There is a TV program titled “Curb Your Enthusiasm.’ I watched it once and that was enough. I think today’s harsh gospel could be titled ‘curb your enthusiasm.’
The author of this gospel would be recalling the teachings of Jesus and seeing them in the light of the experiences of the early Christian community. Remember the parable of the sower who sowed seeds lavishly? Jesus tells of some seed that fell on rocky ground. The seed sprang up quickly since there was no depth of soil. But when the sun rose they were scorched and since they had no root they withered away.
We can guess that just about every early Christian community experienced the presence of men and women who enthusiastically embraced the teachings of Jesus but when confronted with the hostility of family and friends, when faced with the possibility of losing their livelihoods, when faced with physical persecution they left the community – they withered away. They should have curbed their enthusiasm. That’s why Jesus cautions us with the example of the man who wanted to build a tower but didn’t take the time to estimate the cost and so never finished the project, and the king who takes the time to consider whether or not he has the manpower to face his enemy. Again, curb your enthusiasm.
Time and time again Jesus warns that following Him would not be a walk in the park. He was fully aware of the excitement his miracles caused among the people as He showed them that God was working through Him but He wanted them to know there was more to Him than miracles. He came to teach and to exemplify fidelity to God even though His fidelity would cost Him His life. He would be obedient even unto death, even death on the cross. He warned people that is was not enough to say ‘Lord, Lord to come to eternal life. Eternal life was for those who did the will of His Father.
I called this a harsh gospel. Listen, ‘whoever comes to me and does not hate their father and mother, spouse and children, brothers and sisters and even their life itself cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’ These are harsh words, demanding words. That word ‘hate’ can be confusing. Whatever happened to ‘honour your mother and father’?
Hate is more suitably translated “prefer,” that is, one who “hates” family actually prefers another group to the family.
Jesus is asking total commitment of us. He isn’t looking for us to limit our commitment to celebrating Mass on Sunday and avoiding evil. He expects us to live the new commandment, ‘love one another as I have loved you’ and we do this in our relationship with mother and father, brother and sister, children and neighbours. But if we find that any of these relationships weaken or destroy our relationship with Christ then we have to make a choice and He is telling us, He should be our first choice, our first preference.
The society in which we live and the values it promotes are so contrary to the gospel and yet they can influence our thinking, our life styles. Our lives may not be sinful but they may be ‘off-center’. Our life preference may be personal well being, material prosperity, professional success and we prefer these to the values Jesus would have us live: love and respect for people of different cultures, different faiths, different life styles, care for the poor, the homeless, the newcomer.
We face the off-centerness of our lives when we understand the parts of our own hearts which resist the Gospel, the parts of each of us which need healing and conversion. This is where Jesus encourages us to prepare, to calculate if we have the resources to build what we need to build, to wage the battle we need to wage. Too often it is difficult for us to let go of ideas and strong feelings and habits we’ve had for many years. Jesus is inviting us to consider carefully what it will take to fully give him our hearts. Imagine someone addicted to cocaine who said she wanted to quit, but didn’t get rid of her stash or break off ties with her user friends. She isn’t equipping herself for what she needs to do, with God’s grace, to turn her life around.
As we listen to these harsh words of Jesus are we able to hear what he is really saying – I’m asking you to grow in the freedom it takes to follow me with all your heart. Renounce whatever turns your heart against me and my Word. Disassociate yourself from habits, stances, positions, parties, identities which are foreign to the spirit of generosity, self sacrifice and love for others the way I love you. It will involve carrying a cross, but for everything you surrender, I will repay with more than you can ask or imagine.
As we continue to celebrate this Mass we can pray for ourselves and for each other that we have the courage to curb our enthusiasm, honestly face our limitations and make Christ our preference before all others and know that we will find him, love him and serve him in all those people who come into our lives.