(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
2 Kings 4:8-11, 13-16
Romans 6:3-4, 8-11
‘Anyone who finds his life will lose it,’ says the Lord,
and ‘anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.’ Matthew 10:39
I don’t know how it is for you, but for me the Sunday gospel is often the reading that, out of the three, remains more firmly impressed in my mind during the week. And certainly today’s passage is one that I often had to struggle with, as Jesus says in no uncertain terms that if we prefer anything, anyone, or even our own well-being to him, then we are not worthy of him. Mind you, Luke’s gospel puts this in even stronger terms;
‘Whoever …does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14:26).
How can we reconcile this teaching with the second of the great commandments, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself?’ (Matthew 22:29) And, apart from that, is Jesus here really telling us that we should be a miserable bunch of Bible-bashers without a life, family or friends? Well, no. Jesus is not asking us to be self-loathing Billy no-mates. Instead, here the Lord calls us – indeed, maybe shocks us – into reassessing our priorities in the light of our commitment to him, in the light of the new life he invites us to live in him.
It would be perfectly normal for non-believers to put themselves, their family, and friends first, and especially above the demands of religion; it would be understandable to constantly strive for a perfect life, a perfect body, and a perfect bank account… But for Christians it should be radically different. As St Paul affirms in our second reading ‘when we were baptised we went into the tomb with Jesus’ so that ‘we too might live a new life’ (Rom 6:4). So, for us Jesus must come first; the ethical demands of the gospel must come first; the practice of religion should hold high priority; and ultimately the wisdom of the gospel should derail in us those selfish behaviours and the cliquey mentality that are so common in secular society. In other words, when Jesus says ‘Anyone who prefers [this or that, him or her] to me is not worthy of me’ he is reminding us that calling ourselves Christians but then carrying on like nothing happened just won’t do. Indeed, it is only when we realise this that we understand what it really means to be Christians, and that we can begin to act according to our faith.
Both the first reading and the gospel give us an example of acting according to faith when speak to us about hospitality and welcome. Nowadays, hospitality is often understood simply as generously lavishing food and comfort on invited guests. But in Christian terms the practice of hospitality is rooted in understanding the needs of others, even of strangers, and doing our best to meet them. In this sense hospitality is expressed in our first reading not just through meeting Elisha’s basic needs for food and accommodation (like any person with a heart would do), but also by providing the prophet with more, such as a table and a chair, and crucially with the independence of having his own room, his own space. In the gospel, hospitality is upgraded by Jesus to be understood as a service we provide directly to God. ‘Who welcomes you welcomes me; and those who welcome me welcome the one who sent me,’ says the Lord (Matt 10:40). A statement that sits at the heart of Matthew’s vision of the Last Judgment where Jesus uses the refrain, ‘As often as you did this (or failed to do that) to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did this (or failed to do that) to me’ (Cf. Matt 25:31-46). And in this sense, we would only offer the Lord only a rather partial service if we chose to be welcoming and hospitable only to our own families by preferring them over others.
Reordering our priorities in the light of faith does not preclude us from treasuring all those personal relationships that often make life worth living; instead this sets us free to look upon parents, children, friends, and life itself more selflessly, as part of our greater commitment to the Lord. And, as our readings show us, it is only by focusing on God that we are able to relate to everyone, both family and strangers, with the same degree of generous welcome and care each one of us deserves. It is only when we make God our ultimate priority, goal, and vision that we are set free to live life to its genuine fullness come what may.
In today’s gospel Jesus is fundamentally saying to us one simple thing, “You must be different. Put me first, and you’ll see that every aspect of your life will fall into its proper place.”