Over these weeks I find it more and more meaningful that roughly half of St. Luke's Gospel consists of the Journey Narrative, which tells of the journey of Jesus and his disciples from their native Galilee to Jerusalem. It was in the holy city where the events of his passion, death, resurrection, and the formation of the Church at Pentecost with the descent of the Holy Spirit occurred. It did not dawn on me until last week that our New Testament readings for four weeks from the Letter to the Hebrews, which describes the life of faith as a journey and the redeemed as a pilgrim people, is a near perfect complement for at least part of Luke's Journey Narrative. At least in my mind there is no doubt the Scriptures are for living life, the life, as St. Augustine wrote to the wealthy Roman widow Proba, that is truly life.
This week's readings are, once again, about discipleship, particularly the cost of discipleship. Following Jesus does not only cost you something, it may cost you everything. In today's Gospel Jesus tells his followers that because being his disciple may cost them everything, they have to be willing to let go of it all and even to endure suffering - the cross. In other words, in making the decision to follow him, you must, like the tower builder and the king, calculate the cost. Today Mother Teresa of Calcutta will be raised to the altar as a saint. Along with many other holy women and men, many of whom lived quiet lives that will never see them made saints, Mother Teresa shows us that giving up everything is the condition for receiving what is most valuable.
While praying Evening Prayer yesterday, I was struck by the closing prayer:
God our Father,I think this prayer captures nicely the relationship between our first reading from the Book of Wisdom and our Gospel. Stated simply, God's wisdom often, perhaps usually, appears to us as foolishness. It certainly appears to those who don't believe as such.
the contradiction of the cross
proclaims your infinite wisdom.
Help us to see that the glory of your Son
is revealed in the suffering he freely accepted.
Give us faith to claim as our only glory
the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever
Our New Testament reading this week is from St. Paul's Letter to Philemon. The subject of the apostle's letter is Onesimus, who is a slave owned by Philemon. Both Philemon and Onesimus are Christians. Onesimus ran off with Paul. Paul writes to Philemon that he is sending Onesimus back to him, pleading with him to treat Onesimus mercifully, to recognize him, not as a slave, but as a brother. Our reading is a beautiful passage constituting the heart of the letter. In the context of the time, Paul's letter was radical and gives us an insight into how he set about to subvert the empire.
It seems that as soon as Paul learned Onesimus was accompanying him without Philemon's consent, he sent him back. Without a doubt being sent back was a cross for Onesimus. It seems something of a cross for Paul, too. He's clearly worried about how Philemon will receive his runaway slave, which is his reason for writing the letter. I don't think it's being too insensitive to Onesimus' plight to assert that, if he heeded Paul's plea, this was a provocation for Philemon too. It was a challenge for him to truly to live what he professed to believe, to leave old categories and power relations behind and live his new life in Christ, which is given in order to change everything, to establish the reign of God, which requires nothing less than turning the world upside-down.
Paul described Onesimus as "my own heart" (Phmn 12) and expressed his desire that Onesimus, whom he loved as son, remain with him. But Paul did not want Philemon to be forced to do good involuntarily, but to do so voluntarily. presumably out of love for God and neighbor. In the end, we do not how the situation worked out. Did Onesimus, obedient to Paul, actually return to his master? If he obediently returned, did Philemon receive him as Paul urged? We don't know. Faith is risky because it means trusting God. Jesus trusted the Father and it led to him being whipped, beaten, made to carry his own cross, and then being crucified. It also led to his resurrection. But you can't have one (resurrection) without the other (passion and death). This is what I like to call the inverse property of redemption: no Easter without Good Friday and without Easter the crucifixion of Jesus merely marks another act of cruelty by the Roman imperium against a subjugated person.
What is the cost of following Jesus? For Onesimus it meant returning to a master from whose household he, a slave, escaped. For Paul it meant sending his "own heart," a beloved son, back to a master who was within his legal rights to brutally punish him. For Philemon it meant perhaps being seen as weak. It meant breaking with the unjust power relations between slaves and masters. It meant seeing a man he would've viewed as clearly his inferior, maybe as subhuman, not only as an equal, but as a beloved brother. Stated succinctly, for each of these three Christians following Christ had a high cost. It meant renunciation, what we would see as loss, in the hope that it was gain. This and not the false prosperity gospel glibly and smoothly proclaimed by false preachers, who grow rich fleecing their flock, is the glorious Christian life. Here and now it usually doesn't appear glorious at all. In explaining Onesimus' departure and return, Paul sought to draw Philemon gaze to the eternal: "Perhaps this is why he 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" (Phmn 15-16).
Today we're urged by the Lord count the cost of following him. What is the payment being asked of you? It cannot be nothing. To hold that the Lord is calling you to give up nothing is an attempt to hold everything tightly in your own grasp and take instead of giving. It is a refusal to follow Christ.
In his First Letter to the Corinthians Paul wrote: "Were you a slave when you were called? Do not be concerned but, even if you can gain your freedom, make the most of it. For the slave called in the Lord is a freed person in the Lord, just as the free person who has been called is a slave of Christ. You have been purchased at a price. Do not become slaves to human beings" (1 Cor 7:21-23).
In their song "Let It Go," the group Tenth Avenue North sings:
You say life is waiting for the one to lose control
You say You will be, everything I need
You said if I lose my life it's then I'll find my soul
You say let it go, You say let it go