Familiar Words, Mind-Blowing Truths
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) | Fr Gregory Pearson says the Gospel challenges us to reflect on the immensity of the gift Christ offers us.
One of the things it’s very easy to fall into, I think, when we come to Mass every week, and hear these various passages of the Gospel, is that we can stop noticing quite what it is they’re saying – they become familiar, well loved words, like the words of a song we really like, perhaps, but we can fail to notice the astounding things that are actually being claimed. Today’s Gospel passage from Matthew has a few such points: texts where we think, ‘oh yes, find life – lose it, lose life – find it: I know that one,’ for example.
Alongside such texts in the Gospels which become, we might say, dangerously familiar – texts which, despite the magnitude of what they’re saying, can sometimes wash over us as we listen – there are others which are much less likely to pass us by in that way. Specifically, I’m thinking of what are often called ‘hard sayings’ (after the complaints of some of the followers of Jesus in Jn 6:60): teachings of Jesus which stand out and stick in the memory for their apparent harshness. In today’s Gospel we have one instance of a recurrent theme of hard sayings: we are unworthy of Christ if we prefer anything or anyone to him, ever our own parents or children (Mt 10:37).
And in fact, if we think about how we approach these hard sayings, there might be a connection with the casual familiarity with which we can treat the Gospels as a whole. If we think of the Gospels as something comfortable and comforting, nice and familiar, then the bits that don’t fit in with that approach are really going to shock us, to challenge us. Talk about loving Jesus more than our mother and father, more than our children, can never be something which will sit comfortably with us; it speaks of hard choices and brings home to us in very concrete terms what the difficulties of following Jesus, the ‘cross’ we are to take up, might look like.
But as these hard sayings remind us of the cost of discipleship, they can also help us to discover – or rediscover – new depths in the texts and stories which we have, perhaps, allowed to become overly familiar. To put it bluntly, when we think more seriously about the cost of discipleship, we’re more likely also to think more seriously about the benefits. We’re challenged to be single-minded in following Christ, to place him above all else, because he shows to us the sheer immensity of the gift which he gives to those who follow him.
‘Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me; and those who welcome me welcome the one who sent me,’ (Mt 10:40) Jesus says: another familiar saying, perhaps. Yet within this statement is contained the utterly mind-blowing notion that human beings can be so closely united to God that it’s possible for Jesus to speak of our relationship with him in the same way as of his relationship with the Father. If we ask ourselves why we should love Christ more than our most dearly beloved relations and friends, then the answer we find is that the friendship, the closeness, already offered to us in Christ is something which goes further and deeper than even the very closest human relationship.
And of course, as we see in Christ’s own life, union with God doesn’t make life in this world of ours easy. But it does mean that this effort, this suffering, is not without value – ‘if anyone gives so much as a cup of cold water … he will … not lose his reward’ (Mt 10:42); in this following of Christ, this union with God, our suffering becomes a sacrifice in the true sense, an offering of what we have, of what we are, to God, united with Christ’s own great sacrifice.
And, as St Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans, in our baptism we have been given a share, not only in Christ’s sacrifice but also in his victory, a share which transforms our lives and sets us free. Yes, that means being able to identify our sufferings with his, but it also invites us, rather dauntingly, to share in his work of transformation – by taking up our cross and following him, by working out our Christian faith in our lives, Jesus invites us to share in that work of saving and sanctifying the world which he has wrought through his cross and resurrection, and so also in the glory which is that work’s fulfilment and reward.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a window in Ely Cathedral.