23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Preached September 8, 2019; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
Powerful people in the world get together to make plans and pursue their agendas: We have the United Nations, the G-7 or G-20, the European Union, the Bilderberg Group; we have the assorted legislative assemblies and various executives, with their advisors, of nations great and small. In addition there are all manner of NGOs and activist groups meeting together, planning, and sponsoring activities to achieve their goals.
Very often they make use of words like peace, prosperity, and justice for all men, or their concern might extend even further to the care of the whole planet.
The word of God pronounces judgment on them all:
The deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans. For the corruptible body burdens the soul and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns.
It is not that all these men and women mean badly; often they mean well. Even when they are seeking their own power and profit they might, at the same time, be working for their people, their nation, and even in some way for all humanity.
Nevertheless, because they do not know God, much less his will, they act in ignorance, without wisdom. As a result their best laid plans go awry, often in destructive ways. How can it be otherwise when they lack the vision that comes from God?
Perhaps they aspire to a sort of universal brotherhood, unless they look rather for a universal sisterhood, or unless they set brother and sister in opposition in an unending battle of the sexes. We begin to see how their vision is lacking.
So also many people celebrate the end of slavery, looking down on slave owning societies of the past, but they are blind to the new forms of slavery – not to mention human trafficking – growing up before our eyes.
Now let us consider the remarkable words of St. Paul to Philemon, regarding his runaway slave, Onesimus:
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 to you, as a man and in the Lord.
St. Paul is writing at a time when slavery was simply regarded as an unquestioned, if grim fact of life. He does not propose any legislation banning slavery and imposing punishments for its violation. He does something much more powerful: he plants a seed that in the end will make slavery unthinkable for all who believe.
Onesimus, the slave, is elevated in dignity, in the eyes of Philemon his master, above the condition of slavery by two things that slave and master have in common. These are deeper realities than their current relationship, the accidents of birth, and the chances of life. These two things make them to be brothers: their common humanity and their common Lord, Jesus Christ. Once Philemon recognizes these realities, he never look at Onesimus the same way again.
Nevertheless, we need both realities because in the last analysis the brotherhood of common humanity proves impossible without the lordship of Jesus.
Why? Because without the vision of a common humanity there can be no brotherhood. Finally, though, we can only arrive at that vision, in the fullness of truth, through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, who makes God known to us and, in the light of God, makes us known to ourselves in our common humanity, with our common Father in heaven, the Creator of all, male and female in his image, and our common destiny in the Father’s house.
Now we come to today’s Gospel.
Jesus, the teacher of love, exhorts us to ‘hate’ and what ‘hate’! He exhorts us to ‘hatred’ of those who are by nature closest to us, father and mother, wife and children, brother and sister.
What is the meaning of this?
It would be dangerous indeed to misunderstand our Lord’s words.
The family, together with family love and loyalty, is surely a great good. Today we see the contrary of this good in the destruction of the family. Our Lord is not talking the sort of hatred that is often involved in divorce, child abuse, and abandonment of elderly parents; he is not talking about a hatred that would undermine the good of the family. The contemporary destruction of the family is forging new bonds of slavery from which the Lord would deliver us. Dehumanized slaves do not have families: just masters and fellow slaves.
Nevertheless, for all the good of the family, if the family, clan, or tribe, indeed if any other group or nation, receives our supreme loyalty, we will find ourselves in opposition to other families, clans, tribes, groups, and nations. If the family has our supreme loyalty, we will be incapable of attaining any unity and peace beyond that of the family. We will be incapable of discovering our common brotherhood in humanity and in the Lord.
Well, in this fallen world there will always be some measure of conflict, but we must always seek peace in what unites us all in Jesus Christ. There is no other way. He is the only mediator between God and men; he is the way, the truth, and the life; he is the stone rejected by the builders that has become the cornerstone. (cf. 1 Ti 2:5; Jn 14:6; Mt 21:42; Mk 12:10-11; 1 Pe 2:7)
Jesus tells us in this Gospel that our supreme loyalty must always be given to him, even if that means that those closest to us accuse us of betrayal and hatred.
Jesus then gives us two examples that show us two fundamental choices we might make; we need to think through these choices. Shall we build a tower of pride against God? Or shall we send a ‘delegation’ to God, seeking peace terms?
The first example speaks of building a tower and that should remind us of the Tower of Babel, which is a symbol of human ambition and activity raised up against God.
We have our own plans and projects in life, but they are all timid and unsure, even if we put a bold face on them.
Do we really think we can complete the tower before we die? Have we not learned from the Psalmist: Unless the Lord build the house they labor in vain who build it. (Ps 127:1)
The souls condemned to hell must endure the eternal mockery of the universe: This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.
That is the destiny of those who build their lives and the world without God, without Jesus Christ and against God, against Jesus Christ.
The next example speaks of a king preparing to march into battle against another king, mightier than he. We are the weaker king, but in the pride of our mind we fail to recognize and admit the truth. Do we really think we can oppose God?
Rather, while we are still in this life must we not send a delegation asking for peace terms?
What delegation and what terms? If we get the delegation right we will also receive the more favorable terms.
Any old religion is not good enough. The right delegation to send to God is the one that he himself gave us: His Son, Jesus Christ, our High Priest and Mediator.
We send the delegation to God (or the delegation is ‘sent’, in Latin ‘missa’, the origin of the word ‘Mass’) through the hands of the priest at the altar in the Mass.
Unfortunately, this central reality of the Mass, sending the sacrifice of reconciliation to the throne of God, is obscured by the innovation of having the priest stand at the altar facing the people.
Whether it is obscured or not, this is indeed the central reality of the Mass. It is the central reality, but for it to become ‘my’ delegation or ‘our’ delegation, we must truly, knowingly, and actively participate or share in the ‘sending’.
We do this most of all at the moment of the consecration, at the words “This is my Body; This is the chalice of my Blood”, at the moment in which the death of Jesus is represented on the altar as the sacrifice that forgives sins, the sacrifice of salvation and reconciliation, the sacrifice that brings peace.
At the moment of the consecration we should unite ourselves to the sacrifice by listening to Jesus and renouncing all that we possess. This does not require that we run out and sell all that that we have and all that we need. Rather, it requires that we renounce the power within us by which we make use of all that we are and all that we have – our own will. We must slay our will and lay it as a lamb (or a goat) upon the altar with the Lamb of God. We must surrender to God, without condition. We must place ourselves completely at his disposal.
Then we will receive the favorable terms of peace with God, who will give us everything because he gives us himself. This is the meaning of holy communion. In the Mass we must give the little everything, which is ourselves, in order to gain the greater everything, which is God. This is the great risk of love. This is the Wisdom that comes to us from on high, through the word of God and the Holy Spirit.
There is nothing timid and unsure about this wisdom that frees the soul from mortal burdens and raises it heavenward.
This is the wisdom of Mary at the foot of the Cross. As Co-redemptrix she was the first, we could say, to send this delegation to God.