"I wish Jesus hadn't said that..."
I really had to chuckle when I read Father Jude Siciliano’s quip about today’s Gospel. We are all for love, peace, and harmony – for Jesus is the Prince of Peace, right?
How can we even call “Gospel” – Good News – our Lord’s call to his prospective followers – and even us, today, that we may be called to forget “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters and even our own lives” for the sake of the Kingdom?
In fact, today’s lessons speak to us about not only the possibilities but the challenge of making choices. As Jesus suggested, some may be tough and far reaching.
The Scriptures recall for us that since creation we have been endowed with the ability of weighting alternatives and, hopefully, of making sound choices.
In the old story of creation, after freely picking their options, our primal parents sought a way out when they had to face the music. “She made me do it!” “No! It was the snake!” Someone said that if a lawyer had been present, he would have blamed God for creating the apple tree!
And since then, all the way to our days, our first line of defense is to point out to fate, genetics, society, and even religion, as the root cause of our own poor choices. “Because my mother never bought me ice-cream, now I have no other choice but to sell drugs.”
However, we are not prisoners of fate. The notion that we are puppets of the evil forces of the universe, the twisted power of DNA, and adrift as slaves of the obscure forces of society not only does not make sense, but if fact drains out the value and meaning of human existence. It may make a good Netflix movie, but it is not how it works out in reality.
Enter God. Even if the environment, family and society at large are powerful forces that often shape or even limit us, we still have room to make sound choices.
That is to say, God, from the very beginning has given us the gift of freedom. Now, on the other side of the coin, freedom does not exist in isolation. We exercise our freedom by making choices.
And in what regards God, we cannot vote “present.” It will be “Aye!” or “Nay!” For whether we like it or not, not making a choice is in itself a choice.
If you keep reading the Gospel, Jesus tells the story of the king who considers going to war, or the builder in planning and budgeting for his new home. Both the king and the prospective home builder are, in a way, set by their own roles. But both, within the confines of their plight, were able to make decisions.
In the realm of morality and in following our journey, as Christians, we also have choices. Well, of course, some of us were baptized as children, and had no say. But, eventually, as teenagers or adults, during Confirmation, gradually, or unexpectedly and suddenly like during an “Altar Call,” we came to the realization that it is up to us to decide how close are we going to follow Jesus.
Even further, as we mature in the faith, it will also begin to dawn on us that our initial “decision”, like the old manna, has a very short shelf life. In fact, with every sunrise a whole new set of challenges rises as well, each one calling us to make a choice.
Of course, some choices are kind of a no-brainer. We may be picky about what we would like to have for dinner, but surely, eat we will. If you are not in the mood of eating, your gut will help you to decide.
Family perhaps is a given. But from the friends we choose to the movies we watch to the way by which we care for our body there is a range of choices for us to make. Some may be easy to make. Others may be costly.
The great theologian, pastor, and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) in his book “The Cost of Discipleship” wrote that that there is nothing like “cheap grace.”
Bonhoeffer defined cheap grace “as the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Philemon had a choice to make. How was he going to treat his runaway slave – now a brother in the Body of Christ? It is clear from St Paul’s appeal that it was going to be difficult for Philemon. What were the other slave-owners going to say if, in their view, Philemon took it easy on Onesimus? What about legal consequences?
And even beyond Onesimus himself, what would be the far-reaching consequences of this novel idea that a slave could become a child of Almighty God? Is it going to sit next to me next time that I go to church? What is he going to ask next? What if Jesus calls Onesimus to leave home and go far away as a missionary like Paul – Who’s going to reimburse Philemon for his investment in Onesimus?
The story is remarkably relevant to us today and, I suggest, it is here for us today to showcase how Onesimus’ choice to become a Christian began to upend the givens of the social norms of the day – all the way to our own time… And how significative our Lord’s word were about the price of making some choices.
Let me suggest that perhaps the most costly and difficult decision that one has to make in life is to decide not to impose one’s own choice onto someone else. This is why St Paul pleads, and not orders Philemon as would have been fit for him to do.
But St Paul knew better. For here is the key – God, even for the most sacred reasons, would not impose His choice on anyone, not us, and not even His own very Son.
In offering us the gift of freedom, God expect us to make the right choices. But respecting the very gift that He relished on us, God will not impose Himself on us.
Rather, as a wise Teacher, God warns us about the consequences of bad choices, and the blessings that will follow those who do what is right.
And Jesus Himself is the supreme example of surrender. In pursuing His ministry, His own family came after him – “He has lost His mind,” tells us St Mark, (Mark 3:21). Later on, even Peter tries to stop Him reprimanding Jesus – “Heaven forbid, Lord!” Peter said. “This cannot happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22). Yet, Jesus pressed on his way to Mount Calvary – for you, and for me.
This Labor Day Weekend marks the beginning of a new school year, perhaps a new job, a new season in life, or a new relationship. And every day we may be called to make choices – some easy, others hard.
But here is the good news. “Great is God’s faithfulness.” “God’s mercies begin afresh each and every morning,” (Lamentations 3:23). In approaching God’s presence, let us remember that as difficult and far-reaching the choice we may be called to make, “we will find grace when we need it the most,” (Hebrews 4:16).
Let us pray: Lord Jesus, you have called us to live in freedom as children of a loving God and Father. Inspire and guide us, we pray, and in your mercy show us the path that leads to life, hope, and joy in your presence. Amen.