23rd Sunday OT Year C
Jesus never swindles us. No, he tells us right up front the risks involved in discipleship. Whoever cannot carry his/her cross and follow after me cannot be my disciple. These are harsh words from Jesus. But, they are so true. All he is saying is that it is impossible to be a disciple half way. Discipleship includes trial, suffering and self-denial. And when it comes to discipleship, Jesus asks for 100% percent of us: nothing less will do.
This is a strange passage if you think about it. Jesus is not doing much of a pitch job here. Think if we did the same thing with our RCIA program. If we told people all about the difficult side of Christianity: the self-denial and sacrifice that it takes to be a Christian, we might not get too many takers. So, what's Jesus doing in this passage?
Listen again to the first passage: great crowds were traveling with Jesus. These people were already with Jesus. Why were they there? Jesus drew these people. If we understood for just one second the truth of the Incarnation, we would die of delight. Though we were lost and could not find our way back to God, he loved us all the more and sent his only son to save us. Jesus Christ is God!!! If you have never been struck by the amazing beauty of this fact, think about it. Jesus, a man born 2000 years ago to a poor peasant girl named Mary, who traveled around teaching Good News, was not just some preacher. He is God! God became human so that humans could go back to God. It is important for us to listen to the teachings of Jesus, listen to the teachings of the Church, to be formed by the Word of God. But these things all require something fundamental: a basic attraction to Jesus. The good news of the Incarnation is so amazing that if we stop to think about it, we will automatically want to be close to Jesus. The truth is beautiful, and of itself we are attracted to it.
In a similar way, this is what St. Paul is doing in the second reading. In this short letter, Paul is asking a disciple, Philemon, to welcome back Onesimus not as a slave but as a brother. Now Paul, as an Apostle, could have been more direct. He could have commanded Philemon to release Onesimus, but he doesn't do that. Rather, he presents his case in a way that should appeal to Philemon: won't you welcome him back as a brother. Paul is hoping that Philemon will be so attracted to the beauty of the teaching, namely that each human person has innate value, that he will be moved to release Onesimus from slavery.
The Truth is Beautiful! Ultimately, we cannot be Christians simply because our parents wish it, we cannot be Christians simply because it is the right thing to do. We will never follow God's commands and precepts, we will never be able to live out our faith: the cross that Christ asks us to carry will be too heavy, unless we are swept off our feet by the beauty of Christ.
One place where we are always able to encounter this beauty is here at the Holy Mass. Right on this altar we see Jesus! In the Holy Eucharist we encounter the person of Christ, we see his body and blood. Christian discipleship is not for the meek of heart. It takes courage and determination to follow Christ, to pick up your cross and to follow him, to denounce all the things of the world that lead you away from Jesus and cling to Christ. All of these things will be impossible without a deep love for Christ. A love deepened and strengthened by the power of the Holy Eucharist.
Jesus never swindles us. He just stands before us as he is: fully God and fully man. He invites us to follow him. He tells us straight out the cost of discipleship: denial and self-sacrifice. But we must ask ourselves a question: having encountered the beauty of Christ, is there anywhere else we would rather go?