Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C



Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

First Reading: Wisdom 9:13-18b; Response: Psalm 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14-17; Second Reading: Philemon 9:10, 12-17; Gospel: Luke 14:25-33

The author of the Book of Wisdom makes use of a convention that allows one to attribute one’s writings to some heroic figure of the past. In this case, the unknown author of Wisdom, writing sometime between 100-50 B.C., attributes to King Solomon, 961-922 B.C., a long prayer. The king is praying for wisdom. Part of that prayer is our first reading of this Sunday. What does the author mean by wisdom? The Books of Proverbs and Sirach identify wisdom with the revelation, which is the Torah (the teaching, the law). This author identifies wisdom with the Spirit of the Lord, as we see in today’s reading, “Who ever knew your counsel, unless you had given wisdom from on high, and sent your holy spirit from on high?” Wisdom and holy spirit are parallel nouns; synonyms.

The first line of our reading is as follows. “Who can know God’s counsel? Or who can conceive what the Lord intends?” These questions find an echo in St. Paul’s famous closing of his three-chapter deliberation about why Israel, as a whole people, did not accept Jesus as their Messiah. Since his discussion comes up with no satisfactory answer, he breaks out in praise of Divine Wisdom: “O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God. How incomprehensible his judgments. How unsearchable his ways. For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?” The author of our reading compares the uncertainty of human deliberations with the absolute surety of God’s counsel. Human conclusions are timid. We are unsure of our plans. “The corruptible body burdens the soul” is not the best way to describe coordination of flesh and spirt in a human being. The author continues, “Since we can barely understand earthly things, how much more we need divine guidance for heavenly things.” The solution: God sent his spirit from on high. “Thus were the paths of us earthlings made straight.” This is not a revelation about the third Person of the Holy Trinity. That revelation accompanied the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

The Jerusalem Bible names Psalm 90 “The Human Condition.” It is an appropriate response to the weakness of the human condition described in the first reading. The psalmist sounds pessimistic. The Lord turns people back into dust. Their lives can end during their sleep. Humans are like grass; fresh in the morning, fading by evening. (Day lilies would have been a better comparison!) Because of the frailty of human nature, the psalmist turns to God with a plea to help us recognize the brevity of our day. It is a plea for compassion. What should we do with the days allotted to us? He leaves that to the Lord, asking God to fill us with kindness and “Prosper the work of our hands.”

Here is the situation of St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon. While Paul was in prison for the faith, he shared imprisonment with a runaway slave of Philemon. The slave’s name was Onesimus. Desertion of a slave meant economic loss to Philemon. Paul addresses his letter to Philemon; to Apphia (perhaps Mrs. Philemon); to another fellow Christian, Archippus; and to the church that meets in Philemon’s house. A home large enough for Christian gatherings, and ownership of a slave, indicates wealth. Paul converted Onesimus in prison, becoming a father substitute to him. Onesimus is freed from prison. Paul is bound by Roman law to help return the slave to his owner. Penalties for fugitive slaves were severe — whipping, branding, death. Paul pleads with Philemon to receive Onesimus, now a Christian, as a brother. He (Paul) hints that he would appreciate if Philemon would send Onesimus back to him, “that he might serve me in your behalf.” In the meantime, “If you think of me as your partner, welcome him as you would me.”

In today’s gospel reading, we meet some of the strangest, harshest sayings attributed to Jesus in the whole New Testament – though others come close. The context is Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, where he would face torture and death. Appropriately, Luke places his toughest lessons within this tragic journey. As our gospel opens, Jesus is accompanied by crowds moving on toward his goal. He addresses them, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers, sisters, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” One may ask, Isn’t there too much hatred among families without what seems to be a divine demand for more? What are we to do with a saying that looks so contrary to the fourth commandment, which says, “Honor they father and thy mother, etc.?” Jesus himself, in Luke 18:20, quotes with approval the fourth commandment. Is this another example of Luke’s need for an editor? Matthew 10:37 has the same saying but in milder form. “He who loves father and mother more than me, is not worthy of me.” The same is added of daughters and sons. Matthew’s version is easier for us.

The gospels were not composed by eye-and-ear witnesses. They come at the end of decades of oral tradition, which is notoriously subject to changes. So we have two forms of this saying. We cannot be sure which form originates with Jesus. We also know that Luke and Matthew used a lost source for their gospels. When they have similar sayings of Jesus, they used the same source and adapted it to their theology or catechesis. The personalities of these two evangelists can be deduced from their writings. Thus, one would expect the harsher form of the saying in Matthew’s gospel instead of vice versa. Not this time. Luke just had a bad day. It is true that one tool of catechesis in both Old and New Testament is exaggeration. This may be an instance of it in Luke’s form of the saying.

In the ensuing two parables, Luke does not mitigate the harshness. When you build a house, you first have to know if you can afford to finish it, or your will be ridiculed for not completing it. A king marching into battle calculates whether he can defeat an enemy with twice the number of troops. If not, he must try for a truce. The two parables really don’t come to the heart of the matter, so Luke adds another saying — this time about possessions. “Anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” Tough love? Let’s go with Matthew on this one.