Coming in Second – Fr Harold Parilla

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Matthew 10:37-42, 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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If we read the Gospel more closely, we will certainly find it intriguing, if not outright disturbing. Jesus says that our parents and our children should only come second in our hierarchy of loves. They are secondary; God comes first. If parents and children come first, we become unworthy of God.

The language of Luke is even stronger. There, Jesus says that if we do not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even our own life, we cannot be his disciples (cf. Lk 14:26).

The Filipino psyche is clearly family-oriented. If we listen to stories of OFWs, especially of those who play hide-and-seek with foreign authorities because they lack the required documents, we realize that many of them endure all sorts of sacrifices in the name of family. This cultural feature makes this Gospel reading, to a large extent, unsettling.

It must have been more shocking to the original listeners of Jesus. John Pilch says that family “is the central social institution in the ancient Mediterranean world”. In the immediate context of Jesus, families were very closely-knit. Even when they marry, children live close to their parents. The ideal marriage arrangement was with a first cousin so that outsiders could be kept at bay. The consequent mentality was that of “our family” against “everyone else outside of it”.

The family, therefore, was not only a matter of biological link. In the world of Jesus, it was a network which guaranteed one’s survival. If a person cuts off relations with his family, like what the Prodigal Son did (cf. Lk 15), it means the loss of economic, religious and social connections. Doing so was not only foolish; it would be tantamount to suicide. How then do we make sense of this statement of Jesus?

Donagh O’Shea says that what we have here is an affirmation of the “absolute character of the following of Christ”. By this is meant that “faith is not a separate compartment in one’s life, a special interest… to be taken up when we put down our serious work”. If we say that we believe in God, and that we worship Him, He should become the overarching principle around whom we organize our lives.

God, therefore, is not a hobby that we engage in only when we have time to spare. Some people go to Him, worship Him in community, think of Him and speak with Him, only when they have nothing else to do. When the laundry needs to be sorted, or when the house needs to be cleaned, God is made to step aside.

God, therefore, is not an emergency room that we rush to only when someone is cut or giving birth or have met an accident. Some people treat Him like one. They call on Him, go to church, visit shrines, light candles, only when they take the board exams or when they apply for jobs. Far in between, when there is no pressing need, God is made to stand by the side.

Seeking God first puts everything else in the right places. If we turn this upside down, ironically, we end up destroying the very things we desire to nourish. Parents, for example, who regard their child as their “everything” may end up suffocating her. When she fails to respond to expectations, the parents get consumed by their disappointment and begin to blame themselves. The creation of “alternative idols” certainly brings ruin upon ourselves.

Today we are invited to grapple with an important question: how important is God to us? What is His place in our lives?

In this mass we pray for the gifts of clarity and honesty so that we can set our priorities right and keep our hearts where they should be.

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