Thirteenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Peter Hunter invites us to consider what we truly value.
I once took a group of Catholic students to an evening in a comedy festival, and one of the comics, while working the room, asked me what I did. ‘You’re going to have a field day with this,’ I said. ‘I’m a Catholic priest.’ Predictably, he told a string of rather off-colour jokes about the Catholic Church and about Catholic priests, but then he stopped and, not at all joking, said very earnestly, ‘I was brought up Catholic. I don’t know what I think about the Church, but nobody could ever be against Jesus.’
It was a sincere and, in its way, impressive thing to say. It was also completely false. I didn’t have the heart to point out, especially after he had made a profession of faith of a sort, that you don’t get crucified unless people are against you, violently against you.
But it’s not just that a certain part of the population was vehemently against Jesus. I think every one of us, whatever our state in life, might easily find ourselves against Jesus in some way or another, and we see one of the reasons in today’s Gospel: Jesus is just too extreme in his demands on us.
I saw something recently on the internet by a secular humanist saying that religious people would be OK if they kept their religion to themselves, didn’t try to convert people, and certainly didn’t allow their religion to affect their politics. Essentially, it was a plea that we should treat religion as an odd sort of hobby, something we do in our private lives, but which we keep at home.
We don’t agree with the secular humanist that those should be the limits, but we do want there to be limits. ‘Be reasonable,’ the three people in today’s Gospel who get short shrift might have said to Jesus. ‘You want followers. We want to follow you. But it has to somehow fit into our lives. There have to be limits.’
I suspect we sometimes want to say something similar to Jesus. ‘I’ll give you a place in my life, but you can’t take over. I’m not giving you everything. Maybe you could have this but I’m not giving you that. Be reasonable!’
The thing is: just what is reasonable to give up, to sacrifice, for something else depends on how much we value that second thing. No one with any sense would sacrifice their relationships with their family for a hobby. But if something were really precious, you might accept great hardship to foster or protect it. Think of the sacrifices parents sometimes make for their children. Out of love, they give up a great deal and think nothing of it, because their children are precious to them.
So people will look fanatical to us if they love something or someone more than we do. When people sacrifice for something that we wouldn’t, we think of them as extreme, but they of course, because they are acting out of love, think they are acting reasonably. The extreme that Christ calls us to is, of course, not what people think of when they think of religious extremism, but things like loving our enemies.
Jesus makes what looks like extreme demands on the people in today’s Gospel, but really, he is calling them to the greatest thing they could possibly be doing. Everything else pales by comparison. And in our lives too, Jesus calls us to follow him in a whole-hearted way, and when we resist that, when we effectively say to Jesus, ‘Come on, be reasonable!’, it’s because we don’t love what he loves, certainly not in the way he loves it. There’s an urgency to the Gospel that we just don’t accept, and so the call to sacrifice for it seems unreasonable.
The good news is, of course, Jesus is patient with us. We may resist him, but he never gives up on us. If we ask him to, he will help our hearts to grow in love for the truly important things. There will be a cost to that: Jesus was not at home in our world, and if we allow our love for him and for his Gospel to grow, neither will we be. To the world, we’ll look extreme, but the truth is, we will be valuing what is truly good, loving what is truly lovable.
Image: detail from a photograph of ‘The Thinker’ by Rodin, taken by Mustang Joe