ACTA LECTIONARY COMMENTARY
Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Year of Luke
Download: Twenty Third Sunday of the Year C
A reading from the book of Wisdom 9:13-18
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 90:3-6. 12-14. 17. R/. v.1
A reading from the letter of St. Paul to Philemon 9-10. 12-17
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke
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Both of Luke’s literary enterprises, his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, begin with a note to his mentor or friend, or both, a man named Theophilus. None of the other three Gospels begin with such a formal preface, a feature common in Greek writings of the period. The formality of Luke’s introduction to his Gospel is clear from the fact that it consists of one very elaborate Greek sentence. On the other hand, the rest of the Gospel is written, for the most part, in a colloquial style, rather like the narrative style to be found in the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, this Greek translation was used by all those writers whose output came to make up our New Testament. It was the Bible of the early Church.
Luke’s introduction suggests research such as an historian would do before setting pen to paper. Yet the body of the Gospel does not come across as a professional, dispassionate, objective account, the like of which we expect when we open a modern book of history.
To be sure, Luke’s Gospel is the work of a great story-teller. Luke’s presentation of the parables of Jesus is masterly. His careful orchestration of the narratives of the coming of John the Baptist and then of Jesus into this world is the work of a fine writer. His intertwining of the journey of Jesus with the shadow of the Cross is rich in theological insight and dramatic intensity.
There is, however, one feature that I wish to call to your attention that indicates to me that Luke, whatever the preface might suggest, was not committed to writing a history of Jesus of Nazareth. It is this feature that will inform the most casual reader that Luke did not set out to write history.
Consider the following openings to accounts of various incidents as we turn the pages of Luke’s story. In his first three chapters we have formal and instructive historical indications:
In the days of Herod, King of Judea …
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus… when Quirinius was governor of Syria …
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of the Lord came to John …
Historians can go to work on this sort of material and establish relevant details of the imperial history at the time. But for the rest of the Jesus story, no such precise information is provided. Notice how vague the information is until we come to the last week of the life of Jesus when there is much more information of use to historians:
And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan…
And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee …
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been reared …
And he went down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee …
One on occasion, while the crowd was pressing …
While he was in one of the cities …
On one of those days, as he was teaching …
After this he went out …
On the Sabbath, as he was going through the grain fields …
On another Sabbath, he entered the (?) synagogue …
In those days he went out to the (?) mountain to pray …
… and he stood in a level place …
After he had finished … he entered Capernaum …
Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain …
Soon afterwards he went through cities and villages …
One day he got into a boat …
Then they sailed to the country of the Gerasenes …,
Now when Jesus returned …
Now about eight days after these things …
… he went up on the (?) mountain to pray …
On the next day …
When the days drew near for him to be taken up …
After these things the Lord appointed seventy-two others …
In that same hour …
Now as they made their way …
And it happened that in a certain place Jesus was praying …
During such things … (= meanwhile …)
Now while teaching in one of their synagogues …
And he went on his way through towns and villages …
In that very same hour …
And it happened … on the Sabbath …
Now great crowds journeyed with him …
And it happened in their journeying to Jerusalem …
And entering, he was passing through Jericho …
On a certain day it happened that he was teaching the people in the Temple …
By now we are in Jerusalem for the last week of the life of Jesus. The indications of time and place begin to be definite. The sequence of events becomes much clearer and the location of each incident is clearly specified. While no dates are given, it is Passover time and the week’s events, leading to the resurrection of Jesus, are reasonably precise.
A Gospel, not a History
While it is not very exciting to make our way through all the vague references above, the exercise is not without value. The lesson is that we must come to the obvious conclusion that Luke is not writing a history of Jesus. Histories are supposed to have dates and times; they join up events by means of place and time indications. No such information is regularly conveyed to us in Luke’s story. Clearly, he is not writing a history as history should be written, even by ancient standards.
What Luke (and each of the other gospel-makers) is doing is selecting incidents and stitching them together to provide his vision of who Jesus is, and what kind of community he initiated as the bearers of his ministry in the world. Luke’s understanding of Jesus is intended to convince his readers and hearers (not us) of how Christians must live if they are to be a light to the world. In his Acts, his second work, he shows Christians, animated by the Holy Spirit, proclaiming Jesus and his good news to all and sundry. Above all, Luke was writing for a particular group of churches at a time when the churches were well on the way to becoming a Church that had been called into being to live and to proclaim God’s purposes in the world for the wellbeing of humanity.
