Gospel for the Twenty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (8 September 2019)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions (Luke 14:25-33 – NRSV).
As Jesus travels towards Jerusalem – and the fulfilment of his mission – so the sense of urgency increases. The choices between what matters and what does not matter become more and more stark. Decisiveness and detachment are demanded of the disciple! Thus, in this chapter 14 of Luke’s Gospel we have Jesus tell the parable of the guests at a wedding feast choosing places of honour and then being humiliated because they are then asked to step down so that others more important than they are can be seated; this is followed immediately by another parable in which a banquet is given but the invited guests refuse to come and “the owner of the house became angry” and sent his slave to the open roads and hedgerows to force people to come and fill the seats at the banquet. These two stories, that are terribly confronting because they violate the deep-seated cultural mores, are followed by the call to give up everything for the sake of the Kingdom!
It is as well to remember that the message of the Kingdom is not really getting through to either the masses or the disciples. The message of a suffering Messiah whose victory will be the cross, is not within the wildest imaginings of any of his hearers. In an effort to break through to them, it is not surprising that Jesus is at times very blunt and even severe.
And we should not forget that in those ten chapters – from 9:51 when “he set his face towards Jerusalem” through to 19:27 – amidst all the warnings and talk of judgement and the end times, there are two of the greatest, heart-warming stories of all time – the Good Samaritan (10:29-37) and the Prodigal Son (15:11-32).
Joseph Fitzmyer writes of our text: “Jesus’ words to the crowds that accompany him form in this part of Luke’s travel account a connected discourse, which they did not form originally, and set forth three conditions of discipleship, uncompromising demands made of those who would follow him: the willingness to leave family ties, the willingness to face radical self-denial, and the willingness to give up one’s material possessions. In addition, he casts these conditions of discipleship in a demand for serious consideration and no-nonsense, prior deliberation about the costs of such following. The engagement is not to be undertaken lightly.
“The first condition (v. 26) calls for a willingness to put parents, family, relatives, even one’s own life, in subordination to discipleship. In preserving the vb. ‘hate’ from ‘Q,’ Luke presents Jesus’ first condition much more radically than does Matthew; there Jesus speaks of loving him more than parents or children (Matt 10:37). Indeed, the Lucan form has heightened the demand by the addition, ‘yes, even his own life’. In effect, it asks the Christian disciple how much he/she esteems this Jesus to whom allegiance is being given. ‘Only the person who is capable of a radical and painful decision, to set all natural, human relations behind the connection with Jesus (cf. 9:59–62; 8:19–21; 11:27–28) and to give up life itself in martyrdom, can really become a disciple of Jesus’ (J. Schmid, Evangelium nach Lukas, 247–248).
“The second condition (v. 27) calls for the disciple to carry his/her cross and walk behind Jesus; to carry one’s cross has already been explained in 9:23 as an image of self-denial. The Lucan Jesus here makes it one of the three conditions. In its own way it clarifies Luke’s addition to the first condition, the hating of one’s ‘own life’, for it may even lead to a destiny similar to that which Jesus will face.
“The third condition (v. 33) calls for a radical renunciation of all one’s material possessions. It needs no explanation, but one should recall the Lucan theme into which it fits (see pp. 247–251)” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, S. J., The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28A), Yale University Press, 2008, 1062).
We find similar material in Matthew 10:37-39. This text is also consistent with texts such as Mark 8:34-38 (“If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself etc”) and John 12:25 (“Unless the grain of wheat fall in the ground and die etc”). See also Matthew 16:24-27 and Luke 8:34-38.
hate: Even in the given context, this word is hard to accept – “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple”. And yes, this is a fair translation of the Greek word misein, the opposite of ‘love’ (agapaō). The promise is given in 1:71 that God will deliver the people from “all those who hate them”; in the Beatitudes Jesus says, “Blessed are you when people hate you” (6:22); this is followed by the instruction, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (6:27). Again, we must recall the axiom of interpreting the Sacred Scriptures: A part cannot be interpreted as contradicting the whole. Luke Timothy Johnson offers the following interpretation: “The terms denote attitudes and modes of action, not emotions. The point is not how one feels toward parents and family but one’s effective attitude when it comes to a choice for the kingdom; the choice involved in the terms is clear from 16:13. Note as well that this list includes those invited by Pharisees to their banquets (14:12). The point of the extended list is much like that in the saying concerning division in households (12:49–53). See also the demands of discipleship in 9:59–62, with the note there” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 229-230).
It is tempting to avoid Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel – Luke 14:25-33. Could Jesus really have said: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple”? That word “hate” jumps out at us, seeming to make a mockery of everything we believe about Jesus and the Good News of his life, death and resurrection. And therein lies a key to understanding what is intended here: Whatever else Jesus’ instruction means it cannot mean the opposite of everything he lived and taught. So how are we to interpret this saying?
Consider the experience of human maturation. “We try out different identities, and often get stuck with one or with a combination. So much of this is slavish imitation, or a series of pathetic attempts to be someone in the eyes of others. In any case it is not satisfying, because our real identity is beyond all that, given and yet to be discovered, waiting to be called out, to be exposed to trial and testing, to be honed into transparency. ... Insofar as familial and other relationships tend to involve me, long before I know what is happening, with versions of myself projected on to me by others, a time comes when, if I am not to be trapped in a second-hand version of who I am or might be, I may even have to hate” (Nicholas Peter Harvey, Morals and the Meaning of Jesus, The Pilgrim Press, 1993, 64-65).
Jesus’ immediate listeners typically derive their sense of identity from family and place. Jesus is saying to them: “You have to make the break in order to become who and what you are”. The break is not necessarily from the family or place as such but from the hold they have on you. They must not be allowed to define you. You are more than that! This is a massive challenge, sometimes demanding a deeply painful choice. The letting go, indeed the rejection, involved in the choice may even feel like – may even look like – hate.
This process of choosing continues throughout life. It is both gift and task. We can choose to be open to receive the gift of our true selves, but in the end the true self emerges as grace not conquest. It is God’s creative work, a work of Love. The conviction that it is Love at work makes all the difference as a poet suggests:
“I have seen the sun break through/to illuminate a small field/for a while, and gone my way/and forgotten it. But that was the pearl/of great price, the one field that had/the treasure in it. I realize now/that I must give all that I have/to possess it. Life is not hurrying/on to a receding future, nor hankering after/an imagined past. It is the turning/aside like Moses to the miracle/of the lit bush, to a brightness/that seemed as transitory as your youth/once, but is the eternity that awaits you” (R S Thomas, ‘The Bright Field’ in R S Thomas: Later Poems – 1972-1982, Macmillan, 1984, 81).