The readings for Sunday,September 4, 2016, Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C, are Wisdom 9:13-18b; Philemon 9-10, 12-17; and Luke 14:25-33.
In his ongoing catechesis under the framework “Journey to Jerusalem,” Luke continues to astound readers with difficult material for instruction. In this Sunday’s Gospel reading he seems to have reached the limits of problematic sayings attributed to Jesus. He writes, “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.” Pity the homilist who has to deal with this at a Sunday morning Mass. Matthew 10:37-38 has a similar statement. Often when Matthew and Luke incorporate into their Gospels the same sayings attributed to Jesus, they have copied them from a lost Gospel that can to some extent be reconstructed from Luke and Matthew. That lost Gospel, called “Q”, from the German word “Quelle,” (Source), is known for its harsh and often condemnatory approach to the Good News, if we even dare call it Good News.
From the story of Cain and Abel, to the story of Jacob’s sons and their treatment of their brother Joseph, up to this very day, hatred of family members, even of parents, has not been unknown among Christians. No one, however, should use the Gospel as an excuse for hatred of parents, etc. Luke, a classic Greek writer, often uses hyperbole, (exaggeration) for emphasis. Such may be the case here. We must keep in mind that Luke attributes to the same Jesus this saying, “Honor your father and your mother,” Luke 18:20. Nor does he add, “except when you want to be my disciple.” A true disciple of Jesus incorporates love of family into love of Jesus, but Jesus is primary, and through him others.
The next saying in this Lucan collection of Jesus-sayings: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” To carry one’s own cross could still, in the time of Luke, mean actual crucifixion. Luke has to be aware of what happened in Rome during the persecution of Christians under the Emperor Nero about twenty years before he composed his Gospel. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote of the persecution of Christians by order of Nero,”He destroyed them by putting them into the skins of wild beasts, and setting dogs on them to tear them to pieces. Some were nailed to crosses, and others burned to death. They were also used in the night time instead of torches for illumination.” It was this persecution (and the fall of Jerusalem to a Roman army), that seems to have led to the composition of Mark’s Gospel for the surviving Christian Community at Rome.
Since however Luke was speaking of family earlier, the “cross” may also refer to family life, at least as Luke may have experienced it. Family can be a great joy but also a great burden. A true Christian cannot walk away from the burden part. A job to support one’s family can also be a joy or a burden, but a true Christian cannot walk away from that burden. To cover situations other than persecution and actual crucifixion, Luke has already written in 9:23, “If anyone would come behind me, let him take up his cross daily and follow me.”
To make the point of his instruction, Luke now adds two brief parables of Jesus. A man wants to build a tower. If he wants this project to be successful, he has to carefully consider the cost to see if he has the financial means to complete it. Otherwise, after putting down a foundation, the work has to stop. All who see the uncompleted work will ridicule the planner. Second parable: A king considers making war on another king. (This was the major occupation at one time of kings of France and England, as it was in ancient times.) The first king has ten thousand troops. The king he wants to attack has twenty thousand. The first king gets cold feet. He sends an embassy to ask for terms of peace. The obvious meaning of the two parables is this: It is tough to be a Christian or to lead a Christian life. It take’s planning and the will to see the plan through all the way to the end. At the end of this Gospel reading Luke returns to the severe theme of the beginning but without proclaiming hatred of family, “So therefore whoever does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” Let’s spin this saying as follows: “Whoever does not put God (Jesus) first cannot be my disciple.” It is possible to love family through and because of Jesus.