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Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: WIS 9:13-18B; PS 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14-17; PHMN 9-10, 12-17; LK 14:25-33

September 6, 2013

This Sunday and its Scripture readings come as a lot of us are get things underway again as fall arrives.  Labor Day has passed.  The school year has begun.  And the days of summer have flown by too quickly - as they always seem to do. 

Just as we are pulling ourselves together for another year of our work routines, the Gospel reading seems to hit us in the face like a cup of cold water.  These are the words of Jesus to the crowds following him on his fateful journey to Jerusalem where he will face final opposition and the cross.  Luke's Gospel is known for transmitting so many of Jesus' words about mercy and forgiveness.  It is sometimes called the "Gospel of forgiveness" (we might think of the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32 or of the woman Jesus forgives in Simon the Pharisee's house in Luke 7:36-50 or the forgiveness of his executioners and the good thief in the midst of Luke's passion narrative, Luke 23:34, 39-43). 

But there is another side to Luke's portrayal of Jesus and that is his focus on the cost of discipleship that we hear in today's gospel reading.  Living the way of life proclaimed by Jesus can be demanding and costly.  It can mean having to make difficult choices, even, at times, separating ourselves from our family and friends (Jesus' word "hating" brings us up short as it is meant to do...) if their attitudes or action run contrary to authentic Christian life.  The disciple of Jesus has to "carry his own cross" and follow Jesus - being willing to put one's life on the line for others as Jesus did. 

A parable found only in Luke drives home this point about "costly discipleship": if you are going to build something you ought to calculate the cost first before you begin; if you are a king preparing for battle (not likely for most of us...), you should make sure you have the troops to get the job done.  Otherwise you are going to look foolish.  The person who wants to truly follow Jesus has to prepare and to put aside anything that stands in the way.

Although it might not seem to be the case at first sight, the second reading for this Sunday taken from Paul's letter to Philemon makes a similar point.  The Letter to Philemon is the shortest of all Paul's letters (and worth reading in its entirety) but packs a strong moral punch.  Paul writes to his friend Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, a slave belonging to Philemon who apparently ran away and had become a friend of Paul while the apostle was in prison.  In accord with Roman law and practice, Philemon had every right to severely punish Onesimus - in some ways the economic structure of slavery demanded such discipline.  Paul is aware of this but appeals to Philemon, because he is a Christian, to treat Onesimus not as a slave but as a "brother."  Paul artfully makes his appeal to Philemon: "Perhaps this is why he (Onesimus) was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord."

A few years ago a Notre Dame scholar, James Burtchaell, wrote a study of this brief letter of Paul called Philemon's Problem.  Philemon's "problem" was precisely the kind of problem that Jesus speaks about in today's gospel reading: sometimes as followers of Jesus we are faced with a dilemma - do we act according to the values and wisdom our secular culture requires?  Or, do we sometime have to respond in a very different way because of what our faith tells us?  It so happens that on this Sunday, September 8th, the bishops of the United States have given all of us a bit of a "Philemon's Problem".  The bishops have asked pastors and preachers throughout the United States to speak this Sunday about immigration reform.  The bishops appropriately refrain from trying to dictate the political terms of this reform but they do insist that leaving 11 million undocumented immigrants in legal and social limbo and continuing to allow the separation of families that deportations have imposed on so many are not acceptable from a Christian moral point of view.  Many of the immigrants we are talking about are Catholics and among the poorest of the poor.  Ask any priest or religious or involved lay person who works with immigrants and they can document for us the terrible suffering and constant dread that so many immigrant families experience.

There is no doubt that good people are divided over how to solve this vast social dilemma for our country. But, at the same time, it is clear that the Jesus of the gospels calls us to count the cost of discipleship and to take up our cross and follow him.  We don't know how Philemon responded to Paul's entreaty - one hopes he received Onesimus back into his household, as a brother.  Let's pray for our country and its leaders this weekend that they will also choose to see the strangers in our midst as brothers and sisters.

Donald Senior, CP
President Emeritus and Professor of New Testament

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