September 9, 2019
Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) on September 8, 2019 at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Wisdom 9:13-18b; Psalm 90; Philemon 9-10, 12-17; and Luke 14:25-33.
All of today’s readings come together to offer variations on a single theme: we shouldn’t let distractions lead us away from Christian discipleship. The Book of Wisdom tells us that God’s wisdom is beyond our comprehension. In the gospel, Jesus tells the hard truth: we cannot be disciples unless we lay aside other priorities.
But most of us are probably less familiar with our second reading, Paul’s Letter to Philemon. This is the only weekend in our three-year lectionary cycle when we hear from Philemon. So, here’s some background information. Philemon is a wealthy man living in the city of Colossae. Paul is in prison (presumably in Rome), and the messenger delivering Paul’s letter to Philemon is a man named Onesimus. The awkward thing is that Onesimus was a slave who belonged to Philemon but ran away. By Roman law, Philemon has the right to punish Onesimus. Paul and the early Christians are in no position to challenge Roman law or Roman norms. How can Paul persuade Philemon not to punish Onesimus?
For the times when we’ve failed to stay true to the gospel in complicated situations, we ask God for forgiveness.
Is Jesus literally asking us to hate our parents, siblings, spouses, and children? No. Scripture scholars say two things about this troubling passage. (1) Jesus uses the word “hate” as an attention-grabbing exaggeration. (2) Jesus’ main point is to stop other things from getting in the way of our discipleship. “You cannot be my disciple,” says Jesus, “if you do not take up your cross. You cannot be my disciple if other things distract you from following me.” Here in Austin in 2019, we have an oddly fitting example: the new skyscraper that we call “the Jenga tower” is fascinating, but a lot of people think that the structure at the top distracts from the look of the whole thing! 1 What distracts us from making Christian discipleship a more central priority in our lives?
Jesus has now been on his way to Jerusalem for five chapters of the gospel of Luke. At this point, it must be clear to those traveling with Jesus that they have to relinquish control of their schedules and plans if they are to literally follow Jesus. And this is a good weekend to talk about letting go of control.
Think of Philemon, the wealthy man to whom Paul is writing in the second reading. His slave Onesimus has run away, and now he’s returned, bearing a letter from Paul. This was in a time and a place where slavery was widely observed; Philemon is probably outraged to have lost this person that he considers to be his property; and Philemon surely expects to take possession of Onesimus again, and perhaps severely punish him for running away. So, what does Paul do? He talks about the love that Christians are supposed to have for one another. He calls Onesimus “my own heart,” “a brother, beloved especially to me,” and then Paul challenges Philemon – knowing full well that the other Christians in Colossae will know what he has written – to “welcome [Onesimus] as you would me.”
Thank God we live in a time and a place where we see chattel slavery as a grave sin. But how many of us, like Philemon, have grown accustomed to privileges and luxuries, that if we really think about it, keep us from being the best of Christian disciples. Most of us are control freaks… and a lot of us have probably taken it to the higher level of becoming “control artists.” We value having autonomy, of controlling our schedules. Do our schedules or our possessions make it harder to have time for God, or for the family members, friends, and strangers who deserve our love? Right now, I’m trying to get better at prioritizing my time in the office: what should I be doing myself, and what should be assigned to other members of the staff so that I have more time to meet with people in need? Are all of us willing to make lifestyle changes to better protect the environment, such as minimizing our purchase of single-use items, or – heaven help us! – changing our travel habits to reduce our carbon footprint?
As the Book of Wisdom notes, many concerns “weigh down the mind.” Surely many of these concerns are distractions from discipleship… but the opposite is also true: God is often present in the ongoing distractions of life. Are we too distracted by unimportant things that we can’t make time for the distractions that could lead to a richer, fuller, holier life?
This past week included the feast day of a woman who led a rich, full, and holy life in the late 20th century: St. Teresa of Kolkata. In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, she was the standard by which everyone else measured their holiness. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say “I’m no Mother Teresa” while I was growing up, I would have had enough money to make a substantial donation to one of the 600 missions her sisters run for the care of refugees, former prostitutes, the mentally ill, abandoned children, lepers, and people with AIDS.
Mother Teresa exhibited the wisdom of today’s first reading and psalm. She recognized that the world was full of situations beyond her control, and that she did not have the skills and insights to fix the problems. Nevertheless, she took refuge in the LORD. She famously said, “ Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
We must strive not be distracted from our Christian discipleship. Not all of us can do great things, but we can follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace, with great love.
Mother Teresa, the tiny woman from Albania who worked in the slums of Kolkata, changed the world. There are now forty-five hundred Missionaries of Charity caring for the poorest of the poor in one hundred thirty-three countries. When asked how she was able to accomplish so much good, Mother Teresa replied, “My secret is very simple: I pray.”
We may not be able to renounce all our possessions, but let us continue to renounce the distractions that distance us from God and from God’s people.