Fiftieth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Wisdom 9:13-18b; Philemon 1:9-10, 12-17; Luke 14:25-33
In the 1970s Mother Teresa – today enrolled in the ranks of the Saints by Pope Francis – was asked in an interview about the poorest country she had ever visited. She said, “I have been to many countries and seen much poverty and suffering. Everywhere I go people tell me of their hardships and struggles, and ask for help, and I give what I can. But of all the countries I have been to, the poorest one I have been to is America.” When asked why, she replied, “Because America suffers most from the poverty of loneliness.” Her words, sadly enough, seem more true today than they did 40 years ago. There’s always a void we just can’t seem to fill. We know just enough to know that the solution lies outside ourselves. But for all the goods we accumulate, for all the knowledge we gain, for all the like-minded “Friends” and “Followers” we have, somehow it’s never enough. For all our reaching out, we’re still stuck inside ourselves.
The First Reading, from the Book of Wisdom, rehearses this topic we know all too well, even if only in the back of the mind where we don’t have to think about it. “[T]he corruptible body burdens the soul, and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns. And scarce do we guess the things on earth, and what is within our grasp we find with difficulty.” It’s still true! The more we have, the more we have to worry about. And the more we know, the more we know to worry about. Modern man even thinks he has discovered the secrets of the workings of the cosmos, and this knowledge at once puts him on a false level of equality with a God he no longer feels the need to believe in and drives him to even deeper levels of concern about his ultimate fate. When the author of the Book of Wisdom turns our self-induced anxiety back on us and asks “[W]hen things are in heaven, who can seek them out?” he may as well say to us, “You fools! You barely understand how this physical dimension you see operates; how can you think to understand the spiritual one you cannot see?”
These are the kinds of questions that Jesus Himself grew up with, and later enhanced through the Gospel teaching. As we believe Jesus is the One Who came down from heaven, so we believe that only Jesus could take our earthly concerns and put them in the appropriate perspective in order to attain a truly heavenly wisdom. “[A]nyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple,” he says in today’s Gospel reading. But this directive does not extend simply to the giving away of material goods. It means not starting what you are unable to finish, like the man who didn’t calculate the cost of building a tower. It means making peace with an opponent you know you cannot defeat, like the king who didn’t have enough troops to win a battle. It means “hating” one’s family and friends, and “even one’s own life” – that is, not putting them on the same level as a personal possession but showing them the same impartiality we are all called to show. The only thing that is truly ours is our cross, and we must carry it as Jesus carried His if we are to go where He is. This is a different kind of loneliness – letting everyone and everything we have go, altering our mindset to realize that all these people and thing we think we have ownership over were never really ours.
And yet that is the dirty little secret to filling the void. Saint Paul writes in a very personal way about this very thing in the Second Reading, taken from his letter to Philemon, one of the members of the Colossian Church. Paul, in prison, is sending one of his most beloved disciples, a runaway slave named Onesimus, back to Philemon, his master – and he very much does not want to. He wants Onesimus to stay and help him preach the Gospel. But Paul cannot battle against slavery as an institution, and he would not do something like that without Philemon’s consent. So rather than selfishly keep Onesimus – making him no better than a slave-owner himself – he sends him back with this letter. He offers to make any monetary restitution that may be necessary, but he also attaches a special hopeful sentiment, saying, “Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while: so that you might have him back forever, no longer a slave but more than a slave, a brother.” Both Paul and Philemon need not to think of Onesimus as a possession, but as one equal to them “as a man and in the Lord.” That’s how you fill an unfillable void – by emptying everything else around it.
“[W]ho ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high?” Mother Teresa spent 50 years “running on empty,” as one priest put it, haunted by a terrible inner darkness as she labored to alleviate the suffering on the part of so many. She too was trying to fill the void within her own self, and she did it by emptying herself of everything. In the end, the love she talked about so frequently, the only thing that increases by giving it away, was still there to fight that darkness for her. Today, we recognize that that love she gave to so many has filled her up completely, where she will never feel lonely again. May we all strive for ourselves and for each other to be so blessed, to be so rich.
Saint Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us!