So Luke himself is not an historian. He is a proclaimer teaching Jesus to nascent proclaimers. He has a teaching agenda and everything in his Gospel is geared to educating those who hear his words to be what he was himself, an apostle of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore when we listen to a passage from Luke read to us of a Sunday we must ask “What did Luke intend to teach his readers and hearers by including what we have just heard from his Gospel?” And then we have to ask, “What can this possibly have to do with us in the 21st century?”
For example, suppose at Easter time there was read to us a passage about some women to whom the meaning of the empty tomb had been explained by “two men who stood by them in dazzling apparel”. Thus educated by heaven, they set off and “told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest”. Then the reading continues with a comment from St Luke:
Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.
How might your congregation respond? How might these sentences resonate with your community’s Christian living? What is your response to what Luke hoped the people in his time would do in response to his caustic comment on the behaviour “the apostles”? Is there anything in the story of these women that resonates with our time and place?
What Luke, and Mark, Matthew, and John have done is so to present a picture of Jesus and that picture becomes a reflection of what Christians are meant to be. Christians must look in the Gospel mirror and see themselves reflected there. Then comes the business of transforming oneself into what is seen in the mirror and becoming a proclaimer of our Lord Jesus Christ.
A reading from the book of Wisdom 9:13-18
What human being can learn the counsel of God?
Or who can discern what the Lord wills?
For the reasoning of mortals is worthless,
and our designs are likely to fail,
for a perishable body weighs down the soul,
and this earthly tent burdens the mind with thoughts.
We can hardly guess at what is on earth,
and what is at hand we find with labour;
But who has traced out what is in the heavens?
Who has learned your counsel, unless you have given wisdom
and sent your holy spirit from on high?
And thus the paths of those on earth were set right,
and people were taught what pleases you
and were saved by wisdom.
The word of the Lord.
The Bible itself is witness to domestic crowding in the household of King Solomon:
Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord has said to the people of Israel,
You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after other gods.
Solomon clung to these in love. He had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines (secondary wives). And his wives turned away his heart.
I Kings 11:1-3
Yet early Christians regarded Solomon as the author of a shelf of books: Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, and the Wisdom of ben Sirach). He was also credited with a number of books not in the Bible: the Odes of Solomon, Testament of Solomon, and even a work entitled Psalms of Solomon. The story of Solomon judging wisely as to who was the real mother of a disputed child (I Kings 3:16-28) seems to have impressed many, and, accordingly, many believed that he wrote a host of books. But it is unlikely that he wrote any of these books; certainly he did not write the Book of Wisdom from which today’s second reading comes.
The Wisdom of Solomon reflects an intimacy with Greek philosophical thinking, not at all in keeping with the Jewish conceptions found in the Hebrew Bible. The lines in our reading,
for a perishable body weighs down the soul,
and this earthly tent burdens the mind with thoughts,
might have been written by the Greek father-of-philosophy, Plato. Indeed the conceptions of Plato on such matters as pre-existence, beauty, and the human soul are evident in Wisdom’s conceptions. The idea that wisdom is the guiding spirit that creates an ordered universe, as to-day’s reading teaches, clearly comes from the thought of Plato and other Greek philosophers. The most famous Jewish scholar, a contemporary of Jesus and Paul, was Philo of Alexandria and he was certainly a devotee of Plato. So attracted was he to Plato that he regarded Plato as God’s version of Moses given to Gentiles. Some thought that Philo wrote Wisdom but this is not a view espoused by many scholars, ancient or modern.
What the men in today’s Gospel parables lack is wisdom, the foresight to ensure a successful enterprise. This practical wisdom is a gift of God. The lines before our first reading today offers a beautiful prayer placed by the author in the mouth of Solomon, a prayer seeking wisdom in order “to be king over your people”. It is a prayer that ought to be made by every heart:
O God of my fathers and Lord of mercy,
who has made all things by your word
and by wisdom has formed man
to have dominion over the creatures you have made
and rule the world in holiness and righteousness …
give me the wisdom that sits by your throne …
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 90:3-6. 12-14. 17. R/. v.1
R/. Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
You return man to dust
and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night. R/.
You sweep them away as with a flood;
they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers. R/.
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Return, O Lord! How long?
Have pity on your servants. R/.
Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands.
