Luke 14:25-33, 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
I remember many years ago, a group of OFWs in Saudi Arabia sent us a letter at Jesuit Communications. They asked if we sold any videotape of any Mass. They said they didn’t care if the recording was clear or not. “Basta,” they said, they just wanted a videotape of a Mass. They were going to watch it secretly in their barracks on their day off.
Saudi Arabia admits Christians for work but forbids them from practicing their faith openly. They can’t openly use religious articles, either, like the Bible, a rosary, or statues. If they’re caught practicing a religion other than Islam, they can be charged with sorcery and witchcraft, which is punishable by beheading. Any Saudi who’s caught allowing the practice of religion other than Islam in his house or business can be charged with apostasy or blasphemy, also punishable by beheading.
It was pretty much the same thing in the time of Luke back in the first century. To sign up as a Christian was like signing your own death sentence. Christians got ratted out by fellow Jews who notified the Romans who smoked them out of homes where they secretly prayed and broke bread. Christians were imprisoned, tortured, and fed to ravenous lions. So, imagine the perfect storm you unleashed upon your own family when mom and dad found out you had signed up to be a Christ-follower. Imagine the tearful pleading of mothers, the untold rage of fathers, the disdain of siblings—all dissuading you from putting everyone in harm’s way with your reckless stupidity. Luke reflects this on his Gospel where Jesus says: “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” To many families back then, putting lives on the line for this Messiah was either hatred for your family or suicide.
Two weeks ago, for some strange reason, I woke up after midnight. A paranoid thought came to me: “What if one day, without any warning, communist China suddenly trained all their weapons at us, then marched their soldiers onto streets nationwide, ejecting us from our homes and businesses, shooting anyone who resisted, and rounding us up Nazi-style, reminiscent of the Hitler’s pogroms or Mao’s so-called ‘cultural revolution’? When we welcomed them as business partners,” my thought went on, “little did we know that the communists were already infiltrating us and setting up for this blitzkrieg!” Then, I thought, “From there forward, communist China would quash any potential rebellion by burning down our churches and turning our schools into labor camps. Then, Christianity will again be punishable by torture and death.” The thought was so disturbing that I had to console myself by saying, “This is just my morbid unconscious leaking into my consciousness. This will all sound quite stupid in the morning.”
Isn’t it a huge blessing, sisters and brothers, that you and I are in a country, a day, and an age in which we can freely express and celebrate and profess and enjoy our faith, and fearlessly talk about God and God-things, and come together to pray to Jesus openly, and kiss our rosaries and grasp the cross and lay flowers by our Blessed Mother’s feet—without shedding blood or losing our heads for it all? But to be perfectly frank, there are days I’m not quite sure which is worse: the power of atheists or the power of theists; powers like Nero, Hitler, or Mao that can arise again and threaten religious freedom; or, powers within our own Church that outlaw our very own on account of gender, sexual orientation, marital status, manner of dress, manner of worship, etc, etc. With our incredible blessing of religious freedom, how I wish we Catholics were more Christ-like in the way we regard brothers and sisters who may not happen to share our fiercely protected preferences, but who are no less compassionate, respectful, caring, helpful, and loving as we are of God and of neighbor. Do we not want more people to be Catholics? Do we not want less Catholics from leaving the Church? Sometimes, though, we self-authorize as keepers of heaven’s gate, bodyguards of God—so that anyone’s intention to convert to Catholicism, or to stay a Catholic, seems more like a risk rather than a joy, a restraint rather than a growth, in an atmosphere more cult-like rather than faith-like, prison rather than temple—where people are loved not for who they are, but for what they should pretend to be that’s acceptable to us. Well, Jesus finally says, “Anyone who does not renounce all possessions cannot be my disciple.” Those “possessions,” dear sisters and brothers, may not necessarily be material things that make us unfree. They might be our sense of religious totalitarianism by which we restrict others from fully being the loving and giving people they truly are, after making them believe that God won’t love them or save them unless we approve. The words of the first reading are so true: “Who can know God’s counsel, or who can conceive what the LORD intends? For the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans.”
I end with the words of Pope Francis: “In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom…or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance, and respect for the dignity and rights of others.” Loving and worshipping God according to who we truly are, sisters and brothers, is really a matter of human dignity. Whatever is a matter of human dignity, sisters and brothers, matters to Christ.