very intelligent and prepared man: he had studied science, arithmetic, physics. He knew the movement of the stars, the behavior of animals, the roots to treat diseases (Wis 7:16-21). Yet he felt the need to ask God for wisdom because it can be given only by him.
How to raise animals, how to cultivate the fields, which techniques to employ to produce always more and better: these are urgent and serious problems, but they are not the most important. There are questions that need to be addressed because from their solution depends on the success or failure of life and science books do not answer these questions. What value to give to money, success, reputation, social prestige, family, profession? They can be forgotten, but also dangerously overvalued.
To make right and weighted choices require “wisdom”, that is, the light that comes from God, because—says the reading—following one’s own impulses and insights, man does not get to find out what is good. He is not able to know the will of the Lord because his reasonings are uncertain. It is too conditioned by the corruptible body that weighs down the mind. The things of earth are already hard to understand, how will man discover God’s thoughts? (vv. 13-16).
Baffling indiscernible factors affect the reasoning and choices of man: upbringing, traditions assimilated, the hidden persuaders, the propaganda of those in power, the dominant opinion. It is not easy to decide freely and wisely, to walk straight paths unless God sends his light from above, and communicates his wisdom (vv. 17-18).
The thoughts of men are often weak, fragile, flimsy. We should not be surprised if the word of God so often contradicts them.
If the Colossians have preserved with devotion this letter, directed by Paul to a Christian of their community, it means that, despite its brevity, it was considered valuable. The episode that gave rise to it is moving. If the affectionate, delicate and sweet tone with which Paul drew it up (it’s enough considering the opening words of our passage: “I, Paul, old and now also a prisoner”), one understands the reason of love of which he has always been encompassed. We come to the story.
Passing through the province of Asia, Paul met and converted to Christ a rich young merchant of Colossae named Philemon. He becomes an exemplary Christian. Paul calls him “our beloved co-worker” (Phlm 1) and greatly praised him: “I hear of your love for all the holy ones” (Phlm 5); “I had great satisfaction and comfort on hearing of your charity, because the hearts of the saints have been cheered by you, brother” (Phlm 7).
Philemon is married (Appia who is cited in v. 2 is probably his wife). He has workers, domestics in his service and owns a house large enough to accommodate the entire community for meetings and the weekly celebration of the Eucharist (Phlm 2). One day one of his slaves, a certain Onesimus (which means “useful”!), steals a big sum from him and disappears. There are many fleeing slaves. Generally, they end up masking themselves in a big city, living by his wits, alms or theft, trying not to be recognized for one who is brought back to the owner risks the death penalty.
We do not know how this man has come to meet Paul. Since the Apostle was in jail at Ephesus, we can assume that the facts turned out, more or less, in this way: Onesimus, arriving in the largest metropolis of Asia, hunts in some shady deal, is discovered and ends up in jail. There he meets the Apostle.
Once the first few days of mutual distrust passed, the two tell their stories and find that they know the same people at Colossae. They become friends and Paul speaks to Onesimus about the Lord Jesus. After a few months, Onesimus asks to be baptized and when freed he would like to return to his master, but lacks courage. The Apostle then gives him a letter of introduction to be delivered to Philemon and to the whole community.
This is the origin of the short and wonderful Letter to Philemon proposed to us today.
Paul invites his friend and the Christians of Colossae not to be guided by human considerations and to assume that Onesimus has been converted for opportunism. These arguments are often a symptom of a petty desire for revenge. The Apostle recommends that Onesimus be welcomed: as if he were his son (v. 10), as his own heart (v. 12), as a beloved brother (v. 16). What is losing a bit of money compared to the joy of receiving a brother? (vv. 17-18). Who made a mistake cannot be regarded with suspicion for a lifetime.
How does the story of Onesimus end? We have no definite news, but the signs are that he has been very well received because, a few years later, in his letter to the Colossians, Paul still talks of “Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of yours” (Col 4:9). Fifty years later, Ignatius of Antioch recalls a certain Onesimus, bishop of Ephesus. He could be the same person.
In the religious field, statistics, percentages, projections, readings are useful if they help to reflect on one’s own responsibility and stimulate to examine ecclesial choices in the light of the Gospel. They are questionable and biased when instead they lead to download all the faults and failures on hedonism, laicism, and secularism. They are even deleterious if they lead to interpreting the increase of followers as a source of pride, vanity, self-satisfaction.
Faced with “large numbers”, the “immense crowds” Jesus worries, instead of rejoicing. He imagines his disciples as a “little flock” (Lk 12:32), as a bit of “salt” (Mt 5:13) or of “ferment” (Mt 13:33), as “a mustard seed” (Mt 13:31). We should not be surprised if—as is the case in today’s Gospel—he is amazed to see that “large crowds were walking along with him” (v. 25). And he is seized by doubt that there was a misunderstanding, that the crowds have misunderstood his words. He turns and begins to explain what is involved in the choice to be his disciples (v. 25).
