Science teaches us, what all of human history confirms, that from infancy our brains quickly distinguish between those who are members of our group and those who are not, and encourage us to be more friendly to the former and more hostile to - or fearful of - the latter. Scientific studies have shown, what again all of human history confirms, that infants favor what is familiar to them, responding more positively to people who resemble them – and their parents – in appearance and language, a pattern that persists among adults. So as adults we too tend to favor what is familiar, people who are familiar, and to be apprehensive, fearful, or at least somewhat skeptical of others. We tend to respond more favorably, more trustingly, more empathetically, more generously to members of our own group - family members, teammates, fellow citizens of the nation with which we identify. At its best, this inclines us to love our families and take care of one another, to be loyal to organizations we are part of, to pay our taxes and fulfill our other civic responsibilities, even to the point of risking our lives to defend our nation against hostile attacks from other nations.
These relationships can, of course, also limit us and cause us to get into all sorts of conflicts with those in groups other than our own. To some extent what we call civilization is all about managing these relationships and minimizing those conflicts, sometimes stretching us to expand the boundaries of those we identify with and consequently care about. At its best, that has been the story of the United States. Our national story, despite powerful past and present efforts to forget it, has been all about the coming together of different races and nations, forming one nation out of many, creating one common community of citizens.
For most of us, most of time, we depend on these networks of family, culture, and society, relationships without which we could not successfully navigate through life alone. So, of course, did Jesus’ disciples, who were undoubtedly shocked by Jesus’ challenge to the importance of those relationships [Luke 14:25-33], as we too would be if we actually paid attention to Jesus’ words and actions.
To an outside observer, much of American religion might seem very family-oriented, -surprisingly so when compared with Jesus’s own words and actions in a society which was, if anything, far more family-centered than ours is. To an outside observer, much of American religion might also seem very preoccupied with acquiring political power, surprisingly so when compared with Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus’ challenge to rethink all our relationships and refocus our sense of community and loyalty seems so extreme – and extremely demanding - with the inevitable result that, while we may hear Jesus’ words, we may not really be ready to 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 may be too attached to my family, friends, and fellow-citizens, 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 people and things, well that is what listening to Jesus is supposed to do, that is the effect it is supposed to have.
Most of us, of course, are usually quite uncomfortable with words that challenge. And, because most of us have families, friends, and possessions, we probably 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 regular common sense and our ordinary human 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 reasonable 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, without which we would find it hard to live in society – 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?
Today’s 2nd reading [Philemon 9b-10, 12-17] reminds us of the disruption becoming a Christian caused in the comfortable, socially respectable life of Philemon, whom Paul had at some point converted, and who had acquired a respectable position in the local Church as the host in whose house the local Church assembled. Meanwhile, Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, had run away and apparently found his way to Paul, who then converted him too. Paul apparently appreciated Onesimus, whom he saw as a potential partner in his missionary efforts; but instead he sent him back to his owner, with a letter imploring Philemon to welcome Onesimus back as he would welcome Paul himself, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you as a man and in the Lord.
In a world of precisely structured social relationships, the new, outside-that-structure relationship of being a disciple of Jesus, changed everything and transformed all those existing social relationships. It had done so for Paul himself. It was doing so for Onesimus. And it would do so (as Paul confidently hoped) for Onesimus’ owner Philemon. The stories of Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon show just what happens 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 8, 2019.