Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Center of Community Life: Christ Himself

Homily on the 23rd Sunday of Year C
(Luke 14:23-33)
September 5, 2010

A few years ago, after the riot in Los Angeles, California, Time Magazine asked: Can we live together? Of course, there has been much progress in the relationship between the Whites and the Blacks (or the Colored) since the time of Martin Luther King, Jr, thanks to the civil right movements, but racism has not vanished into thin air. In the international scene, the struggle between the Third World countries and the First World has still to see a definitive resolution. It was Karl Marx who said, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” One may dismiss his philosophy of history, but one cannot deny that the relationship between masters and slaves in ancient times was not substantially different from the relationship between the lords and serfs in the medieval ages, and the workers and the owners of the means of production in modern times. And there is the difficulty of some peoples to look beyond ethnic boundaries. The question is not quite irrelevant: can we really live together?

If we come to the brass tacks of it all, we will see that we find it difficult to live together because most of us do not want to give up anything that belongs to us. If economic war happens, it is because no one wants to renounce wealth. There is ethnic cleansing because we cannot tolerate the presence of people other than us. We refuse to share with the Colored because we deny them the right to be human. That is why today’s Gospel speaks of renunciation. Of course, for Luke, God’s will is that we live together—even here on earth, we have to realize God’s kingdom where everyone experiences wholeness, a sense of belonging, fellowship in the community. But according to Luke, this is possible only if we as a community enter into discipleship. By this is meant the renunciation of self, familial relationship and possession, and the unconditional and total commitment to Jesus by all the members of the community. This is evidenced by our total conversion to Jesus’ life, words, and works.

At the center of the community life in discipleship is Jesus himself. It is to him that we give our undivided loyalty. He is our principle of unity. What should ultimately bind us together is not law, political party, power, or economic interest, but the person of Jesus himself. Should there be a conflict between our ethnic allegiance and our allegiance to Jesus, it is the latter that ought to prevail. Hence, Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and his children, his brothers and sisters, indeed his very self, he cannot be my follower” (Luke 14:26). Each of us lives in a network of loyalties—loyalty to family, clan, school, political party, friends, business partners, corporations, etc.—but the claims of Jesus precede all of them. Since Jesus is the center of one’s life and that of the community, all other ties are reformulated in terms of our relationship to Jesus. To emphasize this priority, Luke uses the Semitic expression “to hate” which does not mean to loath or to consider oneself as a scum, but which means to turn away from, to detach oneself from, to renounce oneself and family ties and surrender oneself totally to Jesus. Matthew, instead of retaining the original hyperbolic form, tones down the force of the saying by paraphrasing it: “The man who loves his father or mother more than me” (Matt 18:37). Still, the point is that one forgoes the security of family ties so he can be totally united to Jesus. But here, it is not only a question of loving; it is rather a question of making Jesus the center both of one’s individual life and of community life.

This brings us to the next point. Since it is a question of making Jesus not only the object of love but also the center of the life of the individual and the community, a deeper meaning of discipleship is unraveled. To be a disciple is to undergo a transformation which is seen in one’s new way of life, since Jesus’ words, works and life constitute a new principle that defines and informs one’s life. This means that Jesus’ way of life becomes our way of life. It is for this reason that Jesus added, “Anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). The saying is of course metaphorical. The cross was an ancient instrument of torture and execution for disreputable persons, like slaves, thieves and rebels. People like them forfeited life and honor. Jesus’ words are therefore an invitation to give up personal life and honor and embrace a life of suffering, even to the point of martyrdom. Such a life is certainly devoid of self-assertion and self-interest. Consequently, it is a life that surrenders everything one has: “none of you can be my disciple if he does not renounce all his possessions” (Luke 14:33).

One’s life is then so transformed that his outlook, behavior and relationships are concentrated on Jesus; at the same time, Jesus defines one’s outlook, behavior and relationships. The second reading (Phil 9b-10.12-17) provides us an example. Philemon, a resident at Colossae and man of substance, had a slave named Onesimus. At that time, slavery was a social institution in which a person was legally owned by a master as property to be used at will and counted nothing in the social scale. Onesimus then was a man of no rights. In the present letter, Paul asked Philemon to receive his slave as a brother (vv 16-17). To receive a slave as a brother in the Lord is a manifestation of what having Jesus as the center of personal and community life entails in a divided social relationship between master and slave. Of course, Paul did not abolish the institution of slavery—that would have been impossible; but making Christ the center of community life is irreconcilable with the institution of slavery, since in Christ “there is no more Jew or Greek, slave or free, man and woman” (Gal 3:27-28). Such principle transformed the social relationship between Onesimus and Philemon, and one is not surprised that people in the long run realized how incompatible the institution of slavery with Christianity was.

In the Old Testament, this transformation is called wisdom (Wisd 9:13-19, 1st Reading). When such a change happens, one can be certain that division is overcome, self-interest is emptied of itself, and the possibility of living together is removed from the realm of dreams. Yes, we can live together—if we make Christ as the center of our community life in discipleship. And when that happens, the Kingdom of God is realized, however partially.

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