Jesus makes three very hard requests, that end with the same severe refrain: cannot be my disciple! (vv. 26,27,33). It almost seems that he wants to keep people away rather than attract them. The passage was often applied to the monastic vocation. It is actually directed to the crowds that go with him, is aimed at those who want to be Christians.
We begin with a clarification: If you come to me—says Jesus—not “if one wants to come after me” (v. 26). The difference is subtle but significant because it reveals the intention of the evangelist. Luke wants to address the words of Jesus to the many converts of his communities who are attracted by the Master, feel sympathy for him and his message but are also tempted to “tame” the Gospel, to make it more negotiable.
The conditions that Jesus places are clear and are not negotiable.
The first: “If you come to me, unwilling to sacrifice your love for your father and mother, your spouse and children, your brothers and sisters, and indeed yourself, you cannot be my disciple.” (v. 26).
When he presents the requirements of the Christian vocation, Jesus always uses very strong images. He does not want anyone to get illusions. We heard him a few Sundays ago declaring to those who wanted to follow him: “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head… Let the dead bury their dead” (Lk 9:57-62). On another occasion, he spoke of the need to gouge the eye and cut the hand and foot than scandalize people (Mk 9:43-47). However, he never came to claim that it is a must to hate one’s own family and even one’s own life. How is it possible? The Christian is one who loves everyone, even the enemies.
Someone solves the difficulty by arguing that, in the language of Jesus, the word to hate also means “to love less”, “to put in second place”. It’s true, but perhaps this is not the right solution. First, love has no limits and the more one loves, the better. God is not jealous and considers as addressed to him all the love given to persons (Mt 25:40). There’s no need to be afraid to exaggerate. Besides, to reduce the severe words of the Master to a simple question of quantity: “to love more—to love less” means not understand them.
When Jesus speaks of hate, he refers to the clean cuts one needs to do when it comes to staying faithful to the Gospel. To hate is to have the courage to break even the most loved bonds when they constitute an impediment to following him. It is the invitation to the Christians of the communities of Luke to dissociate, to oppose in every way what is contrary to the Gospel, even when it means to go in disagreement with a friend, offend the sensibilities of some family, giving up choices of compromise. These detachments, these positions can be classified as “hate”, but they are courageous gestures of genuine love.
The second condition: “Whoever does not follow me, carrying his own cross, cannot be my disciple” (v. 27).
This phrase is often interpreted as a call to patiently bear adversities, small or great sufferings of life. Other times it is understood as a call to mortify, to make sacrifices.
Jesus does not make a request for resignation, but of willingness to testify one’s own faith, even with one’s life. Martyrdom is a possibility to take into account for the proposal of new life—that of the Beatitudes—is shocking and triggers reactions. Who does not understand or consider it dangerous for good social or religious order, will certainly appeal to some form of violence. Maybe it will be just verbal abuse (insults, slanders, defamations, ridicules), but can manifest itself in discrimination, social or religious marginalization, in the ban. It can even result to physical violence, as it happened with Jesus.
This is the cross that the disciple has to expect.
Before introducing the third request, Jesus tells two short parables. The first is about a man who, wanting to protect the harvest from thieves and animals, decided to build a tower in his field to put a guard. He does not start work without having first calculated the amount needed to complete the work. It goes up to his reputation (vv. 28-30).
The second parable tells of a king who wants to start a war. He also sits down and evaluates the forces of his army (vv. 31-32). There was a saying: before going to hunt lions, take your spear and stick it to the ground. If you cannot make it penetrate deeply, give up your project: the lions are too strong for you!
The two parables seem an invitation to renounce the Christian vocation. In fact, the goal is to remind of the seriousness and commitment that this choice entails.
Who has heard the Gospel cannot illude himself of being already a disciple? The impulses and the initial enthusiasm are not sufficient, constancy and strength are necessary to persevere.
The third condition: “None of you may become my disciple if he doesn’t give up everything he has” (v. 33).
It is not about giving a few coins as alms. One has to give up everything. It is not a joke!
To make this request feasible an unhappy solution was devised. They started to talk about institutes of perfection (religious, monks, nuns) who—taking the vows—undertake to fully practice what Jesus demands. The simple Christians can instead continue to own and administer their assets, but they must resign themselves to being imperfect Christians. In short, the renunciation of goods would not be a precept for all, it would be one more proposal to some heroes, committed to practice also the “optional” parts of the Gospel.
It is a clumsy trick. The demand for total detachment from assets is not addressed only to some, but to everyone who comes to Jesus. Lest any doubts arise, Luke several times referred to this condition laid down by the Master (Lk 12:33; 18:22…).
It is not easy to forward concrete proposals. Luke presented in the Acts the community in which no one was poor because they had all pooled their property (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-35). Certainly, the decision to follow Christ involves a completely new relationship even against the goods of this world.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading.