THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP
HOMILY FOR TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, YEAR C. Readings: Wisdom 9:13-18; Psalm 90; Philemon 9-10.12-17 and Luke 14:25-33.
Today’s liturgy has made me ponder on certain questions: Is it easy being a true Christian? Does Christianity demand too much from us? While pondering on what the cost of discipleship requires of us, the spirit of commitment and sacrifice came to mind. This was the spirit that led Christ to offer himself as a living sacrifice, which appears to be foolishness in the sight of man but wisdom before God.
The first reading taken from the book of wisdom draws our attention to the depth of the wisdom of God. His good intention for humanity is revealed in Christ, giving up everything, passing through suffering and death to save humanity. This foolishness in the eyes of man can be understood only by those who have been granted wisdom from above that Christ gave up everything for our sake as a sacrificial lamb.
The spirit of sacrifice is also reflected in the second reading. In it we have the story of a runaway slave, Onesimus, who has come to know Paul in Rome, was converted by Paul to the Christian faith and rendered voluntary service to Paul in his Roman Imprisonment. In the spirit of sacrifice, Paul sent back Onesimus to Philemon. He needed him while in prison but allowed him to return to his master who equally needed him. Philemon also had to sacrifice something: he was admonished not to receive Onesimus as slave anymore but as a brother because of the gospel he has received. Slavery was permitted in various countries as at that time, including Israel. Various circumstances could lead to slavery, including being born of a slave, captured in battle, unable to pay one’s debt, or breaking into someone’s home. However, there were certain protections for slaves that were not common in most nations of that day. A master who beats his slave to death was subject to punishment (Ex. 21:20). A master who permanently injured a slave was required to release that slave (Ex. 21:26-27).
In this context, Paul did not question the validity of slavery but he does call Philemon to greet Onesimus as a Christian brother, and to allow that relationship to supersede that of master and slave. Interestingly, just as Paul is Philemon’s spiritual father, so he is also Onesimus’ spiritual father. Perhaps, this is why he said to Philemon, “You must have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you both in the flesh and in the Lord” (v. 16). This letter questions our relationship with our fellow Christians. How do we treat people around us: as brothers and sisters or as slaves? What is our relationship with those who work for and under us? Is it a master-slave relationship or that of brothers? As Disciples of Christ, can we sacrifice our comfort in order to restore the human dignity of others?
The gospel presents the height of sacrifice as the cost of discipleship. Christ has earlier said two Sundays ago, “I came to cast fire upon the earth. Do you think I have come to give peace? No, I tell you but rather division” (Lk. 12:49). As if that was not confusing enough, today he is saying, to his disciples, “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (v.27). It appears confusing because it sounds anti-family. In recent decades, we have seen the decline of the traditional family, a decline brought on largely because of our discomfort with commitment. We are beginning to recognize the consequences of that decline, and still do not want Christ to prevent it from getting worse.
Furthermore, Christ’ words sound disrespectful to the parents, which also conflicts with our values. This however is a figurative language and should not be interpreted literally but is instead calling us to commitment and sacrifice especially to our families. Christ himself loved his family; the Blessed Virgin Mary was one of his first and best disciples. So we must love and be ready to sacrifice for the good of our families. Christ will later promise us that our commitment and sacrifices will be rewarded, when he will say, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house, or wife or brothers, or parents or children, for the sake of the Kingdom of God who will not receive very much more in this age and in the age to come eternal life” (Lk. 18:29-30).
He also said, “Whoever does not bear his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (v. 27). Luke is writing to Christians who know what bearing the cross means. It is not enough for us as disciples to hate our own lives, but to carry our crosses, which is the instrument of death. Persecution has begun, and Christians are dying on different crosses every day. For the person desiring casual discipleship, Christ’ words about cross-bearing will be discouraging, but for Luke’s church, experiencing persecution, these words would ratify their sacrifices. Lastly, Christ said, “whoever does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (v. 33). The cost of discipleship demands detachment from material possessions as he will require of the rich young man to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor (Lk. 18:18-25). It is the level of sacrifice and commitment Christ demands from us, with it we will be ready to subdue our wills for God’s own will, without which, we will remain attached to our own will.
In a nutshell, it is costly to be disciples of Christ, as it enables us realize that becoming a Christian requires repentance and turning to face a new direction, which is commitment and sacrifice. In these the wisdom of God is hidden.
Fr. Ken Dogbo, OSJ