Sunday September 9, 2001 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Twenty-third Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Wisdom 9:13-18a) Reading II (Philemon 9-10, 12-17)
Gospel (St. Luke 14:25-33)
This homily was given at a Poor Clare Monastery
in Central Minnesota
In the Gospel reading this morning, Our Lord says something that sounds rather startling to us: "If anyone comes to Me without first hating his father and mother, his own wife and children, even his very life, he cannot be My disciple." Does the Lord really intend, for those of you who are married, to go home and hate one another? Or for the nuns, that they will hate Mother Superior and not do what she asks? No, that is not what He is asking. But what He is making very clear is the extent to which we must be detached from all things earthly and that our heart must be focused entirely on Him. It is not an easy thing for us at all.
In the first reading from the Book of Wisdom, we heard that the body weighs down the soul. The physical shelter causes difficulty for the mind because we get caught up in the physical things, in the things that are sensual and we cannot always see clearly the things of God. As it said: "If we can only know the things of earth with difficulty, how are we ever going to know the things of Heaven?"
Well, the way we know the things of Heaven is that God sent His Son from Heaven to be able to teach us; otherwise, most of it would be beyond our grasp. The Lord has revealed it throughout history and in what is recorded in the Sacred Scriptures so that we will know His Will. But now, we know it fully.
His Will is made very clear to us in the Gospel reading today. It is not the "American reading" by any stretch of the imagination because Americans like "more stuff." Everybody tells us that we need to have more sense stimulation. Not that they are saying that directly, but just think what will be happening throughout the day for most Americans: If you are like most, when you leave Mass today you are probably going to go into your car and turn on the radio; by the time you get home, the TV will be on and, throughout the day, you will find things to stimulate the senses; only, by the time that evening comes, to sit in front of the TV for a while longer and then, finally, go to bed. So the question is where have we really put in the time for God? We could say, "We have come here today - so I put in my time for God." Well, 45 minutes to an hour out of a week is not exactly putting God first.
The Lord tells us that if we want to be His follower we first need to consider what that is going to require of us and ask ourselves if that is what we really want to do. What will the cost be? It is something that is required for everybody. If one wants to enter this monastery, she will have to ask herself: "What is it going to require?" If one wants to get married, the exact same thing must happen. Or the priesthood, or whatever the case may be.
The difficulty for most of us is that until we actually enter into a state in life we tend to look at it through rose-colored glasses with big stars in our eyes. We think of the wonderful, glorious parts of it. But we know that it is not always that way and that it takes an awful lot of effort to be able to live the vocation to which God has called us. Again, we need to look at things realistically.
When we think about being a follower of Christ, we can sit back and say, "Isn't it going to be wonderful because Jesus loves us and everything is going to be great? There will not be any more difficulties in my life because I am with the Lord." All it takes is one quick glance at the Gospels to realize that is not what it is going to be.
At the same time, we must be very careful not to be what is today called "a nominal Catholic." That is, a Catholic in name only. To be a Catholic means to accept every single thing that the Church teaches. Everything. That includes Her teachings on not only something as obvious to most of us as abortion, but it also includes things such as the teaching on contraception, the teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, the teaching with regards to the way we are supposed to live our spiritual lives - all of the teachings of the Church, every single doctrine - from the points of the Trinity and the two natures of Christ, which I think most of us accept pretty readily.
The reason why I think most of us can accept that without much question is not only because God revealed it, but because it is somewhat distant from us. We can look at the teaching on the Trinity and it is out there somewhere. We can say, "Okay, where does that affect my life?" Actually, it affects it rather intrinsically, but we do not always see that so we can keep it an arm's distance and say, "I can accept that."
But when it comes to other teachings, like the teaching on detachment, for instance, that the Lord teaches in the Gospel today, that affects us much more closely and we do not like it. If I were to say to you that what I would really like you to do - and I mean this - is to go home and throw away your TV set, most of you would think: "The guy is nuts! He needs to get with the modern time." If I were to say to you, "Go home and unplug the Internet," most people, most of our young people anyway, would again have the same kind of reaction. Or "Throw away the computer games and get them out of your house," most of us, again, are going to say, "What is wrong with him? He needs to get with the modern times."
No, we need to get with Jesus. We need to look at what the devil has done and see that what he is doing is placing all kinds of things before us in order to distract us from what is really important. What he has managed to do, in less than 100 years, is to turn our focus almost entirely away from God and put it on ourselves.
And so, detachment, in our day, has become a very difficult problem. It has been a problem throughout history: We very easily get attached to people and to things. And the more things we attach to ourselves, the less we are going to be able to focus on God. That can happen, whether in the monastery or out in the world. We need to look very seriously at that and ask ourselves one simple question: "What stands between the Lord and me?"
