Francis A. Sirolli, O.S.A.Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
Homily by Francis A. Sirolli, O.S.A..

Wis 9:13-18b
Ps 90:3 4, 5 6, 12 13, 14 17
Phmn 9:10,12-17
Lk 14:25-33

Let me present you with a line of argument that I have heard repeatedly during the 40+ years of my life as a priest. It goes like this:

“Whatever happened to sin? How come we don’t hear about it anymore? If you ask me, that’s what’s wrong with our society today. No one knows the difference between right and wrong. And you never, never hear about mortal sin. It disappeared from the face of the earth. We need to know what’s right and what’s wrong. When I was a kid we knew what was right and what was wrong. The kids don’t know that today. All they hear about and all we hear about is love, love, love, and people go ahead and do anything they want. It’s too vague. Make it black and white again. I think the reason for all this confusion is that we are afraid to make demands on people.”

The above gathers in a nutshell all the negativity and frustration that accompanied the shift in moral teaching over the past forty years or so. It has some elements of truth. People do seem to have lost clarity over what is right and what is wrong. We are certainly doing things we were never supposed to do when I was growing up. And yes, indeed – the primacy of love has overshadowed the reliance on fear we were subjected to in the past. But that’s the way it is with love and fear. They tend to exclude one another. But like love and hate they can exist simultaneously in the same person at the same time. We had too much fear in the past. It tended to make us focus on ourselves to determine what was a sin and what wasn’t and in the process became very much afraid of what God would do to us in the event of sinning mortally. We tended to avoid the communal nature of sin. Love is communal. Fear makes us withdraw into ourselves, takes away our trust and confidence and makes us obey. Primarily it controls our behavior, but it freezes our hearts.

Jesus aimed at the heart?he always aimed at the heart. Sometimes he ignored obvious poor behavior in order to aim at the heart (the prostitutes and the tax collectors). This is exactly the opposite of what the Pharisees taught because they insisted upon strict observance of the law. Jesus showed them over and over again the limitations of this approach. One can observe the law and miss the point. The point is conversion of heart. Now, this is the exact criticism leveled at the church several generations ago. Too much obedience, too much fear, too much emphasis upon personal sin. Love is communal, so sins against love are also communal. This spreads out the blame and the guilt and it also spreads out the responsibility. So we emphasize the social sins – against justice, family values, the role of women, equal opportunity, the environment, the arms race, world peace, etc. While we emphasize these we should also insist upon the values of the older virtues as well, such as self discipline, self control, religious observance, sexual restraint, etc. But with the loss of the primacy these things once had, has also come the sense that they are no longer important. As time goes on we hope these things will again emerge to help to control our behavior and assist the primacy of love.

But what has all this to do with today’s gospel? Just this. A life based on the primacy of love is far more rigorous and demanding than any way of life based on the strict observance of law. A man could be faithful to his wife (sexually) and yet unable or unwilling to love her. A parent could raise her children to be good and obedient but be unable or unwilling to embrace them, love them, and show the tender affection they so badly need. Admittedly, while it is extremely rare in a life that love and upright living are mutually exclusive it is not so rare that emphasis on one can be at the cost of the other. This is the way it was among the Pharisees in the time of Jesus.
So today’s Gospel shows us just how much it can cost us to lead a life of loving devotion to Jesus, just how much commitment and suffering it can elicit from us. First, in order to follow him, Jesus says, you must hate your family. This sounds outrageous and confusing. How are we to understand it? We must remember that in Jesus’ time family was everything in the Mediterranean World. Everything you did reflected on your family and brought them either honor or shame – everything! Your life was not your own like it is with us today. To leave your family to join another group was almost suicidal. So it took a real push to leave your family and join another group. The actual word might be better translated as “prefer” rather than “hate”. But to choose this preference in the days of Jesus was tantamount to “hate” because of its stigma and dishonor. So following Jesus involved a big risk and a big loss.

Secondly, following Jesus meant sharing his cross, or the likelihood of real persecution. We know that many lives were lost this way as one persecution after another swept through the various regions of the empire. In our day, try to show the true signs of love across the lines of color and watch the evil unfold before you. Persecution and personal sacrifice are second nature to a committed Christian. Expect it!! This was the point Jesus was trying to make in the Gospel. There can be no list of legal canons or rules or sins that embody all the demands of a life of love, but Jesus insisted on it. And the corresponding resolve to live this way could very well exact from us today the supreme sacrifices it did in his day.