”Get over yourself!” Nobody has probably said that more radically than Jesus in today’s Gospel. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me ... whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Is Jesus anti-family? On one hand we can understand this as part of Jesus’ commissioning of the preachers he was sending on the road, those who were called to leave everything behind and be as free as he was. They were the distinct minority among his faithful followers, the ones biblical scholar Sr. Sandra Schneiders would talk about as the equivalent of today’s apostolic religious women and men whose entire life revolves around their ministerial identity with Christ. Although these sayings of Jesus are applicable to women and men religious, the rest of the world doesn’t get off the hook. Every disciple is called to find the meaning of their life in Christ.
In Jesus’ world, family was the core of one’s identity and future prospects. When Jesus spoke of loving father and mother, his audience heard a reference to their entire heritage as children of Abraham, their religious and social identity. So, when Jesus talked about loving parents more than him, he was saying, “If you so cherish what you know, what society has given you, that it gets in the way of following me, you aren’t capable of being a disciple.” In the same vein, one’s children were one’s future in a very concrete and practical way. Children were the investment that promised not just social security, but would prolong people’s influence beyond their lifetime. When Jesus demanded that his followers love him over children, he was saying that all their hopes had to be pinned on him rather than on their own projects and progeny.
What we hear today in Paul’s message to the Romans could almost be a commentary on this Gospel. Writing to people who have chosen to be baptized, Paul asks them why they did it. Although most of us were carried unwittingly to the font, the question still holds for us. What difference does it make in our lives that we have been given the name Christian? Why do we bless ourselves with holy water when we walk into church? How differently would we live if we counted ourselves among the “nones” who claim no religious identity, or among the Buddhists, agnostics or even the atheists?
Most of us know good people who do not profess a religious faith yet outshine plenty of so-called believers. What would change if you lost your faith? Would you drop your moral code? What would be harder about life? What would be easier? These questions are the inverse of Paul’s approach in today’s reading.
Paul is telling the Romans that everything, absolutely everything, is different for those who have been baptized. He believes that for those who do not know Christ, death is the measure of all things, and everything comes to naught: “Alike they lie down in the dust and worms cover them” (Job 21:26). But, those who have been baptized can “live in the newness of life.”
If the language had been available to him, Paul might have talked about Christian life as a way of living in another dimension, a dimension without the limitations imposed by death. A deathless dimension implies a life without scarcity or inequality. It is one in which competition is meaningless and violence vacuous. It is the dimension in which the cross of Christ is not shameful, but a proclamation that evil has been overcome.
Hard as it is to imagine, Paul believes that deathless life is exactly what Christians have received in their baptism. Andrew Lloyd Weber’s song “Love Changes Everything” offers a musical approximation of what Paul is getting at, all summed up in the line: “Nothing in the world will ever be the same.”
We might imagine that Paul has stepped into the pulpit today and is looking at us and asking, “Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death ... so that we too ... might live in the newness of life?” Paul is asking us to think about that, to let our imaginations run wild through the possibilities of how much would change if we consciously stepped into the deathless dimension we have been offered as our living space. Jesus says that if we want to follow him we have to get beyond our commitments to social expectations symbolized by loyalty to previous generations and the personal plans and projects represented by offspring. Both Paul and Jesus are saying, “Get over yourselves so that you can lose the life you plan for and find fullness of life in Christ.”
2 KINGS 4:8-11, 14-16a
This story about Elisha is the sort that you tell the children to assure them that good works bring their own reward. It’s a great beginning, but the story gets better as it goes along. This incident is part of the tradition about Elisha the wonder-worker. In the fourth chapter of 2 Kings, Elisha helps a widow whose sons are about to be sold into slavery. He tells her to take the only jug of oil she has and to borrow every container she can from her neighbors. Then, behind closed doors, she pours from her little jug and fills all the vessels the neighborhood could provide, giving her enough to pay the debts and survive with her children.
In today’s passage, we hear of a wealthy and generous woman who not only feeds the prophet when he comes through her town, but even builds an addition to her house for him. She asks for nothing in return, but when Elisha’s servant tells him that the woman is married to an old man and has no child, Elisha promises she will bear a son within the year.
Like Sarah when she heard the angel tell Abraham that they would have a son, the woman asked Elisha not to delude her. While we don’t hear his answer, we are told that she had her son. Then, as if God were a false-hearted giver, the boy, scarcely grown, dies while out in the field with his father. With that Elisha performed a greater miracle, restoring the child to life by sharing his own warmth and breath with him. The other two stories in the chapter tell how Elisha was able to make an antidote to a poisoned stew.