R/. Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Among all the psalms in the Book of Psalms today’s psalm is unique. It is the only psalm in the whole collection that is introduced as A prayer of Moses, man of God. The psalm is concerned with human frailty. It begins, however, with an affirmation that God is the one who “formed the earth and the world”, the God who is “from everlasting to everlasting”, the God whose existence has no beginning and no end. Unlike the eternal God, even the great man who led God’s people out of slavery in Egypt is returned to dust. God’s call to a humanity, whose life is as short-lived as grass in the field, is to repent. As in the vocabulary of Jesus, repentance means a reassessment of life, a call to turn to God’s ways. To turn to God is to be given “a heart of wisdom”. To have such heart is to be sated with God’s steadfast love, the love that endures forever. To experience that love is have cause to sing and to rejoice all our days. The final stanza of the psalm is a prayer that God’s loving activity be seen by “your servants”, and “your glory by their children”. And may “the work of our hands”—however fleeting—in God’s eyes, be worthy of that steadfast love.
A reading from the letter of St. Paul to Philemon 9-10. 12-17
I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.
The word of the Lord.
The letter to Philemon is the shortest of all Paul’s letters and it is the most intimate and personal. It is a plea for a runaway slave made to the slave’s owner. But Paul’s appeal is not made only to Philemon and his wife Apphia. It is addressed to “the church in your house”.
There is a poignant irony in the fact that Saul, the one-time zealous young man who imprisoned many Christians (as we know from Acts 8:3; 22:4, and 26:10), should find himself frequently behind bars for his passionate faith in Christ Jesus. In one of his imprisonments he befriended a fellow-prisoner named Onesimus and it is on behalf of this man that he wrote this short letter.
Whether Onesimus was a runaway slave or a slave sent to support Paul in his imprisonment is a matter of considerable debate. The way Paul presents the slave in the letter seems to me to suggest that Paul is asking that he be released from slavery, not punished (by death or otherwise) for the crime of running away from his master. I am impressed by the playfulness of the letter that Paul is not treating the matter as a life or death issue. Rather he is prompting Philemon to reward with his freedom a slave who has given exemplary service to an imprisoned apostle. The pity is that our Lectionary today offers only 8 verses of the 25 that make up the letter and we know how aggravating it is if we receive a letter with a page left out.
The first part of the letter must be read with care, if we are to grasp the subtlety of Paul’s request made in the second half. Paul begins by announcing that he is “a prisoner for Christ”.
Paul is in prison, possibly in Rome, probably in Ephesus, nearer to Colossae. Whatever the charges against him, he sees his imprisonment as part and parcel of his slavery under the gospel of Christ Jesus. He calls himself and his beloved Timothy ‘slaves of Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 1:1) and even presented himself to Roman Christians as a slave of Jesus Christ (Romans 1:1). Slavery is not an empty metaphor for Paul. His whole life was at God’s disposal and it is a life, once he had abandoned power to persecute and became a slave of Christ Jesus, full of hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, hard labour, hunger (Second Corinthians 6:5 and 11:21-29). That his appeal on behalf of a slave should come from behind bars is ironic and Paul knows it. He uses the language of the heart to move hearts in the household of Philemon, the slave owner. By insisting that he is a prisoner of Christ Jesus on account of his work as an apostle of Jesus, he is also a prisoner of Jesus in that his whole life now belongs to Jesus. And thereby he raises the matter of the slave Onesimus to the level of a religious affair and not a matter of law or economics. Paul speaks to Philemon not man to man, but Christian to Christian.
Paul writes to Philemon but also to his wife Apphia, whom he addresses in Christian terms as our sister. He writes, too, to Archippus (Colossians 4:17), and to the church ‘in you house’. Paul deftly makes the private matter of a runaway slave a matter for the local church. How Philemon deals with the matter is the business of the whole community. The greeting of grace and peace is in the plural. Paul places the church on the stage to listen, to judge, and to see, not that justice is done, but that love is served.
Paul’s prayers are never flannel. He prays in thanks for the goodness he sees, especially highlighting those very godly characteristics which are required to meet present difficulties. Paul has heard of Philemon’s love, of his faith in the Lord Jesus and in all the holy people who are the church in Colossae (“the saints”), of his loving concern to promote the knowledge of all the good that comes from belonging Jesus’ people. Paul tells Philemon of the joy and encouragement he has received when he reflects on how the hearts of all the faithful are moved by Philemon’s care for ‘the church in his house’. The qualities that move Paul to pray will move Philemon to receive his runaway slave and grant him what, says Paul, will refresh my heart in Christ (verse 20).
I offer here my own translation of the next section in this little letter (verse 8 to verse 14) for in Paul’s Greek it is all one sentence and a very subtle sentence it is:
Therefore, though I have enough confidence to command you to do what is right, I prefer to appeal through love— such as I am, Paul, an ambassador of Christ Jesus, yet now his prisoner—I appeal to you for my child, whom I have begotten in prison chains, for Onesimus, at one time useless now sending back to you, sending in truth my very heart, sending him whom I would have loved to keep by my side in order that he might have been of service to me on your behalf as I lie in chains on account of the gospel, but I wished to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be down to compulsion but of your own free will.
