The Cost of Discipleship: 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Cost of Discipleship: 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time


One of the most famous German opponents of Adolf Hitler and Nazism was the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whom the Nazis executed by hanging in April 1945 for his involvement in a plot against Hitler himself.  Bonhoeffer’s most famous work was a meditation on the Sermon on the Mount entitled (in English) The Cost of Discipleship.  In it, Bonhoeffer parted ways with a Protestantism that understood “salvation by faith alone” as some kind of easy road to heaven.  Bonhoeffer criticized “easy-believism” as “cheap grace”:
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.
Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Bonhoeffer was a Protestant, but there is much in his writings that a Catholic can affirm, including the passage above.  Like St. Maximillian Kolbe, he died at the hands of a totalitarian government because he would not compromise his faith in Christ.  I could not help thinking of Bonhoeffer as I meditated on the Readings for this coming Sunday, which stress the high cost of discipleship to this mysterious man Jesus of Nazareth, who is nothing other than the Wisdom of God in the flesh.
1.  Our First Reading is Wis 9:13-18b:


Who can know God’s counsel,
or who can conceive what the LORD intends?
For the deliberations of mortals are timid,
and unsure are our plans.
For the corruptible body burdens the soul
and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns.
And scarce do we guess the things on earth,
and what is within our grasp we find with difficulty;
but when things are in heaven, who can search them out?
Or who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom
and sent your holy spirit from on high?
And thus were the paths of those on earth made straight.
There is little controversy over the date and authorship of the Wisdom of Solomon.  Strictly speaking, the book makes no claims about its own authorship, although the first-person “voice” of the book clearly cloaks itself in the persona of the biblical Solomon.  The Church Fathers recognized this as a literary device.  St. Augustine’s remark is representative:
Next are the … three books of Solomon, viz., Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes.  For two books, one called Wisdom and the other Ecclesiasticus, are ascribed to Solomon from a certain resemblance of style, but the most likely opinion is that they were written by Jesus the son of Sirach.  Still they are to be reckoned among the prophetical books, since they have attained recognition as being authoritative.[1]
The Wisdom of Solomon is heavily influenced by Greek philosophy and rhetoric.  It gives every evidence of having been composed originally in Greek, and a variety of factors, including the dominating concern with matters Egyptian in the second half of the book, suggest that the large Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt, was the location of composition, at some time between 250 and 100 BC.  Since the author seems to be responding to a campaign of persecution against observant Jews, scholars often propose either the reign of Ptolemy IV Philopator (221-204 B.C.), or Ptolemy VII Physicon (145-117 B.C.) as likely periods of composition.
A major contribution of the Book of Wisdom is to the theology of the Holy Spirit.  The book characterizes divine wisdom as a person and virtually identifies her with the spirit of God, i.e. the Holy Spirit:
            For wisdom is a kindly spirit (1:6)
In her there is a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique … all-powerful, all-seeing (7:22)
She is a breath of the power of God, and pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty (7:25)
Who has learned your counsel, unless you have given Wisdom, and sent your Holy Spirit from on high? (9:17)
So there is progress in revelation in the Book of Wisdom.  In this late Old Testament work, we see further articulated a reality hinted at previously, namely, that there are multiple persons in the Godhead, and God’s Spirit is a Person.
In Patristic exegesis, these passages about Wisdom are often taken as describing Christ, whom the New Testament identifies as “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24).  Although the more natural application of these passages of Wisdom is directly to the Third Person, the Holy Spirit, their application to the Second Person is justified inasmuch as he is the Christ, the “Anointed One,” who is anointed with the Spirit and thus shares the Spirit’s attributes.
Focusing on this Sunday’s Reading, we note that the sacred author stresses how difficult the attainment of wisdom is, even in relation to material concerns, much less to supernatural and transcendent truth.  Our physical needs and appetites confuse and cloud our thinking, because we are strongly motivated to reason to conclusions that allow us to satisfy our bodies, rather than to conclusions that are strictly true.  In humility, the sage acknowledges that the attainment of truth about ultimate reality is really a superhuman effort.  It is something beyond our strength, truly a miracle.  Without the help of God, we would all but despair of coming to the truth about the reality of things.  But God makes it possible by the gift of the Holy Spirit:
Or who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom
and sent your holy spirit from on high?
The sage here reflects a biblical theme that wisdom is the gift of God’s Spirit.  This can be seen in the accounts of notable wise men in salvation history.
For example, Joseph, the visionary and royal steward over the land of Egypt, derived his wisdom from the Holy Spirit:
Gen. 41:38 And Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find such a man as this, in whom is the Spirit of God?”  39 So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discreet and wise as you are …
Likewise Daniel:
Dan. 5:11 There is in your kingdom a man in whom is the spirit of the holy gods. In the days of your father light and understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the gods, were found in him …
And the Messiah who is to come will be marked by similar wisdom:
Is. 11:2 And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
2. Our Responsorial Psalm is Ps 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14-1:
R. (1) In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
You turn man back to dust,
saying, “Return, O children of men.”
For a thousand years in your sight
are as yesterday, now that it is past,
or as a watch of the night.
R. In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
You make an end of them in their sleep;
the next morning they are like the changing grass,
Which at dawn springs up anew,
but by evening wilts and fades.
R. In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain wisdom of heart.
Return, O LORD! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
R. In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
Fill us at daybreak with your kindness,
that we may shout for joy and gladness all our days.
And may the gracious care of the LORD our God be ours;
prosper the work of our hands for us!
Prosper the work of our hands!
R. In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
Psalm 90 is the only Psalm attributed to Moses, and the it has a decided melancholy tone, as a meditation on human frailty immediately after the disastrous ending of Psalm 89, in which all the hopes of Israel pinned upon the Davidic dynasty are dashed in tragedy and destruction.  The Israelite reader of the psalms, having been brought to despair over the apparent failure of the covenant with David, now “goes back to Moses” for advice in Psalm 90.  Moses observes the utter lack of power on the part of human beings, and recognizes that the only lasting things are those granted by God.  He leads Israel in prayer: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart!”  Much like the sacred author of the Book of Wisdom, Moses acknowledges that wisdom is beyond our reach, and is ultimately a gift from God.
3.  Our Second Reading is Phmn 9-10, 12-17:
I, Paul, an old man,
and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus,
urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus,
whose father I have become in my imprisonment;
I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.
I should have liked to retain him for myself,
so that he might serve me on your behalf
in my imprisonment for the gospel,
but I did not want to do anything without your consent,
so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary.
Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while,
that you might have him back forever,
no longer as a slave
but more than a slave, a brother,
beloved especially to me, but even more so to you,
as a man and in the Lord.
So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me.
From now to the end of the liturgical year, the Lectionary reads semi-continuously through St. Paul’s letters to individuals (Philemon, Timothy, Titus), starting with St. Paul’s shortest letter, the one-chapter epistle to Philemon.  This is the only reading of Philemon on a Sunday or Feast Day in the Church’s calendar.
The Letter to Philemon concerns a runaway slave, Onesimus, whom Paul met, converted, and discipled while he was in prison.  When Onesimus was finally released, Paul sent him back to his master Philemon (already a Christian) with a letter asking Philemon to free Onesimus and allow him to return to assist Paul in his ministry.  The letter is an important testimony to the Christian belief in the equal human dignity of all persons, despite societal structures (like slavery or abortion) that deny dignity to some.
Onesimus was Philemon’s legal “possession”, but Paul is asking Philemon to “renounce his possessions” for the sake of the Gospel, that is, for the sake of the success of Paul’s preaching ministry.  Jesus will call all his disciples to “renounce their possessions” in the following Gospel Reading.
4. Our Gospel is Lk 14:25-33:
Great crowds were traveling with Jesus,
and he turned and addressed them,
“If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother,
wife and children, brothers and sisters,
and even his own life,
he cannot be my disciple.
When speaking of “hating” one’s family, Jesus is not speaking literally, but using a common rabbinic literary technique we now call “hyperbole,” that is, a dramatic overstatement that attracts attention and provokes thought.  What does it mean to “hate” one’s family?  It means one needs to be willing to break family ties if one’s family opposes the call of Christ on one’s life.  One never stops loving one’s family, though, because love of God and love of neighbor are the summation of God’s law, and one’s family certainly counts as one’s “neighbors.”  Furthermore, elsewhere Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for using a loophole in the law to justify not caring for their parents (Mk 7:11), and Paul rebukes Christians who do not care for their own family (1 Tim 5:8).  So we know that under ordinary circumstances, love for family is mandated (as in the Fourth Commandment).  Nonetheless, if the choice is between honoring family and following Jesus, one must choose Jesus.  The Muslim convert Joseph Fadelle faced this choice and writes about it in the riveting book, The Price to Pay. 

Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me
cannot be my disciple.
This is absolutely shocking language, whose original effect is lost on us who now where crosses around our necks as jewelry.  The cross was an instrument of execution and torture, like an electric chair but much worse.  The use of crosses was almost unique to the Roman Empire, which liked to employ them to make awful spectacle of the agonizing deaths of anyone who opposed Roman power.  Jews hated the cross, because a curse was attached to anyone who died “on a tree” according to Deut 21:22-23.
The condemned man carried his own cross to the site of his execution, so “to carry one’s cross” meant that you were on death row, there was no chance of appeal, you would certainly die soon.  Let’s keep in mind that Jesus says this during the Lukan “Travel Narrative”—that is, while he is on his “death march” to Jerusalem to experience his passion (Luke 9-19).  Jesus knew he was going to his death, and anyone who followed him also risked death.  As it would turn out, everyone abandoned Jesus at the end, so he went to the cross alone.  But in years afterward, many of his disciples would share the cross with him.

Which of you wishing to construct a tower
does not first sit down and calculate the cost
to see if there is enough for its completion?
Otherwise, after laying the foundation
and finding himself unable to finish the work
the onlookers should laugh at him and say,
‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.’
Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down
and decide whether with ten thousand troops
he can successfully oppose another king
advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops?
But if not, while he is still far away,
he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms.
In the same way,
anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions
cannot be my disciple.”
Jesus’ method of preaching is so different from methods I was taught or have witnessed at megachurches or on TV.  Much of contemporary evangelism relies on some variation of “come to Jesus and your troubles will be solved.”  But Jesus seems here to be encouraging people to leave and go away, telling them that they don’t realize what they are getting into.  Following Jesus will cost everything that you own.  If there is any possession you won’t give up for the sake of Jesus, you have not attained discipleship.
Can the renunciation of your material goods really be the way to salvation and communion with God?  This seems paradoxical, difficult to accept.  This is the Wisdom that does not follow human logic, that defies natural reasoning.  To see the wisdom and beauty of poverty and renunciation requires a gift of insight from God, a reception of his Spirit.
Several times in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is shown to be the bearer of God’s Wisdom:
Luke 2:40 And the child (Jesus) grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
Luke 2:52   And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.
Luke 7:34 The Son of man has come eating and drinking; and you say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’  35 Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.”
Luke 11:31 The queen of the South will arise at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.
Jesus now tells us that the path to salvation requires us to embrace death and renounce our family and material wealth in order to follow him.  That is not the path to salvation we would have reasoned out for ourselves!  But it is the Wisdom of God which transcends our categories, the Wisdom of God that we prayed to receive with “Solomon” the sage and Moses the psalmist.
Originally Posted: The Sacred Page.