All told, this entire chapter describes the life-giving work of a prophet. The message that those who receive a prophet become identified with him is subtle, but it is there in each story. While we often see the role of the prophet as denouncing and the fate of the prophet as rejection, this chapter reminds us that the ultimate goal of the prophet is to represent the God who desires that all people enjoy life to the full.
ROMANS 6:3-4, 8-11
With this selection from Romans, Paul calls us to consider what difference it makes that we are baptized Christians. Most of us who were baptized at birth rarely think about our baptism except during the Easter Vigil or other occasions when we renew our baptismal promises. In that renewal we reject Satan and all his works and declare our belief in the triune God, the church, forgiveness and life everlasting. It’s a pretty complete review of our faith life, but it is usually done so quickly and simply that we take little note. As we hear today’s selection from Romans we might imagine Paul as a charismatic, passionate preacher asking us questions and elaborating on their implications.
“Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” From the very beginning Paul is trying to wake us up: “Are you unaware? Are you paying attention? Have you thought seriously about this?”
When Paul says we were baptized into the death of Christ, he’s reflecting his Jewish background. He’s talking as someone who has participated in Passover celebrations through which he united himself with the ancestors whom God led out of the slavery of Egypt. This is a question of identity. In Paul’s thinking, being baptized is the greatest change a person can undergo. It isn’t like joining a group or even the transformation of growing up. If he were speaking today he would probably say that it is more radical than plastic surgery or even sexual reassignment surgery. It’s the opposite of a witness protection program. Baptism permeates and publicly transforms a person’s entire identity.
All of us are born into what Paul refers to as the realm of death: existence circumscribed by mortality and dominated by the forms sin takes in a particular age or society. In Chapter one of this letter, Paul lamented the pervasiveness of “every form of wickedness,” a list that included degrading passions, idolatry, greed, malice, murder, scandalmongering, haughtiness and rebellion. Paul’s list referred to his own time and culture. Today’s list would also include elitism, materialism, racism, human trafficking, rejection of people who are “different,” along with 21st century expressions of violence — a list capable of making all of us uncomfortable, maybe even angry and defensive.
When Paul talks about having died to sin and sharing Christ’s victory over death he’s saying that those realities need not determine us any longer. None of us chose to be born in a particular epoch, to be formed by a nation, language, gender, etc. But, the reality is that the society that surrounds us has both sinful and graced dimensions; this society forms us in its image from the moment of our birth. How we respond determines who we are and who we become.
Paul firmly believes that those who are baptized into Christ are given the grace to be free from sin and social conditioning. The freedom of the children of God is a grace and a task. Thus, Paul stands before us today and, with a riveting gaze and a penetrating voice, he asks: “Are you unaware?”
Today’s selection from Matthew’s Gospel begins with three statements that warn Jesus’ would-be followers about the cost of discipleship in relation to their sense of identity, their willingness to face suffering, and the gift of their very lives. When Jesus talks about loving him more than their fathers or mothers, sons or daughters, he’s entering into the apostles’ religious identity, not just their family life. In Jesus’ religious culture people were very aware of being children of Abraham, of being from a particular tribe or clan, town, etc. Their ancestral heritage was the core of their identity. Respect for tradition was intrinsic to self-respect. We recall that when the prodigal son went off it wasn’t just a case of a rebellious teenager who made a bad name for himself, but he disgraced his father and heritage. When Jesus demanded that disciples love him over their parents, he called the disciples to be ready to let go of their tradition, of their very identity, on behalf of what he was offering.
Following that, Jesus didn’t simply ask the disciples to be more committed to him than to their family and traditions, he demanded that they trust him as their future as well. At that time children were people’s hope for the future. In a faith tradition that was uncertain about an afterlife, people knew that they somehow lived on in their descendants. To be childless was tantamount to being cursed, seemingly deemed unworthy of continued existence (Psalm 127:3-4). One’s children were visible blessing and promise, as important as wealth, and the only real social security system known to the culture. Thus, to value Jesus over children was to stake your future on him, to say that only with his cause did you have a future and, only through him could you make your mark on history. By demanding that apostles be faithful to him over their ancestors and descendants, Jesus was telling them that their entire identity had to be centered on him or else they were not his disciples.