I have tried to imitate Paul in translation in order to convey the subtle twists in his appeal to the Christian slave owner. Paul respects Philemon’s rights as a slave-owner. But he appeals to his love. That love, Paul has said, extends to all the faithful who make up the church in his house. Could it now be extended to a new saint, a new holy one, and a new member of that little house-church in Colossae? Might not love prevail over legal obligation? What is obvious is that Paul speaks of himself more than Philemon or Onesimus. The business ought to be between master and slave. But Paul insists that Christian faith entitles him to enter into the affair and to make Christian values the determining factors in the regard to Onesimus. Believing in Jesus changes everything.
The very contortions of Paul’s sentence illustrate the delicate balance that often exists between rights and duties, and between love and obligation, between legal entitlement and loving embrace. The dilemma for the Church in our time, indeed, in every time, is to balance fidelity to the law and compassion of the heart. Getting it right, that is, ensuring that love always triumphs, comes not from power but from the discipline of prayer and the authority of love.
In the next sentences Paul comes to the heart of the matter. As an old man and a prisoner in jail, he makes his appeal. It is personal and deeply Christian. Though the letter began with an address to the whole household of faith, he speaks directly to Philemon. Even the words of thanksgiving (verses 4-7) were directly to “our beloved fellow-worker” Philemon. It is to his “love”, his “faith”, that both Paul and all the saints have received joy, and comfort, and “the full knowledge of every good thing”. Paul’s personal appeal is made directly to his friend:
Perhaps this is why he was separated for a while, that you might have him back for ever, no longer a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both on a human level and in the Lord. So if you esteem me as a bound to you in faith, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you or owes you anything, put it down to my account. I, Paul write this in my own hand, I will repay – not to mention that you owe me your very self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
The slave owner must transform himself into a brother to a fellow Christian. Paul is gently insisting – not just advocating – that the master cease to be master and become what he is to all the saints. His sharing of faith with them demands that he share his faith with Onesimus and thus promote the knowledge of all the good that is ours in Christ. Paul thanks God for all that flowed from Philemon’s Christian faith to all the saints (verses 4-7):
My prayer is that the communal sharing of your faith may be effective in promoting the knowledge of all the good which is yours and mine in Christ.
Onesimus is now one of the saints. Notice that he is not mentioned until verse 10. The name Onesimus means “useless”. But since Paul has become his father in faith, that is, bringing the slave to faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus in verse 11 (omitted in the Lectionary reading) Paul can suggest with great gentleness,
Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.
Delivered from slavery, Onesimus can take full part in richness of Christian witness in the little church in the house of his erstwhile master and beyond:
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you (singular), as do my co-workers Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your (pl.) spirit. Verses 23-25
All the people mentioned in this letter, except Philemon and his wife Apphia, are mentioned in the letter to Christians in Colossae (Colossians 4:7-17). Paul again binds Philemon, and with him Onesimus, into a network of Christians who stand silently on the stage of Paul’s letter urging the slave owner to do as Paul requests and raise the slave from slavery to the freedom of the children of God.
When compared with other letters in the New Testament, and excepting I and II John, the letter to Philemon is brief. But it is full of richness, full of the intimacy of Christian togetherness. That unity of love and oneness of purpose at the service of the gospel of God shines through. The little community perfectly mirrors that to which all Christians are called. May it and all such churches around the world be as Paul prays. The prayer is, of course, in the plural:
The grace of the Lord Jesus Chris be with your spirit.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke
Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’.
Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
The Gospel of the Lord.
Watch out for the crowds. The words “crowd” or “crowds” occur 41 times in Luke’s Gospel (and 22 times in Acts). The crowds that so frequently fill the stage in the pages of Luke’s Gospel are not background noise or bit parts. The crowd is an important feature, for the crowd is the potential source of those who would become followers and eventually disciples.
Notice how John the Baptist scolds the crowds but they ask him what they must do to repent and he turns into a teacher who advises them how to prepare for “the way of the Lord” (read Luke 3:3-14).
Notice, too, the eagerness of the crowd to attend to every word of Jesus:
On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, … Luke 5:1
The audience of Luke’s version of the Beatitudes is very instructive. Jesus, with the Twelve, comes down the mountain on which he had been praying, to the level ground where everybody was:
And he came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the sea-coast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. And those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all.
