We approach the sacred texts today by reminding ourselves that Jesus is the face of God made visible, the wisdom of God revealed and the One who daily challenges the quality of our discipleship.
Much of the Lucan Gospel is set against the backdrop of a journey. Jesus and his disciples were slowly but surely making their way to Jerusalem, where his reason for being would be revealed to all. On their way, Jesus continued the formation of his disciples, telling of both the blessings and the struggles entailed in following him.
|Twenty-third Sunday in
Philemon 9-10, 12-17
As he teaches, Jesus' words and wisdom reach out to us across the centuries and make us disciples as well, if we listen and are willing to learn and commit ourselves to him today in every way. Just as Jesus' teaching offered an ultimatum of sorts to his first disciples, so also does he extend the same choice to us.
As Roland J. Faley has put it, today's liturgy gives us an occasion to pause and think (Footprints on the Mountain, Paulist Press, 1994). We are advised to weigh carefully the cost of discipleship before setting out to follow Jesus on the journey. Ours is not a safe and secure religion demanding only our Sunday-morning attention and devotion. To take it seriously is to walk a rocky path.
This struggle notwithstanding, we might do well to recall what the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said: "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." This single step can be a very small one, not a quantum leap. Nevertheless, these small steps are necessary to move us forward toward the goal of professing and witnessing to Jesus with our lips as well as our lives.
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Since the journey of discipleship comprises countless small steps in the right direction and with the right motive, we do well to ponder the sacred texts for guidance. In today's first reading from Wisdom, the sapiential author encourages us with the knowledge that we are not left alone to founder on our way. Knowing both our talents and our limitations, God sends the Holy Spirit from on high so we can "trust" that our paths will be made straight (Wisdom 9:18).
In today's second reading from Paul's personal letter to Philemon, Paul could have made a bold and sweeping statement condemning slavery as an injustice that militated against the God-given dignity of every human being. But Paul thought it wise and more feasible to take small steps. He implored Philemon to take back the runaway slave Onesimus "as a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more to you, as a man and in the Lord."
Little steps, like accepting and loving him as a beloved brother rather than a slave, would eventually (but none too soon) lead to the abolition of slavery. Sadly, some within the human community have yet to take even the first small step in this direction. Paul's message needs further repetition and implementation.
Although the steps described by the Lucan Jesus in today's Gospel may appear to be drastic because they are explained with images like hating one's family, the parables included in the Gospel offer clarification. As Faley wrote, "The idea is that the priority in the Christian life must go to the claim of Christ and all other considerations are secondary, even those of family."
Like the builder of the tower and the king marching into battle, disciples must understand what they are about. What are the costs, what are the consequences, and do I have what it takes to be a disciple and see the journey through to the end?
Left to our own devices, the answer to this question would, unfortunately, be a negative one. However, we are not alone. With God and with grace, with Jesus' constant presence and guidance in the person of the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to take one step at a time.
With God and with grace, we can learn to put on the mind of Christ and be fired by the Holy Spirit to take on our ministry one person, one challenge at a time.
With God and with grace, we can keep our priorities straight and pool our resources with those of other disciples, always keeping uppermost, in mind and heart, the claim of Jesus in our lives. One step, one day at a time.
[Patricia Sánchez holds a master's degree in literature and religion of the Bible from a joint degree program at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York.]