Jesus’ other two demands say the same thing as the first using different and equally challenging examples. The image of taking up the cross (even if the phrase was anachronistic before Jesus’ death) indicated that the apostles had to be willing to share his fate — in life, death and new life. Finally, both the theme of identity and the inevitability of the cross described losing one’s own life for Jesus’ sake and finding it again in an entirely new and unimaginable way.
We can note that Jesus said these things to his apostles. These sayings were part of the instructions he gave the ones he had chosen to send on the road in his name. The idea that the demands may not have applied to everyone in exactly the same way is insinuated by what Jesus says next about those who welcome the evangelizers.
The itinerant ministers are so identified with Christ that receiving them is the same as receiving Christ himself. Of course, giving someone hospitality is an act of solidarity that identifies the householder with the guest. It is an implicit sign of approval in the same way that eating together signifies a bond of communion. Thus in the end nobody gets off the hook. Some will give up everything and take to the road in the name of Jesus. Others give Jesus’ representatives a place in their home and life. But, in the end they all must decide if they are fully with him or have no part of him.
There is no middle ground.
Planning: 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time
By: Lawrence Mick
Today’s first reading and Gospel speak of hospitality toward those who serve God. The first reading tells the story of Elisha, who was welcomed by an influential woman in Shunem. She arranged a room for him to use and offered sustenance whenever he came to town. In response, the prophet promises that she and her husband would have a son.
In the Gospel, Jesus challenges us to follow him before every other relationship and concern. Then, he speaks of offering hospitality to apostles, prophets, righteous persons and disciples. Even giving a cup of cold water will prompt God’s favor, he says.
Hospitality is ultimately a matter of the heart. It’s not just providing food and shelter but opening our hearts and lives to others. If following Christ is first in our lives, then we will naturally welcome those who speak God’s word and share the good news.
In practice, of course, those who speak God’s word are not always welcome in our lives or even in our churches. God’s word is about love and blessing but it is also a word that calls us to change our lives by aligning with God’s love and share God’s blessings. Throughout history, prophets have been ignored or resisted and often abused and killed because God’s wisdom continually challenges the misuse of creation and the abuse of others.
Perhaps our second reading today can offer encouragement to both prophets and their hearers. Embracing God’s truth often means that something in our lives or our hearts must die. But that death leads to new life, a pattern we celebrate in baptism and recall in every celebration of the Eucharist. Following God’s ways is not easy but it always leads to fuller life.
The issue of prophecy also links to this week’s celebration of Independence Day in the United States. Many Catholics still react negatively to any criticism of our country, calling it unpatriotic. The alliance of state and church during the Second World War still leads many to assume that the church should always support the country, regardless of its actions or policies.
That position makes the church’s mission of prophecy impossible. No country is perfect, and there is much in our country that is clearly contrary to Catholic teaching and Gospel values. To challenge those policies and situations is not unpatriotic but deeply patriotic. If we love our country, we should want it to improve and to align itself more fully with the word of God. The church must always make clear the difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of political power. Pray for your country, but do not make it an idol to worship.
Prayers: 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time
By: Joan DeMerchant
Living as a Christian is not a neutral reality. The disciples and early Christians were committing themselves to real challenges, often life-threatening. Answering Christ’s call was to embrace his life with all its ramifications. Those who did so believed it would be worth it. It’s doubtful that they blindly followed him. Have we ever considered that being Christian may cost us something? Perhaps we’ve never asked ourselves this question. Maybe it is time to do so.
- Lord Jesus, you called the apostles to take up your cross: Lord, have mercy.
- Christ Jesus, you promised rewards to those who lived as you lived: Christ, have mercy.
- Lord Jesus, you offer us the same invitation: Lord, have mercy.
Prayer of the Faithful
Presider My friends, let us pray that all invited by Christ to follow him may hear and respond to his call.
Minister For the whole church especially peacemakers at a time when peace is greatly needed throughout the world … we pray,
- For those who are luke-warm about living out their baptism or afraid to live deeply Christian lives … we pray,
- For those who are called to support members of other faith traditions under assault, especially Judaism and Islam … we pray,
- For organizations, groups and individuals who live out the Gospel by serving the needs of, or, giving their lives for others … we pray,
- For the United States as it celebrates Independence Day — that the citizens of this divided nation may uphold our most profound human values … we pray,
- For whose we are called to serve in this community, especially the sick, the dying and all who are suffering in any way … we pray,
Presider God who calls and accompanies us, we look to you as we seek to live as Jesus lived. Grant us courage when we are afraid, confidence when we are doubtful, strength when we are weary, and wisdom when we are confused. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.