On His side, there is nothing that stands between us, absolutely nothing. He has opened the way, as He makes very clear to us in the Gospels. Saint Paul makes it even more clear in his Letter to the Hebrews when he tells us that the Lord has torn through the veil and has entered into the holy of holies not made by human hands. The veil in the temple separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple and the people were not able to see into the Holy of Holies. But now, the veil, which he tells us is His own flesh, has been torn and we can see and we have entrance into the holy of holies. So there is nothing on His side that separates us.
The question now is what is on our side that separates us? In other words, if we take this particular reading and ask about the detachment and the Lord telling us the attitude we must have even toward parents, spouses, children, our sisters in religious life, whoever it may be - if we are putting that person before Christ, then we have things backwards.
Oftentimes what happens is that we get selfish, even in marriage; in which case, you have made a vow that you would never ever be selfish again in your life. That is what you meant when you said, "I will love you every day for the rest of my life." Love is selfless. And so anything selfish violates the nature of marriage: You are not loving the person in Christ, but rather you are loving the person, at least in part, for what you are getting out of the person. That is not true love; that is selfishness. The Lord is saying that you must put everything aside for Him. The person that you are vowed to in marriage you are to love for his or her own sake in Christ, not in any kind of a selfish manner.
The same is true in religious life: We must be totally focused on Christ. Not to think about what we can get out of it. Not to look at the relationships with the other sisters or with Mother Superior or with any others and try to see where we stand in that relationship. But rather, to love all the other sisters in Christ.
That is not an easy task because all of us have favorites. We like one person better than another, and we like, particularly, what we can get out of another person. Perhaps we like a certain relationship because this person is thought well of and if I am attached to that person, people will think well of me, also. Or perhaps this person has money and I like being with that person because it makes me feel important or I can get certain things. What the Lord is asking is simply that we would love, and that we would love all people in the same manner. That is, we will love them for their sake - not for ours - and we will give ourselves entirely to others for the sake of Christ.
That is what we see in the second reading today. We see Saint Paul writing to Philemon. Philemon is the owner of a slave whose name is Onesimus. Interestingly, even his name "Onesimus" means useful; he is someone who is useful. Is that why we have somebody in our lives, because they are useful to us? Saint Paul says, "I am sending him back to you, but he is now no longer a slave, he is baptized; he is your brother. I want you to take him back and receive him as though you were receiving me. I am sending you my own heart because he has become my own child in my confinement for Christ."
He is asking Philemon to treat him no longer as someone who is less than himself, but rather as someone who is an equal, someone who is a brother. There may still be that relationship of master and slave. Or in our society there may be a relationship of superior and inferior, or of boss and employee. But in Christ, we are equal and that equality and love must be there.
Even in religious life, we are to love all the sisters equally. There is a certain respect for the authority of the superior, which must be present, but that does not meant that we should love the superior more than we love the other sisters. Rather, we love all because all are one in Christ.
In marriage, obviously, there needs to be a special relationship with one's spouse, but that does not mean that we ignore everybody else or that we fail in our duties toward love of neighbor just for the one. We have to love the one first. I should reverse that and point out that in marriage we cannot ignore the one because he or she is always there: We take him or her for granted and therefore we will take care of everybody else and forget the one we made a vow to. We need to make sure that we are living the vow we have made.
That goes, again, either way: The vows in marriage, the vows in religious life - it matters not which - we are going to be responsible to God for what it is that we have vowed. All of our vows, whether married life or religious life, are founded on the vows of Baptism for we have rejected Satan and all of his works and empty promises. We have made our vows in honor of God, that we believe in God, in Jesus, in the Holy Spirit, in His Church, in everything that is taught.
When we see it that way, then we need to look at what God desires. We are not going to find that on the TV or in the radio; we will find it in the Scriptures; we will find it in the teachings of the Church; we will find it in the lives of the saints. That is what we must be about as Catholic people.
"The body weighs down the soul," Wisdom says. So it is a matter of prayer and looking beyond the physical needs that we might have and looking to the spiritual; seeking the Lord with our whole heart and soul and strength; to love Him first and foremost and to love our neighbor as ourselves. That is the wisdom of God. That is what will set us free. That is what will open our hearts to receive others, as Saint Paul tells Philemon to receive Onesimus. In that way, we will be truly loving. We will be living according to the divine Wisdom, not according to the worldly wisdom. We will be detached from all things that are not God so that we will live our lives for God alone.
This homily text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.
May God Bless You.