Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

By Father Donald Dilger

Wisdom 9:13-18b; Psalm 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14-17; Philemon 9-10, 12-17; Luke14:25-33

The first reading is part of a prayer attributed to King Solomon. He reigned over the kingdom he inherited from his father from 961-922 B.C. As noted before in this column, the Book of Wisdom was composed sometime between 100-50 B.C., thus an attribution to Solomon of this prayer for wisdom is not likely. To attribute such material to Solomon or to other worthies of the past is no more than a form of literature widely used in ancient times, even in parts of the New Testament. Solomon was of course known for his wisdom, unless that character trait was decided upon by his flatterers to enhance the reputation of their man at the top. Even in our times, such a policy is not unknown. Before our reading begins, the king opens his prayer by heaping compliments on God, just as Jesus taught us to do in the Our Father. Humanly speaking, it is called the softening up process. God does not need compliments, but apparently we humans need to voice them to help us understand the greatness of the One whose help we seek.

The king identifies himself in terms of abject humility as a slave and the son of a slave girl. Next the king prays for wisdom, since God chose him, despite his alleged lowly beginnings, to rule God’s people and to build God’s temple. Because of these commissions, he will need more wisdom to make himself worthy of his father David’s throne. Here our reading begins with the thought that humankind can know only with difficulty the mind of God. The king describes the human condition: reasonings unsure, intentions unstable, a perishable body pressing down on the soul, a tent of clay weighing down a teeming mind. He notes that there is a way humankind can know God’s intentions, if God grants wisdom and sends his Holy Spirit from above. The prayer concludes with the outcome of God granting wisdom: human paths straightened, humankind being taught what pleases God, humankind saved by Wisdom. Knowledge of the vocabulary and thought-world of the New Testament witnesses to how much the Book of Wisdom influenced many of the writings of the New Testament. For example, Romans 11:33-35.

The Responsorial Psalm, 90, is entitled “The Human Condition.” That fits well with the human conditions described by the author of the Book of Wisdom in our first reading. There is even a short prayer for acquiring wisdom in one of the verses of this Psalm. “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.” The meaning seems to be: think about your end, the end of your life, and that ought to teach you wisdom. The Psalmist expresses the problems of the human condition: a return to dust, the temporality of the human condition versus the unchangeable eternity of God, “A thousand years in your sight are as yesterday now that it is past or one watch of the night,” (about three hours!). The People’s Response notes that God has always been the One in whom we poor humans can find a safe shelter.

Paul writes the Letter to Philemon from prison somewhere to a master who owned a slave whom Paul converted while both he and the slave Onesimus shared prison life. Paul adopts the role of a father to Onesimus, “whose father I have become in my imprisonment.” He is sending Onesimus back to his master. He implores Philemon to accept Onesimus, no longer as a slave, but as a brother to Paul and to his master. We do not know if Paul intends this appeal as a request to free Onesimus. It seems rather that what Paul is asking by implication is that Philemon send Onesimus back to him, “so that he might serve me on your behalf in my imprisonment for the gospel.” It was customary in those times for prisoners to be visited and attended by friends.

The gospel reading is concerned with difficulties faced by those who choose to lead a Christian life. The acceptance of Christians by society in general could vary from place to place, from blending into society to facing open persecution, even death. After announcing the presence of crowds flocking around Jesus, Luke attributes to him this difficult (to us) saying, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters,” (too much of that already!), “and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” What are we to do with this demand for hatred of those we are bound to love? Seems contrary to the commandment, “Honor thy father and thy mother,” which the same Jesus quotes in Luke 18:20, Deuteronomy 27:16, “Cursed is he who dishonors father or mother.” Matthew 10:37 has a quote similar to Luke’s disturbing use of “hating father and mother,” but with a change. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.

The gospels result from decades of oral tradition. They are not compositions of eye and ear witnesses of Jesus. How his thoughts were expressed differently by various authors depends on the traditions alive in a Christian Community. Characteristic of oral tradition is exaggeration, overstatement of what might have been original words of Jesus. That was an acceptable way to emphasize a point. We can therefore conclude that Matthew’s version, “loving father and mother more than me is not worthy of me,” may be closer to Jesus’ original words than Luke’s “hating father and mother, etc.” Luke adds two parables, which seem to speak to preparation or training for Christianity. A man who builds a tower does not start building unless he has the means to complete it. A king intent on marching into battle has to first decide whether he has enough military strength to win. Luke adds another over-the-top statement that does not seem to be a logical conclusion to the parables, “In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all of his possessions cannot be my disciple.” Luke’s difficult sayings can be understood in words from the Sermon on the Mount, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things,” (family and possessions), will be yours as well.”