Saturday, September 7, 2013

Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

This is one gospel I’m glad I don’t have to read at Mass on Mother’s Day. Can’t you just hear it? "Mom, I know it’s Mother’s Day, but I hate you, because Jesus told me I have to." If anything, today’s gospel certainly makes us sit up and listen. Because, if we take him at face value, Jesus tells s that we need to hate every member of our immediate families, if we wish to be his disciples. On top of that, we need to renounce all our possessions. What’s more, we each need to carry a cross, which is, of course, an instrument of execution.

If we had never been to a church or read the Bible before, and today was our first introduction to the gospel, what would we think? It would be easy to conclude that to be a disciple of Jesus, we need to be broke, hateful, and have a death wish. We might look at the people around us and think, "Why on earth would these people want to be here?"

Thankfully, we know that Jesus, for instance, doesn’t want us to hate our mothers. His heavenly Father told us all to love and honor our mothers and fathers when he gave us the Ten Commandments. And we know that Jesus loves Mary his mother very much. Perfectly, in fact.

So just what is it that Jesus is trying to tell us in today’s gospel? Well, to understand his words, we need to understand his manner of speaking. Because if we don’t we’re going to continue to be confused. It’s a bit like the text messaging that young people do so much today. If we don’t understand what all the little abbreviations mean- BFF, LOL, BTW, and goodness knows what else- we’ll have no idea what they’re talking about. Likewise, we need to understand Jesus’ special mode of communication to appreciate what he really means.

Jesus doesn’t intend for us to take his words at face value. He was using a typical Middle Eastern way of speaking in order to stress an important point. And his point is that his disciples- and that means us!- need to place loyalty to him over and above any family ties, any human relationships, or any desire for money or possessions. In other words, Jesus takes priority over everyone and everything else in our lives.

Jesus, of course, was speaking about discipleship. And to some it may sound that Jesus’ description of discipleship is nothing more than a recipe for unhappiness. However, ironic as it may seem, Jesus words to us today are really a recipe for happiness. To place following him before all else is the only way to discover the deep and abiding happiness we all seek and long for. Because if we try to find that happiness in the other things that Jesus mentioned- human relationships or worldly possessions- we will ultimately wind up disappointed.

In spite of what many Americans believe, and what our consumerist culture says, money can’t buy happiness. And research bears this out. For instance, a survey of 49 of Forbes magazine’s richest people found that they weren’t any happier than the rest of us. Money magazine columnist Jean Chatsky polled 1,500 people for her book You Don’t Have to be Rich and discovered that more money makes people significantly happier only if their combined family income is below $30,000 a year. By $50,000 a year, Chatsky concludes, money makes no difference to happiness at all.

Another way that people try to find happiness is through relationships. If one great American myth is that money buys happiness, then surely another one is what we might call the "Myth of Romantic Love." We look for Mr. or Mrs. Right- a "soul mate"- and expect that person to fill us with supreme and eternal happiness. Unfortunately, reality never meets our expectations. One prominent divorce lawyer asserts that, based on personal experience, many divorces result from such romanticized expectations. People get married thinking that their life together will be perfect bliss, and that they’ll ride off into the sunset to Camelot, where they will live happily ever after. But then reality hits, and the bubble is burst. Each begins to realize that the other is far from perfect, and the day-to-day struggles and challenges of ordinary life begin to wear them down and drive them apart. Resentment replaces romance, and so they split, each leaving to look for another who will give them the happiness that they so desperately long for. People also place the same unrealistic expectations on relationships with relatives, children, or friends.

Now don’t get me wrong: There are lots of happy marriages, families, and friendships. That’s what God wants!. And we can certainly enjoy many things that money can buy us, and that’s part of God’s plan too: everything God has made is good, and he wants us to enjoy it in a responsible way. We can also find a measure of happiness in our work and leisure activities. But if we go looking for ultimate happiness in these things or people, we will eventually wind up discouraged and dissatisfied. As St. Maximilian Kolbe wrote: "... whenever you choose earthly happiness as your purpose in life, you shall be disappointed, you shall find limits, and (you will learn) that you really want something more, and more lasting…"

That something more, that something more lasting, is found in being a disciple of Jesus Christ. We need to put Jesus first in order to be truly happy. But the strange thing is- once we put Jesus first, we can begin to find more happiness in every aspect of our lives- like our relationships and possessions- because they will have found their proper place. We won’t expect them to do for us what only Jesus himself can do. The bottom line? Following Jesus won’t lead us to hate our mothers. Indeed, by following Jesus, we’ll probably come to love them even more. Just as Jesus loves his.

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