Frances writes on Sunday’s readings :- Isn’t it strange that when it comes to ‘important’ things in our lives we plan carefully and seek more and more information, whether about buying a property; our jobs; our bodies and our health; family relationships and so on. Yet few of us make such efforts with our faith. This Church Year has been a Year of Faith and the Church has encouraged people to delve deeper; but I wonder how many have done so, or appreciated the significance of what we have been asked to do. Many Catholics, like their Protestant friends, think of the faith as a private thing to be known only to one’s self. But, as we are all called not to self-salvation but to the spreading of the faith to the world, we do need continually to work at our belief and especially what the Church teaches, for some of us may be far from well informed about precisely what our Church does teach. Indeed, if our relationship with God is actually more about a love affair with the most important being there can ever be, it does seem rather odd to suggest that it is only at Mass on a Sunday that we can talk at all! Lovers, in my experience delight in each other’s company and can’t get enough of each other.
This surely is what our gospel, (Luke 14:25-33), is about. Jesus was on that long journey from the north of Palestine to Jerusalem and his passion, and en route gives a great deal of teaching whilst meeting and confronting different people, notably Pharisees. He tells a series of parables illustrative of his beliefs to help his hearers to remember and mull over what he has said. In our readings we get two about planning carefully in relation to intended actions which follow his very hard remark about the cost of discipleship.
I do not think Jesus was calling for everyone to abandon all human personal and familial relationships; but he makes these extreme statements to draw our thoughts to the great significance of what we are taking on when we become believers. Our faith in Jesus must be the most important thing in our lives, and some, as we know from Christian history, did give up literally everything for love of him, even their lives. Jesus was trying to impress on his followers the significance of their faith and the depth of commitment required, and so he hits at the most significant things in any person’s life, their relationship with those closest to them, and weighs this in relation to love of him, pointing thereby to the seriousness of our faith.
When St Paul wrote to Philemon, (Ph 9-10. 12-17), he was making a similar point. Onesimus was Philemon’s slave whom Paul had ‘borrowed’ without permission, a serious offence in Roman law, and this letter then rests Paul’s case for this liberty on the new patronage we all have in Christ and the new status it gives to all. Far from being apologetic for his offence, Paul goes on the offensive, insisting that in this new world of altered human significance, Philemon the slave-owner and patron of Colossae, will now have the honour of becoming the client of God, the supreme patron; and that any kudos he has will be gained through his relationship with Paul, God’s agent, who has, as it were, adopted Onesimus. Paul’s letter in effect claims that everything is fine, since, far from creating a problem by his theft, Paul has ensured that everyone moves a rung up the social stratosphere. Christianity then, as we learn from Paul’s astute wheeler-dealing with Philemon, is about a huge shift in social values through our spiritual adoption into Christ, and nothing can ever be the same again. The way of life and the values we had in the past must all move aside as our belief in Christ takes precedence over all previous social ordering and understanding.
Of course, how we come to understand all this is a question of our ‘education’ in the faith, and this is not simply a matter of earthly education or knowledge. The Book of Wisdom, (Wis 9:13-18), written some two centuries before Christ explores this issue. “It is hard enough for us to work out what is on earth, laborious to know what lies within our reach; who then can discover what is in the heavens?” The writer comes to the conclusion that wisdom of heavenly things comes from God; it is the job of the believer to study and penetrate these heavenly mysteries, putting ourselves into the hands of God; and this of course is an active thing, a willingness to engage with God, not a passive ‘Well I don’t have to do anything’ approach. Our faith then, like any small child or plant, requires regular nourishment if it is to thrive; and we can all facilitate its growth in our daily lives. Relationships can grow with attention, just as they wither and die through lack of attention.