Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
It has been a while since anyone called me “idealistic.” Years ago, when I was a young monk and enlightening an abbot visitor on what a more perfect living arrangement for the monastery might be, the adjective was used. But not as a compliment. It was a polite way of avoiding the terms utopian, unrealistic, or naïve. Idealistic views draw their clarity and selling-power from their willful exclusion of factors which contradict their persuasiveness. Getting there is the problem.
Why do we have so many projects we have begun in enthusiasm, but which are never finished? Why the loss of interest or even the sense of disappointment? Maybe because there wasn’t really a good match between our ideals and our inner commitment and motivation. We hoped the project would provide fuel, but the fire had gone out. Our Lord encourages us to sit down and calculate, to sit down and decide. This is already a coming home to ourselves, a living within our own skin and limits, which is all too rare. We build towers and wage battles as substitutes for acknowledging our self-worth and our liabilities. It is not a matter of cursing our fate or blaming others. The CV we write for ourselves has too many redacted lines that are blotted out because they contradict the persuasiveness of the ideal picture we want to paint.
The Lord in the Gospel today seems to be making a distinction between those who travel with him and those ready to become disciples. He sets up some shocking conditions for the latter. The semantic efforts to smooth down their sharp edges (a Semitic exaggeration, it really means to prefer or be indifferent) deflect from the shock they were meant to have. Far from offering a sign-up bonus, Jesus wants to strip us of all security and protection.
The monastic tradition has always understood what Jesus is about here. Let them not have an easy entrance, let them wait in the guesthouse, try their patience, tell them all the hard and difficult things that await them. Teachers and masters will rebuff potential disciples until they are forced and shocked into reaching more deeply within themselves. It seems that their ideals have brought them to be disciples, that their ideals will carry them through, that they will at least grow into those ideals. But real learning and living cannot begin until this tower of self construction has collapsed, until it has died. When someone’s heart is beating rapidly and out of rhythm, the doctor will defibrillate the heart. First, he STOPS the heart before he can begin its normal rhythm. Jesus’s words have to shock us before we can begin to hear what they mean.
Painful as these shocks may be, they are really acts of love and compassion. The shocks are meant to disillusion us, to ground us in reality. It is no kindness to be allowed to live from fantasies, illusions, pretenses which may offer enthusiasm and energy for a while. Even failures and criticisms can be experiences of honesty and truth that shock us back to life. But without the realism that can bear to look at all reality (not just an edited version), we are lured into a dark alley of disappointment, discouragement and despair. Jesus cannot be accused of false advertising.
We are called to sit and calculate and decide. This is a form of solitude where we understand life as a reaching into our own depths and discovering a different form of freedom, security and belonging that we have in Christ and as his disciples. Our lives are at his disposal and this can break all the logic and priorities we have learned from our culture. Our life and actions rise from a belief that is responding to Christ present in our midst.