Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time: Spiritual Strength in Our Daily Lives
There are many places in the Gospels where the Lord speaks using apocalyptic language. Apocalyptic language, like that in the Book of Revelations, uses shocking imagery to catch the listener’s or reader’s attention. Today’s gospel provides a good example of this. Jesus says that we cannot be his disciples if we come to him without hating father and mother, wife and husband, children and parents, brothers and sister, and even our own lives. This is shocking. This catches our attention.
So, what is this about? The Lord is not telling us to ignore the Fourth commandment, Honor your father and mother. Nor is He telling us to refuse to see God in others. And He is not telling us to ignore God’s handwork in our own lives. He is using startling imagery, apocalyptic imagery, to illustrate the demands of being His disciples.
Let me explain this to you in one of the last places you would expect: a recent comic strip. To be precise, a Dilbert strip, one that ran a little while ago. Now for those of you who don’t start their day with the comics, Dilbert is a comic strip about office workers with an incompetent, pointed haired boss, people of various abilities, and all sorts of other characters.
One of these characters is a woman who is continually late for the morning meeting. One of her co-workers decides to challenge her.
The strip starts off with the woman saying: “Sorry, I’m late. Traffic was terrible.”
The co-worker asks: “Isn’t the traffic from your house always terrible this time of day?”
The woman says, “Exactly. That’s why I’m late every day.”
The co-worker coaxes her along: “Do you see any way you could fix that?”
The woman: “Well, I can’t control the traffic.”
Co-worker: “You could leave earlier.”
Woman: “Then I wouldn’t get enough sleep”
Co-worker: “You could go to bed earlier.”
Woman: “Then I wouldn’t be able to watch Netflix until two in the morning,
An uncomfortable pause is followed by the woman asking: “Do you want me to hate my life?”
The co-worker sighs: “I didn’t until now.”
Her lifestyle was keeping her from her work. It is not that there is anything wrong with Netflix. The problem is that it became more important to her than her job. So, in her case, she should hate her life and anything that keeps her from doing what she needs to do. Just as we should hate anything that keeps us from doing what we need to do: Serve God.
The parables in today’s Gospel about a man considering building a tower and a king preparing for war, tells us that we have to have a plan for how we are going to live as a Christian. We have to ask ourselves how we can best prepare ourselves and the world for the Lord. We have to stop and look at the many threads of our lives and consider how they are woven into the whole cloth. We have our work or our school. We have our families and our friends. We have sports and arts. These are important. We have our bodies. We have to exercise, eat properly and basically take care of ourselves. Most important, we have those whom we love and those whom we need to seek out and love. All these are the threads that make up the fabric of our lives. We also have to consider what are the parts of our lives that are actually tearing us away from whom we need to be. This means that we have to make hard choices. Maybe we need more sleep and less Netflix, or more family time and less time before a screen, computer, tablet or phone. Maybe we need fewer office projects, school commitments, or any other activities that keep us away from those who need our love.
To be a disciples of Christ means to live beyond the insignificant things that we throw into our lives and to make time first for the things of God. When Jesus
speaks about hating father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters and even our own lives, He is using apocalyptic language, shocking language, telling us to hate anything and anyone that causes us to lose our focus on Him.
Three years ago Pope Francis canonized Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Most of us have been blessed with being witnesses to her life. Those of us who are a bit older remember how stories began to circulate about a nun in India who left the convent in order to care for people dying in the slums of Calcutta, those whom she called the poorest of the poor. We saw her determination to serve God, even if this meant leaving the relative comfort of the Sisters of Loretto where she was the principle of a girls’ school, live among those on the streets, and eventually establishing a religious community of those willing to serve God’s presence by caring for the dying, the sick, the starving and the abandoned. More and more people throughout the world heard about Mother Teresa and her sisters, the Missionaries of Charity. In 1979 she received the Noble Peace Prize. We all saw how she would not allow anything to get in the way of her serving God. She and her sisters would spend hours in prayer so they could spend hours serving God’s presence in others. In her own way, Mother Teresa taught us today’s gospel: we need to hate anything that could keep us from being a disciple of Christ, including the perceptions we have of ourselves.
I have to share with you my favorite Mother Teresa story. There is a great deal written about Mother Teresa, but I don’t think you will find this story anywhere else, other than in a past homily I gave. I heard this from Fr. John Fullenbach, a wonderful, wonderful priest. Fr. Fullenbach is a renown theologian who taught in Rome. He related how he contacted Mother Teresa’s sisters in Calcutta and asked if he could join them for a few weeks between semesters at the seminary. They welcomed him to join their work. He flew to Calcutta, found the Missionaries of Charities’ hospice, and had just finished telling the sister in charge that he was willing to do anything they needed to be done, when another sister came running in saying that there was a man dying on the streets. The sister in charge turned to him and said, “Father, could you please go with her and bring the man back here to the hospice?” Fr. Fullenbach followed the sister through the back alleys of Calcutta, in and out of narrow streets, and finally came upon what looked from the distance to be a heap of dirty rags. It was the dying man. Fr. Fullenbach bent over him and tried to comfort him and told him that he was going to take him to a nice, clean place where he could be cared for. The man opened his eyes; saw that it was a priest talking to him, and spit in his face. The priest felt a rage rising up within him. He was a distinguished professor. He came all the way from Rome to India to help these people. And this man responded by spitting on him. The sister explained that most of the people on the streets are not Catholic, but we still need to care for them. So, Fr. Fullenbach picked the man up and carried him back to the hospice where the man was cleaned, given fresh clothes, fed a bowl of soup, and put on a bed to die with dignity.
The sisters then asked Father to help out by rolling up some clean strips of cloth that could be used for bandages. He was doing this for about an hour, rolling the strips, and still feeling upset over the man spitting on him. Suddenly the whole hospice shook with the screams of a little girl. On the other side of the room there was a poor little girl, about nine, and covered in sores. She was standing in a basin of water as one of the young sisters was trying to clean her, bathe her sores. The little girl was enraged, hysterical, throwing a fit that she had a perfect right to throw. She kept screaming and kicking and splashing the sister. Father Fullenbach was watching this horrible scene when he noticed everyone looking at one of the doors. It was Mother Teresa. She had heard the racket and was coming in. She started walking to the little girl. “Well,” Fr. Fullenbach thought, “Now we’ll see what a saint is made of.” As she approached the little girl, she waved the young sister away. The girl saw her and kept screaming, and then began splashing Mother Teresa. Mother Teresa kept walking towards her, very slowly, with a smile of love on her face. By the time she got to the girl, she was drenched, but she didn’t seem to mind. Instead, she just kept smiling. Then she held out her arms. The child fell into them and just cried and cried. Mother Teresa let her cry for as long as she wanted. Then the little girl let Mother Teresa wash her and put clean clothes on her. Fr. Fullenbach said to himself, “And that is what a saint is made of.”
Nothing is more important than serving God. Not our stuff, not our likes, not our perceived position among our peers, not even the people in our lives. We cannot allow anything to stand in the way of our being disciples of Jesus Christ.
In John 12:25 the Lord tells us: "He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal.”
Through the intercession of St. Teresa of Calcutta, may we all have the spiritual strength to be disciples of the Lord.