In Sunday’s Gospel, “great crowds were traveling with Jesus.” He turns to the crowd and delivers a stiff warning. Why?
Gospel (Read Lk 14:25-33)
The Gospels often remind us of the sizable crowds that followed Jesus everywhere He went (see Mt 5:1; Mk 1:45; Jn 6:10). We always equate large crowds following a public figure with success. If the size of his crowd begins to shrink, so does his significance. That is why, as we read St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ reaction to the crowd following Him in this episode, we might be surprised: “If anyone comes to Me without hating his father and mother, wife and children … and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.” Well. Pronouncements like that seem certain to start reducing His audience.
Yet, Jesus goes on: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.” This is getting dark! Jews listening to Jesus knew the cross as a torturous means the Romans utilized to execute criminals. Why was Jesus speaking this way to people eager to follow Him?
If we recall how often Jesus warned people He healed not to tell anyone about it, we might better understand His somewhat harsh exhortation to the crowd. He is not, of course, urging His followers to “hate” their families; He uses Semitic hyperbole to call those who want to be His disciples to have undivided love for Him. Even family affection cannot interfere with the primary duty of discipleship. Jesus’ use of the cross as a metaphor for the cost of following Him simply states a fact of life in God’s kingdom—it requires death to self, death to the world, death to the enticement of the devil. Only by going down into death can there be new life in Christ and the kingdom He brings.
Jesus makes it clear that following Him is hard. The crowds in attendance probably hoped to see a spectacle—a miraculous healing, an exorcism, a multiplication of loaves and fish, etc. They needed to know that being His follower requires much more from them than curiosity or excitement or hope for a physically healthier life. Jesus explains why.
Using examples the crowd would understand, Jesus points out that anyone who begins a serious work (building a tower, going into battle) must sit down to “calculate the cost,” lest he suffer the humiliation that comes from not having “the resources to finish.” Discipleship cannot be half-hearted and slip-shod. To be His follower means renunciation. People who clustered around Him needed to know that. He did not appear within the stream of human history only to work miracles. The reason He worked miracles was the same reason Moses worked them. God enabled Moses to work miracles so the Israelites would trust and follow him out of bondage to slavery and home to the Promised Land. Jesus worked miracles to prove to the Jews that they should recognize Him as the New Moses, the Messiah, and follow Him out of bondage to sin and death into the new life of God’s kingdom. The Israelites of Moses’ day needed to leave their possessions and flee Egypt for home. Followers of Jesus need to leave attachment to this world and love of ourselves to flee for our true home with Him.
Do we think this exhortation whittled away the crowds that day? Did folks mutter, as they walked away, “This is isn’t what I bargained for”? Do we sometimes want to mutter that, too?
Possible response: Lord Jesus, in honesty I must admit that I often want You to make my life easier, not harder. I need this reminder.
First Reading (Read Wis 9:13-18a)
This reading gives us a beautiful, poetic meditation on the essence of what made Jesus’ words so baffling to the “great crowds” in our Gospel. “Who can know God’s counsel, or who can conceive what the Lord intends?” Humanly speaking, we don’t think Jesus should have made it so hard and unappealing to follow Him, do we? That doesn’t seem to us like the best way to start a movement. However, God’s ways are not our ways: “For the corruptible body burdens the soul and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns.” It is hard to comprehend why God does what He does. Jesus makes that ever so clear in our Gospel. To live the life of radical discipleship the way Jesus describes it will mean we need the help of the Holy Spirit, “for the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans.” So helpless are we to understand God’s ways that “scarce do we guess the things on earth, and what is within our grasp we find with difficulty.”
Certainly there were people who heard Jesus speak that day in our Gospel and decided to stay with Him, asking, “Lord, how can we live like this?” On the Day of Pentecost, they found out the truth of the Book of Wisdom: “Whoever knew Your counsel, except You had given wisdom and sent Your Holy Spirit from on high. And thus were the paths of those on earth made straight.”
Possible response: Lord Jesus, Your Holy Spirit makes possible the life You call me to. Thank You for this gift of true life.
Psalm (Read Ps 90:3-6; 12-17)
The psalmist speaks realistically about our need to recognize our utter dependence on God to live life wisely. He emphasizes the fragile and seemingly arbitrary fleeting nature of our days on earth: “You turn man back to dust … You make an end of them in their sleep; the next morning they are like the changing grass, which at dawn springs up anew, but by evening wilts and fades.” If this is how life is, then the best response to it is to turn to God and say, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.” In our Gospel, Jesus gave the “great crowds” a jolt with His surprising exhortation against following Him half-heartedly. He wanted to sift out those who were seriously heeding His words. He wanted to find those who would stick with Him and say, “In every age, O Lord, You have been our refuge.”
Whenever we are baffled by Jesus, we can never do anything better than pray that prayer.
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.
Second Reading (Read Philem 9-10, 12-17)
Now, St. Paul gives us an example of how God’s ways are not man’s ways. This is a letter he wrote to a Christian friend, Philemon, whose slave, Onesimus, had run away from him. The slave somehow came into contact with St. Paul and was converted to Christ (Philemon had likewise been converted through St. Paul’s ministry). Onesimus became like a son to St. Paul, but the apostle knew he should return to his master to make amends for his desertion and possible thievery (see vss 11, 18). He is even willing to pay Philemon whatever Onesimus owes him to ensure that justice is served (see vss 18-19). Under Roman law, runaway slaves were liable to the death penalty. Aware of such consequences, St. Paul intercedes for the life of this newly baptized slave. In this, the apostle challenges Philemon with a standard far higher than any Roman law (God’s ways are not man’s ways). It is the standard of Christian mercy. Not only should this master forgive and forget the wrongdoing of Onesimus, but St. Paul drops several hints that he should emancipate him entirely (see vss 16, 21). This appeal can be made on the basis of the mercy and freedom in Christ that Philemon himself experienced. It is time now for him to extend that gift to his new brother in Christ.
St. Paul is urging Philemon to put into practice what Jesus announced to the “great crowds” who traveled with Him: Put the love of Christ and the desire to do His will above all else. In this case, Philemon had an opportunity to show selfless mercy, dying to himself, instead of requiring strict justice.
God’s ways are not our ways.
Possible response: St. Paul, pray for me to be able to forget and forgive any who wrong me. I know this is the life of God’s kingdom. God’s ways aren’t mine.