In chapter 7 the crowd is mentioned three times, twice in chapter 8, four times in chapter 9, and so the absence of the crowd at the death of Jesus is a great surprise. We are so used to the shouts of the crowds because we are encouraged to imitate them on Good Friday (Crucify him! Crucify him!) as we participate in the reading of St John’s account of the crucifixion. But they are absent from Luke. It is “the chief priests and the rulers of the people” who do the shouting, insisting that Pilate sentence Jesus to death. Read carefully Luke 23:13-25. And remember this:
On their return the apostles told him all that they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida. When the crowds learned it, they followed him, and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God and cured those who had need of healing. Now the day began to wear away, and the twelve came and said to him, “Send the crowd away to go into the surrounding villages and countryside to find lodging and get provisions, for we are here in a desolate place.” But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.”
The crowds are the people Jesus teaches and the people Jesus feeds. What Jesus does is what we are expected to do to all the people out there who need to hear the word and taste the bread. Today’s reading insists that the crowds, the great crowds, who accompanied Jesus, were potential disciples. Jesus turns around in order directly to teach “the great crowds”. Our reading ends with a warning directed at these potential disciples:
… any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciples.
Anyone in the crowds who can renounce everything can become “my disciple”.
Terms of Discipleship
Three demands are made of would-be disciples. They are extreme demands. To understand why the cost of discipleship in Luke is so very high it is necessary to understand where we are in Luke’s Gospel. The context will help would-be disciples in our time and place to grasp why such demands are made if we put them in context in Luke’s Gospel.
In 9:51, after the dramatic Transfiguration even on the mountain, Jesus set out for Jerusalem:
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.
Notice the emphatic nature of this simple sentence. The very solemn “when the days drew near” sound like a warning. There is an ominous ring to this marking of time. The ambiguous “for him to be taken up”—what does this mean? On the mountain in the conversation with Elijah and Moses there is talk of this “exodos”, presumably his journey to Jerusalem, to death of the cross, and to be “carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51).
So from Luke 9:51 to 24:51 there is the shadow of conflict and death. As Jesus and the men and women who are with him draw nearer to Jerusalem, shadows lengthen. What Jesus ominously warns is that what is about to happen to him will be the fate of his followers as well. In presenting the fate of Jesus, Luke is warning the men and women who join the Christian Way that they may well endure the same fate as Jesus himself.
Consider two visions of the future that Jesus disclosed to those with him on the way to Jerusalem:
Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.
A promise of joy and well-being and of eternal life—good news, indeed.
But consider a second insight in what is to come, disclosed in the very next sentence above:
And taking the twelve, he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.” But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.
Two visions of the future, the one following the other. It is the tensions between the two that explains the three dire warnings on today’s Gospel reading.
The first demand made on would-be disciples emphasises by its sheer exaggeration the utter necessity of realising what people are letting themselves in for when they sign up to the Jesus project. To understand the preposterous exaggeration in the words of Jesus we have to remember that Jesus insisted that his followers must love enemies, do good to those who hate them, and pray for those who persecute them (see Luke 6:27). Luke is insisting that what Jesus said to the men and women who followed him on the way to Jerusalem applies to his followers in every time and in every place.
The second caution is that anyone who is planning to throw in his or her lot with the man from Nazareth had better beware. Know what you are doing. Is there a foundation stone of deep faith? Is there a firm, well-thought-out decisive decision? In a word, have you any idea what you are signing up to?
The king who rushes into war without counting how many soldiers he has at his back ought to stop and think. Of course, the conclusion Jesus draws from his example of the silly king does not follow. The conclusion Jesus draws is this:
So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
First, what does saying good-bye to all your possessions have to do with the incautious king? The overall lesson of the three examples is that to answer the call to join the Jesus people, one has to make everything in life subordinate to the demands of discipleship. The cost of discipleship must be weighted carefully before committing oneself to such a demanding project.
Secondly, Jesus has much to say about possessions, most of it spelled out after he has turned his face toward Jerusalem and resolutely journeyed to whatever God held in store on arrival there. We need to remind ourselves:
No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. Luke 9:62
“Take care”, [Jesus said], “and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possession”. Luke 12:15
Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Luke 12:32-34
Then there is the sad story of the rich man who couldn’t sell everything he possessed, give to the poor, and throw in his lot with the Good Teacher. Jesus looked on him with sadness and said gently,
How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Luke18:24-25
On the Thirty-First Sunday of the Year of Luke we will meet Zacchaeus, a man given to climbing sycamore trees, and we will be very near to Jerusalem. It is worth the wait.