Twenty Third Sunday of the Year
Jesus has some strong, uncompromising and challenging words about the cost of discipleship and the cost of liberation that goes with it. Some might see as an offence to family-centred sensibilities and family values. Jesus is calling for a seismic shift in consciousness – hitting us in places where we are comfortable and drawing us into conversations that matter. They expose our real loyalties and offer us wider and creative horizons. It may come to detesting the ways of our forebears or society, who gave us full bellies and empty hearts, or despising our own ‘lifestyles’, organized as they are around beautiful things. Jesus asks more of us than the Church has ever done, or will need to.
Jesus is not suggesting hatred towards our loved ones. Where does he rank in our everyday lives, particularly when choosing between rival loves: Jesus/money, Jesus/power, Jesus/fame, Jesus/pleasure. We are called to count the cost. Count the cost when witnessing for non-violence. Count the cost when standing up to abuse by authority. Count the cost as people carry out non-violent sit-ins at the offices of parliamentarians to draw attention to treatment of people in off-shore detention.
No one escapes suffering - believer or atheist, Christian or Jew, black or white, young or old. The human cross consists of many forms: grief when a dear one dies, mental illness, AIDS that riddles the flesh, wars that ruin millions of lives in different ways, and the vilification endured for being gay. It is everywhere. As Saint-Exupery says: ‘There is no pain nor passion that does not radiate to the ends of the earth.’ It can bring God's grace to a person next door and to the farthest reaches of the earth. What we endure out of love touches others: gives courage, deepens faith, rekindles hope and enlivens love. But when Jesus calls us to take up our cross he is not suggesting that these forms of human suffering should be offered. He is referring to something very specific…..the cross entailed in following Jesus, the choices that need to be made.
A critical question is: how shall I live? Count the cost!! The cost of discipleship may require pain, discomfort, loss and suffering as consequences for standing up for what is right, truth, justice, and opposing domination, abuse of authority, and silence in the face of evil. In recent years, a stark example of this was the call to action by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson on abuse of power and authority in the church and the abuse of children. He did not always receive support from other bishops - even when they agreed with him, more fearful of their positions and standing. Count the cost! Cesar Chavez, the Mexican-American ‘saint’ and labour leader, said, ‘Nonviolence is really tough. You don't practice nonviolence at conferences; you practice it on picket-lines.’ So, count the cost when standing up to abuse by authority. You could be accused of being a feral – even when demonstrating peacefully. Jesus is saying that together we will build some great towers, and defeat some powerful enemies. It will cost a lot. Discipleship demands a courageous stand on the values we attach to people and things. Above all, it demands action where we see wrong and injustice.
Following Jesus involves a ‘hate’ so as to welcome all as brothers and sisters. We often hear that blood is thicker than water. In the survival-oriented life of Jesus' time, family, clan, and religious groupings were essential. There was little room for individual identity. Identity was based on belonging and status in an extended family.
So Jesus is truly forming a new family. It involves hearing and responding to God's word. It involves opening our eyes and ears to a new way of living community – building the Reign of God. This will be the source of our identity; the place where we will find acceptance irrespective of our previous social or economic standing. This teaching about big sacrifices is really an invitation to a new way of living.
The powers of the ‘old era’ want us to feed on our fears where we can kill other people's children in order to protect our own. The 'hating' in the gospel only makes sense if we realise that we now live in a new time in which everything has been made new 'when the wolf now lies down with the lamb, and when we can love our children without ever threatening anyone else's children.' [Stanley Hauerwas].
Paul today offers a radical vision of what it means to follow Jesus. We saw how the slave owner, Philemon, was invited to do something out of the ordinary and not treat the runaway slave, Onesimus, according to the law, but according the new way, the different way because of Jesus. He was calling for a different treatment of Onesimus. Jesus has made us all brothers and sisters and there is no room for categories such as slave or free, male or female, rich or poor, gay or straight because we are all one in Jesus. Disobey the law. Jesus radical vision is that we are on human family and we cannot do violence to each other.
All our pasts, loves, mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, children - dear ones - are now part of the new reality that God has begun where a non-violent way of living, in which the possibility of peace and justice for all, not just for some, has possibility. It must begin somewhere – usually with people who know the costs of making this new world possible.
We cannot fudge Jesus’ message. Clearly, we need to be prepared to take Jesus seriously in order to show the world an alternative. The only way we can love one another truly in our families is to also welcome others with a love that is as non-violent as it is truthful - a genuinely peaceable love. When Jesus asks us to sit down and get some advice before we follow – it is because we are in for a bumpy ride. Political leaders draw different conclusions to Jesus. They can even sprout social justice teaching but ignore it in practice. They can justify large amounts of national resources on weapons of death and destruction. What privileges have we maintained on the backs of third world countries, refugees, stealing aboriginal children from their mothers [for their own good of course] and stolen wages, taking the land from Aboriginal people without apology let alone recompense. Australia is becoming insane with power, wealth, and greed and blissfully unaware how our stand on human rights issues, protocols against torture, arrogance towards the people and government of Papua New Guinea and treatment of asylum seekers, has made us hateful in the eyes of other peoples. The trouble is, Christ, whose sign is the cross, may demand that we criticise the government, other institutions, and of course the Church.
Historian Henry Reynolds in his book on Anzac Day analyses how we combine the invasion of Gallipoli with our nationhood. Our nationhood, our manhood, is somehow connected not just with sacrifices made by soldiers but by the fact that it meant having to kill others who had posed no threat to us at all. Australia has been part of a coalition that has devastated Iraq and killed many thousands of innocent people. Millions have been pushed into exile. Iraq’s infrastructure was destroyed as is that of Afghanistan. As we have mourned our own who have been killed we must also consider the many killed that are not like us. Jesus’ vision is that we strive for peace within ourselves and seek to make peace every day. It is not the vision of our political and sometimes religious leaders. Following Jesus means rejecting all that is violent in ourselves. There are so many things that we allow to separate us from one another. There are so many walls that we build and so many things that we allow to become walls. Our fear of something different, our prejudices, grief, or social, political, and economic status. Even our clothes and possessions can separate us from one another.
The gospel should be liberating, to restore us as brothers and sisters once again with the marginalised peoples of the earth. Jesus turns on its head all our nations of what counts in the sight of God. Those who count themselves on the inside are often outside and those who were judged by others to be outside are inside. We have seen this in the readings of past weeks and will continue to see this in coming weeks. The friends of Jesus cannot be bystanders to the history of our time, nor observers as the reign of God suffers violence and the violent bear it away. Jesus says, ‘count the cost of commitment’. The cross insists that God’s love is particularly for those considered ‘losers’, for the sick, the unfit, the mentally ill, the failures, the unemployed, the workers who showed up late in the day as Jesus calls them, the woman who had five husbands, the adulterers, the sinners, the lost sheep of every kind. The cross is not for winners. There is no award for winning anything but it does not preside over violence, conflict, war or abuse of people.
Today’s readings are provocative. They challenge our sense of comfort and false security, and place justice at the forefront of our lives. They challenge us to be, as Thomas Merton confesses, to be guilty bystanders, who recognise that we are part of systems that perpetuate suffering and injustice, and that we need to amend our practices to bring healing to our fellow humans and the planet.
Speak to us, O God,
through our loves and through our lives;
give us courage to choose what brings life
to us and others around us,
even when many deride us.
Form us into communities founded on love, not duty. Amen.