Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sept. 8)

Jesus attracts many people. We read over and over again in the Gospels that many people would gather to hear him preach and teach, to see him cure the sick, to experience the compassion of mercy and to just be in his company.

When we read the Gospels, we also become aware that Jesus continually offers an invitation to faith. He invites the many people he meets along the way to believe in him and to follow.

Most of us will be familiar with the more developed stories of these invitations. For example, the call of Peter, Andrew, James and John; or that of Matthew; or Zacchaeus; or Martha and Mary; or the woman with the hemorrhage. However, there are many more. Many people responded then, and as the church continued the mission of Jesus, that same invitation has been offered and many more accepted. And what did they find? Love, mercy, compassion and joy.

This Sunday’s Gospel is another one of those encounters where Jesus invites others to follow him. In this case he gives us a teaching about what it means to be a disciple. At the heart of discipleship is a relationship with Christ Jesus.

We have all experienced the importance of relationships in our lives. We are conceived in a relationship and are born into a family of relationships. As we grow friendships develop on all different levels. Relationships are important because God has made us such that we need each other, and we need healthy and wholesome relationships. Jesus understands this as he himself is a witness.

Perhaps that is why we sometimes get confused when Jesus says, as in Sunday’s Gospel: “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.” What is he getting at? Why is this saying so strong and, at first glance, so stark?

Perhaps Jesus is using the strong language to jolt us a bit to ponder our relationship with God. He will say elsewhere that “no one comes to the Father except through the Son.” Jesus is the way we enter into a relationship with the God we cannot see. The Father becomes known through Jesus.

The passage from Wisdom (the first reading for Mass) begins, “Who can know God’s counsel, or who can conceive what the Lord intends?” which reminds us of the greatness of God and his wisdom. Yet as the author concludes: “Or who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high? And thus were the paths of those on earth made straight.”

The beginning of the public ministry in the Gospel according to St. Luke may help us understand the connection with Jesus. In that scene Jesus enters the synagogue and reads from the Isaiah scroll. The passage begins: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”

When Jesus finishes, he says to all gathered: “Today, this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” The Spirit of the Lord is upon Jesus. He is the one who makes “the paths of those on earth” straight. Hence our relationship with God is developed in relationship with Jesus, his Son.

When Jesus is first in our lives then we are on a clear and steady path to the Father. Other relationships are important but they cannot be substitutes for a relationship with him. He is the one who leads us to the fullness of life. When our relationship with him is developed and strong we are better able to enter into healthy and wholesome relationships with others. And our footing in life is sound.

Jesus then gives a second point regarding discipleship — the cross. He says: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Another time will say: “Whoever does not take up his cross daily is not fit to be my disciple.” The cross is the way of love. Jesus empties himself of self-reliance and depends in total faith on the Father. He gives completely in love even to the point of suffering. He embraces the pain of the cross all the while forgiving those who inflict the pain.

In the cross love, mercy and faithfulness rob evil, sin and doubt of power. Death gives way to life. Following Jesus on his way entails an embrace of the cross — living the life of love, mercy and faithfulness. This is the path to life and so Jesus calls us to carry the cross in whatever form it may take in our lives.

Finally, Jesus gives the instruction, “any one of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” He uses the peculiar example of a king preparing for battle and discerning the best course of action. Perhaps one aspect of this, as tied to possessions, is that they can easily become a distraction for us. When this happens, our ability to make good decisions becomes impaired. In the grand scheme of life, we know they have little intrinsic value.

At the same time, we can easily get caught up in “having” more. The more we seek to “possess” things, the less attention is given to the eternal and enduring aspects of life, particularly love. Jesus is not saying that possessions are bad but that being possessed by the possessions is bad — hence the call to “renounce.”

Jesus continues to draw people to himself. We encounter him in the Gospel. We encounter him in the life of his disciples, the life of the church. The life of discipleship is one built on a relationship of love. As in our relationships with family and friends, this relationship grows and develops over time.

The path to God is sure, for it is his Son who leads us and on this path we will not only find love, mercy, compassion and joy, but we will be able to share them with others.

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.