The Paradox of Jesus

(Thirteenth Sunday, Year C)

A man reading the New Testament frankly and freshly would not get the impression of what is now often meant by a human Christ.” (G.K. Chesterton, Everlasting Man, Part II, The Riddles of the Gospel)

Today we return to "Ordinary Sundays" and resume the sequential readings from Luke’s Gospel. The passage we just heard invites us to grapple with the central reality of the New Testament: the paradox of Jesus. In the first section he rebukes his disciples for wanting to destroy the unwelcoming Samaritans. Then he makes demands so severe they can only be called outrageous. To a would-be follower who wishes to complete his filial duty, Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their dead.” (Lk 9:60) Another he does not permit to even say good-bye to his family.

The Gospel writer could not have invented such words. Much more likely, they so shocked the original hearers that the words were unforgettable. We cannot avoid the question, “Who does he think he is?” I do not ask it flippantly, but with a desire to know.

If the Archbishop – or even the pope – told me to ignore my dad or my family, I would suspect they had gone off the deep end. But Jesus demanded that, and more, of people over whom he had no human authority. He held no office. The only authority he claimed was his person. Who is he? The options are stark: lunatic or Lord. Some wish to say he is just one more ethical teacher, like Socrates or the Buddha. But Jesus has taken away that option. He never meant us to have such a way out.

Focusing on his rebuke to the vengeful disciples, some portray Jesus as a model of tolerance and diversity. I have nothing against viewing him as a guru showing us the way to inner peace and brotherhood. However, at some point an honest man must ask not just what Jesus offers, but who he is. You are a good Buddhist if you embrace Gautama’s teaching. To be a Christian you must embrace a person – or to be exact, allow him to sieze you.

In the second reading St. Paul says we participate in a high stakes game. Our lives are a struggle between freedom and slavery, the Spirit and the flesh. “Flesh” (sarx) includes not just sensual inclinations like lust or gluttony but also spiritual vices - anger, greed, bitterness, etc. Paul specifically mentions tale bearing and factionalism. (Gal 5:16) Flesh is the downward pull of our human nature.

A needle, when placed carefully on water, will float. Even tho it is metal, the molecules on the surface join together to hold it up. But some disturbance can easily upset that unity and the needle will sink to the bottom. If on a lake, it will go into the mud and remain there slowly rusting. Only an outside force can bring it to the surface again. The New Testament calls that force "grace." It means letting go of cynicism, admitting it wasn't the ideal that was wrong, but ourselves. That is, to permit Jesus to overtake us by his Spirit.

Once you place your hand to the plow, do not look back (Lk 9:62). What first looked severe, even outrageous, is your only hope.


Spanish Version

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From Archives (Homilies for Thirteenth Sunday, Year C):

2016: Becoming a Disciple Week 4: Consistency
2013: For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free
2010: Celibacy vs. Not Getting Married
2007: True Freedom
2004: Two Approaches to Jesus
2001: The Paradox of Jesus
1998: Don't Look Back

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