Prefer nothing to Christ
The Gospel raises the stark challenge of our faith: we have to love Jesus, who comes to us each day as our teacher in the Scriptures and as our healer in the sacraments. We have to love him more than anything else.
This homily was preached to the student brothers during compline. Listen here or read below:
This Gospel reading probably makes us slightly uncomfortable — they are not words we hear easily come from the lips of Jesus. It makes me feel rather uncomfortable because the Lord telling the disciples that he will set family members against each other is rather close to my own experience. I am a convert to the Catholic faith and my decision did not rest easily with my family or my friends, and my decision to become a friar even less so in some cases. I became a Catholic on 26 January, 2013, nearly nine years ago; some people still do not talk to me.
Families and friends are often set against each by decisions made by one family member. Sometimes they’re set apart by support for different causes: Conservative or Labour; Brexit or Remain. But decisions about faith seem to have a particular power to divide.
In conversations with people I’m instructing, with close friends or acquaintances who are, it seems, always on the verge of becoming Catholic, even the more random conversations I have with people about the Catholic faith, usually concern is expressed that a friend or family member would not accept their decision, or people are afraid that their decision will completely alienate those they are closest to. One undergraduate I spoke to a couple of weeks ago, when I asked her about whether she might like to become a Catholic, said, ‘I just don’t know what my friends would say.’
But why is this so? We perhaps assume that it’s because of a kind of old-fashioned anti-Catholic prejudice, and to be sure there’s plenty of that around. Perhaps we assume it’s because the teachings of the faith are so at variance with wider culture, that those in our society today hear the Church’s teaching and respond like the crowds to Jesus: “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John, 6:60).
Both of these reasons are true, but don’t get to the heart of the question. If the decision for Christ is so arresting, if it is to cut at these natural ties of kinship and family, then surely what replaces these must be an even closer relationship between the believer and Christ, and between believers in the Church. After all, the Lord would not touch our hearts to call us into a lonely isolation. Each of us is invited into an intense and exclusive relationship with the Lord, a relationship which makes full sense of those bridal images in the Old Testament, it makes sense of the jealousy with which the Lord loves his people: ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts: I am jealous for Zion with great jealousy, and I am jealous for her with great wrath” (Zechariah, 8:2). Just as the faithful bride cannot love anyone above her own spouse, so we cannot love anyone or anything above the Lord: St Benedict in the Rule instructs his monks to prefer nothing to Christ. Just as our love for our parents should, ideally at least, be spontaneous and unconditional, so should be our love for the Lord. The demand is high, in fact in other places the Lord makes it clear that we have to cut away at anything in our lives which leads us to sin, which leads us away from the Lord: ‘…if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; […] if you eye causes you to sin, pluck it out’ (Matthew, 5:27-30; Mark, 9:42-49). This kind of intense relationship with the Lord will cut at these ties with other people, and particularly because this relationship calls for our continual conversion, the relationships we have with people will have to change. Sometimes they will need to be renegotiated, and sometimes this will involve a choice, and a stark one at that.
The fire which the Lord talks about is often interpreted as a fire of judgement, but it could perhaps be seen as the fire of charity. Jesus has come to set the world ablaze with charity, love of God, and also love of others for God’s sake. This charity is what binds us to God, and binds us to each other in the Church. It should be intense and personal, as St Thomas says of charity, ‘well-wishing [does not] suffice for friendship, [because] a certain mutual love is requisite’ (IIa IIae, 23, 1).
It’s perhaps this intensity which stands behind people’s worries about alienating friends and family. The Catholic faith is at one and the same moment both deeply personal, and yet for that, not a private affair. Sometimes we may lose friends, or family members may find our decisions difficult. We must be honest in recognising that our faith may set us against people in that way because of the demands that it places on us. But put positively, this fire which cuts across ties of family and friendship draws us to an ever more loving relationship with the Lord, who calls us out of our servitude to sin and into friendship with him. It’s a love which may even in time heal those divisions of family and friendship. But living this life of love is only possible when we respond in love to the Lord. We have to respond to this condition he places on discipleship: we have to love Jesus, who comes to us each day as our teacher in the Scriptures and as our healer in the sacraments. We have to love him more than anything else. That is the stark challenge of our faith.
Painting: Domenico Ghirlandaio, Calling of the Apostles.