TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
USCCB Link to all three readings
Great crowds were traveling with Jesus,
and he turned and addressed them,
“If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother,
wife and children, brothers and sisters,
and even his own life,
he cannot be my disciple.
Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me
cannot be my disciple.
Which of you wishing to construct a tower
does not first sit down and calculate the cost
to see if there is enough for its completion?
Otherwise, after laying the foundation
and finding himself unable to finish the work
the onlookers should laugh at him and say,
‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.’
Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down
and decide whether with ten thousand troops
he can successfully oppose another king
advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops?
But if not, while he is still far away,
he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms.
In the same way,
anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions
cannot be my disciple.”
Here is yet another of the “hard sayings” of Jesus that have dominated the summer liturgies. It builds directly upon preceding Sunday readings, including Jesus’ earlier instruction that he had come to set families at odds with each other by the radical nature of his call, and last weekend’s passage about inviting the wrong guests to one’s banquet for the wrong reasons. In this Sunday’s sequence Luke begins by reminding us yet again that Jesus is on the journey to Jerusalem for the final showdown, and that he is attracting larger crowds as he progresses. Joel Green describes the crowd as neutral observers whose decisions about the demands of the kingdom are still in the contemplative stage, so to speak. Given that later in this reading Jesus speaks of a king setting off for battle with an adequate army, it is not so far-fetched to think that Jesus is building his army of the new kingdom before it is too late and the door to the kingdom will be shut.
The fact that Jesus had to turn to address his crowd (v. 25) makes sense in that he had “set his face for Jerusalem,” and he proceeds here to talk yet again about the true meaning of discipleship. It has been a significant experience for me to blog weekly on this string of discipleship teachings this summer, and despite the discomfort of soul these texts arouse, I feel like my life and theological work has been vitalized by awakening to the full dimension of Jesus’ call. I can only imagine how these words were received in Jesus’ time, as he states that no one who loves his family—and even life itself—cannot be a disciple, and thus not admittedly to the glory of life after death.
Verse 26 is not a command to disown or despise one’s roots, but to realize how loyalties to family and society interfere with the greater business of discipleship. Verse 27 speaks of taking up the cross. Green observes that the text is written in the present tense, as if to rule out an interpretation of “I’ll be ready someday if asked.” Green’s quote about the true cross bearing disciple deserves quotation: “Such persons would live as though they were condemned to death by crucifixion, oblivious to the pursuit of noble status, finding no interest in securing one’s future via securing obligations from others or by stockpiling possessions, free to identify with Jesus in his dishonorable suffering.” (p. 566)
The two parables in Sunday’s text are addressed to those in the crowd contemplating what to do about Jesus’ words. Green suggests that this multitude included professional men and solders, who would have understood the intricacies of engineering and military campaigns respectively. In both examples the parties involved—a landowner building a tower and a king marching into battle—are confronted with the reality that neither has thought through his plans carefully nor have they the resources to so what they intended. The second example—where the king is advised to send delegates for peace talks before it is too late—is probably the clearer example. For Jesus has indicated that time is running out and the moment of judgment is nearly at land. An ill-equipped army moving inexorably forward to a certain battle is like watching an auto accident about to unfold. It is a vivid word picture, and the crowd (as well as readers of our time) are challenged to reflect upon how well-armed they are for the last battle, and what they can and should do to remedy a catastrophe ready to fall in on their heads.
In application to our Church life today, those of us who teach moral theology generally find ourselves in a dilemma. The Church puts considerable emphasis upon detailing the kinds and gravity of sins we must avoid. This is done in a number of ways—papal teaching, as in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical in 1968 on artificial birth control; parish preaching and catechetics; the Catechism of the Catholic Church. There is an expectation from above and below (Church authority and many of the faithful) that we teachers “teach the book,” as we used to say in college. I never agreed with that model on the grounds that if all morality was summed up in books as the famous Manuals purported to do, there was no need for teachers. (I did find a copy of a 1924 Manual here.)
On the other hand, the source and summit of all Judeo-Christian morality is in fact the person and example of Jesus Christ, and careful reading of his words in Luke’s Gospel, for example, reveals an open-ended morality of self-giving in which none of us can say, “Well, I’m OK” or “I’ve done enough.” The only honest way to address morality—in the heart, the confessional, the classroom—is to return to its core, to the extraordinary demand and reward of discipleship. As one famous theologian put it, Christianity is the only one of the world’s religions that demands that its follows strive to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Luke, during the summer heat, slams home the truth that discipleship is neither metaphor nor hyperbole.