In anticipation of today’s canonization of Saint Teresa of Kolkata, Huffington Post highlighted 10 of her more famous quotes. The first of them, Do ordinary things with extraordinary love, sort of sums up how we often describe the saintly people we may have known in the world. But, because their extraordinary love has been expressed in otherwise ordinary activities, such saintly people seldom get noticed beyond their immediate environment. People who get canonized, like Mother Teresa, typically have done something we think of a extraordinary, even heroic – hence the expressions “heroic sanctity” and “heroic virtue,” often applied to the lives of canonized saints. The key thing about heroism, however, precisely what makes it stand out as heroic, is that it is something that we are more inclined to admire and respect than to want to imitate.
Jesus in today’s Gospel, however, seems to be speaking about heroism as something expected of all his disciples. Even when we make allowances for the very different cultural milieu in which Jesus was speaking, for an ancient middle eastern rhetorical style that actually encouraged exaggeration, Jesus’ words still seem extremely demanding, with the result that, while we may hear them, we may not really listen all that intently. Yet Jesus does challenge us, if we are really serious about being his disciples, to listen to all his words – not just the nice, comforting, convenient ones. And, if listening makes me worry that I am too swayed in my judgments by people who are close to me and whom I care a lot about, perhaps too timid at times about disagreeing with them or challenging them, or, if listening to Jesus’ words makes me worry whether I am too attached to things, well that is what listening to Jesus is supposed to do, that is the effect it is supposed to have! Even if there are lots of people far richer than I will ever be, I may still have more than enough, according to the Gospel, to make me question how committed I really am to being a disciple.
Indeed, just this past week, in connection with the Annual World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, Pope Francis warned that we have grown comfortable with certain lifestyles shaped by a distorted culture of prosperity and a “disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary” (Laudato Si’, 123), and we are participants in a system that “has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature.”
Most of us, of course, are usually quite uncomfortable with words that challenge. We prefer Jesus’ more sensible-sounding sayings – like the parable of the tower or the one about the king marching into battle. That’s the sensible Jesus we all know and love – or, rather, love to know – a Jesus who provides prudent practical advice that respects common sense and our ordinary feelings. The prudent tower-builder and the cautious king who knows when it’s time to fight and when it’s time to negotiate are examples we can all relate to – good examples of people who know how to put their priorities in order and whom we would all do well to imitate in our day-to-day lives.
But, just as we all know (or think we know) how to set short-term priorities, Jesus also challenges us to pick the proper priorities and act accordingly in the long term too – and to let no shorter-term personal relationship or possession deflect us from our long-term goal.
With all the people and things that constantly compete for our attention – nice people and nice things, that are all good in themselves and whose value no one should underestimate – Jesus wants us to focus, first of all, on him. But, with all the people and things that constantly compete for our attention, who knows where and how far focusing on Jesus will take us, just how much of a disruption it may prove to be? Just think of Saint Teresa of Kolkata’s life and how far afield, from her sensible life as a teaching sister, focusing on Jesus eventually took her!
The book of Wisdom, from which we just heard, confirms what our commonsense also tells us: the deliberations of mortals are timid and unsure are our plans. Even so, Jesus challenges us, as the psalm we just sang says, seemingly so simply, to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.
And today’s scripture even gives us a practical historical example of that alternative wisdom. In a world of precisely structured social relationships, the new, outside-that-structure relationship of being a disciple of Jesus, changed everything. It did so for Paul, for the slave Onesimus, whom Paul had converted and baptized, and finally (as Paul confidently hoped) for Onesimus’ master Philemon. The stories of Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon – like that of Saint Teresa of Kolkatta and other saints in our own day - show just what can happen when we take seriously our new relationship with Jesus and the whole new network of relationships that being a follower of Jesus creates among fellow believers.
Homily for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 4, 2016.