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Friday, September 6, 2019

Hating Your Father and Mother - 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 14:25-33
Great crowds were traveling with Jesus,
and he turned and addressed them,
“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.
Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me
cannot be my disciple.
Which of you wishing to construct a tower
does not first sit down and calculate the cost
to see if there is enough for its completion? 
Otherwise, after laying the foundation
and finding himself unable to finish the work
the onlookers should laugh at him and say,
‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.’
Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down
and decide whether with ten thousand troops
he can successfully oppose another king
advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops? 
But if not, while he is still far away,
he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms. 
In the same way,
anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions
cannot be my disciple.”


Jesus’ words this week are extraordinarily strong: “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.” It’s very difficult to water down Jesus’ language. The Greek word the passage uses for “hate” is misein. It means, quite simply, “to hate.” There’s no translating our way out of it. But this assertion, if we take it wholesale, conflicts with so much of what Christians value. One of the Ten Commandments insists we “honor our father and mother.” And Jesus, earlier in his ministry, commented that he has not come to abolish those commandments (Mt 5:18). So what gives? What is Jesus actually asserting in this week’s gospel? Should we really not love our families, but hate them?

I’d like to get at this in a somewhat roundabout way. I think what Jesus is doing here is similar to what a very strange man we now call “Saint Symeon the Holy Fool” did with his whole life in 6th century Syria. In his youth, Symeon had a profound desire for humility. He confided to a friend that he longed to be a saint, but in such a way that nobody could publicly recognize him as such. To that end, he entered a desert monastery in western Syria, hidden away from the eyes of the world. But after 29 years of this life, Symeon felt urgently that God was asking him to leave the monastery for life in the city. He was called, as he put it, “to mock the world.” And mock the world he did. 

The residents of Homs — the city in which Symeon lived out his days — were shocked by his extraordinary and offensive behavior. He arrived at the city gates dragging a dead dog by his belt. He was supposed to be a celibate monk, but spent most of his days hanging around the city brothel; several of the women even had reputations as his “girlfriends.” He often turned over the tables at the public market. At Mass, he would extinguish the candle lights and throw nuts at the congregants while they were resetting the sanctuary. Throughout Lent, he wore a chain of sausages around his neck like a priests’ stole. 

Symeon was, on the surface, an obnoxious madman; he was the town fool. Surely he got his wish: no one publicly recognized him as a saint. It’s hard to imagine even calling him a Christian. So why does the Church today honor him as “Saint” Symeon, just as much as it honors Saint Mother Teresa or Francis of Assisi? It might be easy to suggest that Symeon suffered from profound mental illness. But those who intimately knew him bore witness to his clear mind. Symeon knew very well that his actions were absurd. But he acted from the firm conviction that what he was doing was needed. Remember why Symeon left the monastery ― God had asked him to “mock the world.” But what is the meaning of Symeon’s mockery?

There is always, of course, more to the story besides Symeon’s public reputation. He went to brothels, yes, but only to gift the women money so they could avoid working. He publicly mocked the Church’s Lenten fasts, but then abstained rigorously from meat in his private life. But what explains his outrageous behavior generally speaking? What is motivating Symeon’s mockery? What Symeon sought, above all, was to disrupt the conventional ways of ordinary religious existence. In his city, people went to church and lit candles. They kept the Lenten fasts. But these were simply popular conventions. Symeon’s life forced people to really ask themselves why all of this mattered. Why do I need to abstain from meat? He brought liturgies to a screeching halt, but only because he wanted to stop people from merely going through the motions. Why, after all, do we need all these candles? What are we really doing at Mass?

I bring up Saint Symeon because I think Jesus is up to something similar in today’s gospel. Notice that, when Jesus says we must hate our families, a “great crowd” had been traveling behind him. This is a key element of the story. Indeed, on account of his miracles and preaching, Jesus had become popular, a celebrity even. The message of Jesus was becoming so popular that even large crowds could embrace it with ease. It is at this moment the text says Jesus “turned and addressed” this large crowd that had been following him with his disturbing words: you cannot come with me unless you hate your family. 

Do you see what Jesus is doing? In the same way that Saint Symeon sought to disrupt the sleepy forms of Christianity with his bizarre behaviors, so Jesus is seeking to disrupt the understanding of those in that “great crowd” who thought it would be easy to follow him. Christianity is not easy; it is no “pop spirituality.” “Narrow is the way,” Jesus says, “and few there are who walk it” (Mt 7:13-14). In order to remind people of this, Jesus has chosen the method of Saint Symeon the Holy Fool. Jesus intends to shock and disturb the crowds. He is the original holy fool. 

Does Jesus really want us to hate our families? Of course not. But Jesus does ― and this is the shocking, disruptive, outrageous thing ― want us to put himself before everything and everyone else, including our families. That claim ― a central claim of Christianity ― disturbs the normal order of our lives. And so Jesus, like Symeon, communicates this by shocking the people around him. He is trying to disturb you. Sometimes being disturbed is the only way we’ll notice.

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