TwentyThird Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Whoever does not carry his/her own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple…Anyone who does not renounce all her/his possessions cannot be my disciple.”       Luke 14: 25-33

By virtue of our Baptism, Jesus invites every single one of us to follow him in the way of discipleship. Today’s readings offer us insights into how we might accept that invitation from Jesus and what’s required of us when we do accept it.

Over the last few decades, Christian communities in the western world have lamented the reality of a marked decrease in candidates for priesthood and religious life. A lot of ink has been spent on articles by authors giving attention to what they call “the vocation crisis”. In relatively recent times, social analysts have been vocal in commenting on the fact that vocations to nursing, other health professions and social work are also in decline. One observer was bold enough to assert: “Nursing’s collapse is a cultural and spiritual one, a failure of the notion of charity and compassion, not the result of failed pay-bargaining rounds.”

While our Church culture has frequently regarded “vocation” as a call from God, it is important to recognise that God is not in the business of planning our lives for us. God has blessed each of us with personal gifts that are unique. God has also blessed us with freedom and the capacity to choose how we want to express those gifts in ways that are true to ourselves. In time, people among us who recognise that they have a strong sense of compassion come to the conviction that they want to contribute to making the world a better place. Those with a faith commitment to Jesus often sense that the way for them to live their lives is in service to others that is motivated by the values and ideals which Jesus lived and proclaimed. The vocation they choose, be it to religious life, priesthood, marriage or a single life, is their way of striving to express the love in their heart with integrity as they reach out to serve others with justice and integrity. They open themselves to the workings and guidance of God’s Spirit, who is ever active within and around all of us.

Of course, one does not have to be religious to have a sense of vocation. However, the materialistic culture in which many of us live promotes fame, wealth, tertiary qualifications and economic security as indicators of success in life. That’s a culture that can offer Tiger Woods a billion dollars to join a rebel golfing programme while people in helping professions can find themselves struggling to feed and clothe their families, and millions in developing countries struggle to get enough to eat.

Sometimes it takes years for one to discover and follow his/her vocation. At other times, all it takes is a sudden, intense moment of realisation. In 2015, a movie called Persona Non Grata, was released. It was directed by Cellin Gluck, a Japanese American who is probably better known as the director of Godzilla and Remember the Titans. Persona Non Grata is the story of Chiune Sugihara (1900-1986) who was the Japanese Vice-Consul to Lithuania in the early years of World War II. Sugihara was short-listed to become Japanese Ambassador to Russia. However, one morning when he opened the doors of the Japanese Embassy in Lithuania, he was confronted by a large group of people requesting transit visas for Japan. The crowd was made up of Jews fleeing from Poland in the wake of the German invasion of their country. Transit visas through Tokyo would allow them breathing space to prepare for refugee status in the West Indies and North America. Three times Sugihara cabled his superiors in Tokyo requesting permission to issue visas. Three times he was refused. The plight of the refugees pleading for help so touched his heart that he ignored orders and started issuing visas. In the space of 28 days before he was recalled to Berlin to be sacked, he issued more than 6000 hand-written visas. Sugihara found within his heart a depth of compassion and courage that drove him to put the well-being of Jews in desperate need ahead of personal prestige and self-interest. He discovered his true vocation, and, in the process, forfeited his place in the Japanese Diplomatic Corps but eventually earned for himself the title of “The Japanese Schindler”. The only job he was able to get, once he was back in Japan, was selling light bulbs.

Today’s gospel-reading reminds us that we are all invited to the vocation of discipleship. But with the proviso from Jesus: “Whoever does not carry her/his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Chiune Sugihara may never have heard those words of Jesus, but his integrity and his compassion for his Jewish sisters and brothers led him to sacrifice his career. The Cross comes to us in all kinds of shapes and sizes – in people and events we would prefer to avoid, in family pressures that force us to shelve our dreams and hopes, in the darkness of depression and loneliness, in the ostracism that follows our daring to speak the truth, in false accusations and gossip. Whatever form it takes, we know in the depths of our heart that picking it up is a condition of walking in the footsteps of the one who invites us to follow him.

Working out how best to be true to ourselves and to the Jesus we commit to follow does not come automatically or by calling for a supply of divine inspiration. We have been blessed with freedom and intelligence. Surely God’s intention is that we use those gifts. Today’s first reading urges us to cultivate wisdom. Even though we know that we can call on God’s Spirit to guide us in our decision-making, we know instinctively that we all have to work at figuring things out when challenges come our way. Today’s first reading from Wisdom points that out clearly. Then, the second reading from Paul’s Letter to Philemon illustrates how Paul had to rely on his own wits, persuasion and diplomacy to convince his friend Philemon to take back his runaway slave Onesimus without punishing him. Paul shrewdly adds that, because he has baptised Onesimus (whose name, incidentally, means “profitable one”), Philemon is now obliged by the Gospel to treat him no longer as his slave but as his brother.

This is a neat segue into the gospel-reading where we see Jesus involved in doing some of his own figuring out. Still on his way to Jerusalem, he is being followed by a large crowd, and he wants to know if they are there out of self-interest (hoping for more miracles) or genuinely wanting to be disciples. If they want to be disciples, they had better get used to carrying their own crosses and be prepared to detach themselves from possessions. Then, using Semitic hyperbole (“hate”) he points out that hanging on too tightly to family, relatives and friends gets in the way of freely embracing discipleship. Paul has already pointed that slaves are not possessions and now Jesus makes the point that husbands, wives and children are not possessions either. Moreover, life experience has shown us how some husbands and wives think they own their marriage partner, and some parents think they own their children. Finally, the two illustrations about the need for proper building-planning and logical strategy for military engagement make the point that similar vigilance and planning are required for discipleship. There’s a gentle irony here for all of us to note: Jesus himself “left home” to identify with humanity. He is simply asking us to do something similar.