A reflection on the readings for September 4, 2022 – the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time.
It happened in a serendipitous moment, but I learned a little late that it is not enough to have goals in life, but that we must have a goal for life itself; that it is one thing to figure out what to do in life and quite another to figure out what to do with life. For me, the serendipitous moment happened when I was 24. One day in a moral theology class the professor asked us to write our own epitaphs. It was a weighty question: “What do I want my tombstone to say?” Today, I am asking you: If you had to write your epitaph, what would it read? Will it say what you did in life, or will it say what you did with life?
Our Scripture readings today are about life—both the meaning of life and the purpose of life.
Living the Deeper Life
Today’s first reading from Wisdom begins by acknowledging the limitations of human existence. It raises the question: “Who can know God’s counsel, or who can conceive what the LORD intends?” (Wis 9:13). The author is not saying the human person cannot know God’s counsel or comprehend what the Lord intends. Rather, the author is saying that we would not be able to do without help from God, more specifically, without the wisdom given to us by God and without the help of God’s “holy spirit” (Wis 9:17). The reading also identifies the obstacles that lie in our way. These obstacles not only come in the way of comprehending divine mysteries, but the mystery of life. Wisdom says that we are timid in our thinking and unsure in our plans; that our bodies hog more attention than the soul, and that our minds are preoccupied with earthly concerns (Wis 9:14-15). Forget about things of heaven, it reiterates; we can barely comprehend the mysteries of life on earth (Wis 9:16). We can rise above the mundane and grasp divine realities, thanks to the “holy spirit” and Wisdom given to us by God. For those of you who are interested in Philosophy, this is the philosopher Plato’s language.
In the Christian context, wisdom from God and the help of the Holy Spirit can be interpreted very uniquely. For Christians, Jesus is the “Wisdom of God.” For Christians, wisdom also is a gift of the Holy Spirit. The greatest wisdom we have received is the words, the works, and the life of Jesus Christ. In other words, as we navigate through life, as we discern the purpose of life, and as we figure out the meaning of life, we look to Jesus. What did he make of His life? What brought him meaning? How did he discover the purpose of his life? What was important to Jesus? What was not important to Jesus? What preoccupied him? What consumed Him?
This is the bottom line. From the Christian perspective, the meaning and purpose of human life are integrally connected to the life and mission of Jesus. The meaning and purpose of our lives must somehow emerge from the meaning and purpose of Jesus’ life.
Rising Above the Mundane
It is with the above understanding that we approach today’s gospel reading. How shall we understand Jesus’ call to discipleship? What does he mean when 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” (Luke 14:26)? Or what does Jesus mean when he says, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27)? A third saying is even harder – “Anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:33)” These sayings of Jesus are often called the conditions of Christian discipleship.
Especially in the context of today’s first reading, I interpret Jesus’ conditions of discipleship to mean that among every other human pursuit there is none more important than discovering ourselves in the life of Jesus. Nothing can come in the way of this pursuit – not our love for family, not our fear of suffering, and certainly not our material possessions. As the book of Wisdom reminds us, “For the corruptible body burdens the soul and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns” (Wis 9:15).
Each one of us does something in life. Each of us has our proper state of life. Now Jesus invites us to take that life and unite it with His. We allow His life to bring meaning and purpose to our lives.
Here Lies a Disciple
I want to get back to that serendipitous day in the seminary. The epitaph I wrote that day is not worth mentioning. All I remember is that I wanted my epitaph to be so impressive that everyone would ask me to borrow it. That did not happen. In fact, I did not even impress myself with my epitaph. Then, the seminarian sitting next to me read his epitaph. At the end of the class, I went to him and asked him if I could borrow his epitaph. It read, “Here lies a disciple!”
At that very moment, the Holy Spirit and the wisdom of God came to my aid. I realized that I was putting all my energy into becoming a priest. But first, I needed to become a disciple. The most basic call of the Gospel is to Christian discipleship. Those who followed Jesus had to discover themselves in Him. They did. Some of them left their home, father, mother, property, wealth, and possessions and followed him. Others did not abandon everything but still found themselves solely in Him.
Today, here we are. We hear Jesus say to us, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). The cross defines Jesus. Jesus carried the cross and did something with His life – he brought meaning, purpose, and redemption to humanity. When Jesus invites us to carry the cross, he is inviting us not only to do something meaningful in our lives, but to do something meaningful with our lives. He is inviting us to find ourselves in the cross, in Him.
In a few moments, Jesus will be present to us as bread and wine. This is the same Jesus who took up His Cross and redeemed humanity. Somehow, today we must find ourselves on this altar. We must find ourselves in the cross of Jesus. We must find ourselves in Him. Each of our epitaphs is yet to be written.
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Fr. Satish Joseph was ordained in India in 1994 and incardinated into the archdiocese of Cincinnati in 2008. He has a Masters in Communication and Doctorate in Theology from the University of Dayton. He is presently Pastor at Immaculate Conception and St. Helen parishes in Dayton, OH. He is also the founder Ite Missa Est ministries (www.itemissaest.org) and uses social media extensively for evangelization. He is also the founder of MercyPets (www.mercypets.org) — a charitable fund that invites pet-owners to donate a percent of their pet expenses to alleviate child hunger. MercyPets is active in four countries since its founding in December 2017. Apart from serving at the two parishes, he facilitates retreats, seminars and parish missions.