By: Fr. James Gross
In every congregation that hears Jesus’ words today, Catholic or otherwise, a great many of its members own possessions, and lots of them. There are major possessions, like homes, cars, and property, but let’s not stop there. How easy would it be to do an inventory of every single thing you own, from the last little tool in your garage to the last pair of socks in the back of your dresser drawer? The truth is that most of us own things, tucked away in closets and attics, that we hadn’t even thought about for years. We think we live fairly simply, but how many millions of people from other continents would be amazed at the volume of stuff we own?
What, then, do we make of the parting shot Jesus delivers at the end of our Gospel reading? “Anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” Are we hypocrites? Or have Christians, at some point along the way, chosen to ignore these verses in favor of a contrary lifestyle? Will we do what so many other children of God will do today—conveniently gloss over this teaching and not touch it with a ten-foot pole? That seems to be a bad habit to develop.
Many scholars have closely studied the so-called “hard sayings” of Jesus (and if ever there were any, we have just heard them). Often their thesis goes something like this: we can find a way to accept the thunder and fury behind the Lord’s message while appropriating his specific directions in a measured and rational way. For example, wouldn’t most of us have eye patches or prosthetic limbs if we literally followed the Lord’s advice that if our eye, hand, or foot is ever our undoing, we should remove them?
Most of us make that rationalization, perhaps without even knowing it. But at what point do we risk sanitizing the Gospel so that it loses its fierceness and its challenge? At what point do we subtly turn the Lord Jesus into someone he is not?
The fact of the matter is that, whether we approve of them or not, Jesus says some things to us that we find unpleasant. His words wound those pieces of our hearts that we withhold from him. And only his grace provides the salve to heal those wounds. If we insulate ourselves from the Lord’s hard sayings, it is only an anesthetic. We are broken and not healed; we remain wounded, numb, and unreconciled. As for those of us called to be leaders and preachers in the Church of Christ, if we choose not to “tell it like it is,” we commit a greater sin than those who hear the truth but refuse to live in it. In his immense love, Jesus ransomed the lost sheep of the house of Israel, rather than to leave them to forage in the wilderness among the wolves. Old Testament prophets such as Ezekiel offered grave warnings that the shepherds of the Jewish faith did not exist to shepherd only themselves.
Our modern society brings out the long knives and fights vigorously against the bold proclamation of Christ’s teachings, undiluted and uncompromised. So many who choose what are called “new age” religions flee from objective truth about virtue and holiness in order to be able to decide what is true for them. Our response cannot be to prune away one verse here and another verse there in order to keep the peace, because what we’re really doing is depriving those whom we love of the full revelation of the Word of God, a supernatural gift without equal.
As we heard a couple weeks ago, our road as disciples is not a wide and smoothly paved one. God made us for greatness. God made us for holiness. And Jesus has set out for us a clear and radical way to reach that destination. We will not, cannot, get there by way of a bland, morally flexible set of principles. Frankly, we can come up with something like that easily enough on our own. All we can offer one another is heaven on earth. The Holy Trinity offers us heaven in the celebration of the Liturgy. Through Christ His Son, God speaks to our human hearts and leads them to a glimpse of divinity.
There is no other way for us as Christians to live then to first put on the heart and mind of Christ. St. John of the Cross, a priest and mystic from the 16th century, once said that Jesus is like a mine with deep, rich pockets, and when we survey those pockets, we find an inexhaustible treasure beyond price. No decision in our lives is neutral, or stands apart from the magnificent love of Christ. He did not come among us in such miraculous means to proclaim, “Keep on keeping on; you do your thing and I’ll do mine.” Jesus came to teach, to confront, to suffer, to die, and to rise again. When he becomes our first priority, we’ll be as well prepared as the carpenter building a tower or the army commander mustering troops for battle.
There is one more item we need to deal with from today’s Gospel; the Lord’s use of the word “hate” is not only a hard saying, but a head-scratcher for a lot of us. Jesus used that word on purpose, but we can hardly imagine why. Here’s how I like to interpret this, for what it’s worth. I myself would hate, and I mean deeply hate, for someone, even those dear to me, to prevent me from being united to God. It is repulsive to me that any person or thing could derail me from the greatest love of my life. The first commandment alludes to this in its instruction not to have any strange gods before God alone. Here’s an example: a priest in the seminary told us before we left for Christmas break, “Your family and friends back home will want you to spend a lot of time with them, and that’s good. But don’t set aside your responsibilities to the Lord. Tell them that you need time alone for prayer and reflection, as well as attending Mass every day. Even if they pitch a fit or feel insulted, stick to your guns. There is time enough for everything, but always put God at the front of the line.”
We have come here today, as on so many Lord’s Days in the past, because we believe two basic things: each of us needs to be transformed, and God alone, in His mercy and power, can transform us. If neither of those were true, we’d be saying that we are finished products. Our ancestors in faith didn’t dare to make such a claim about themselves. They knew they needed purification, redemption, and grace. And what a fountain of grace God has delivered! In addition to what we’ve heard today, let’s keep another message from Jesus in mind: “Blessed are your eyes for what they see and your ears for what they hear! Many a prophet and righteous man longed to see what you see and did not see it, and longed to hear what you hear and did not hear it.”