September 7 and 8, 2013
16th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, Year C
One of the earliest things I remember my father telling me was that I would not understand true responsibility until I had a child of my own. Even now he says “when I held you there in the hospital you looked up at me and I said ‘Ho boy, here we go!’”. And when I, having no children of my own, would talk about it with him and intellectualize the idea as an idea, claiming that I had my own family and, now, my wife, he would merely shake his head and say “No, no, it is different” but not be able to explain. And yet, even if I cannot understand what he means fully, I have always enjoyed the image: a man on the cusp of fatherhood, realizing, though not yet fully experiencing, true responsibility and love for something he helped to create.
But, in view of the gospel reading today, I wonder: is this connection between a father – or any parent – and their child just that which Jesus asks us to hate? Ought I doubt something deeply beautiful and that our culture urges us to love and even assume as a healthy state of family? Not, I would say, with such a word as ‘hate’ there in the mix, for there is something that falls between idle appreciation and doubt, a mode of living where we may see something better without remaining in the negative: and this mode is called discipleship.
Such a call to a middle way may seem odd in light of such a powerful word as ‘hate’, and in explicating this passage here tonight [this morning] I do not want to pretend that I can soften the blow by merely changing the words around. To do so would not only weaken the effect but, also, in part destroy the message; had Luke wanted to find a different word he would have. The word is there, plain to see, in the English as well as the original, but the funny (and fun) thing about words is that they find much of their meaning when read in their fuller context: words do indeed have their own cultural and historical being and voice, but they live and breathe in community. And these words here before us, and this word ‘hate’ here, comes to the summit of the past week’s lessons.
For those who Jesus calls on us to hate here are seen in the parable from last week: they are the ones who come to the feast and who are expected by the host and his society to reciprocate, to invite as they themselves have been invited: thus the whole thing is perpetuated, the whole system of reciprocity: the rich get richer and the powerful get more powerful. And Jesus turns away from these people to the sick, the weak, the down-heartened – those who not only cannot reciprocate but relationships where reciprocation cannot exist. Read as a social critique, Jesus here replaces an economic- and politically-based system of family with a group who know nothing of remuneration – giving is good, Jesus says, not because we get something in return but because it is good and solid and sound in and of itself.
And while this is a social shift it is also a personal shift – for it is not only society and our actions, nor even our mode of living that Jesus is here calling into question, but the very way we love one another. For love is not a social necessity, nor is it in response to a reason – I ought not love my father because he is my father, nor because society tells me I ought to. This would enter us into a something like a transaction in which I give him love because he gives me a college education, a safe childhood, even life itself. For love is a thing greater than any of us – greater than the world, greater than all time and existence, and thus it is not contingent on actions or relationships. Otherwise I would simply appreciate, merely acknowledge, not love – and such is the work of a machine, not a human soul. I love my father because that is the correct state of a soul, or that is the state I hope to find, and from there I may love him not as a title but as a human being who deserves love for being just that. This type of love – this relationship that foregoes titles and accidents of history – is the type of love that Christ implores us to in these readings. It is a love that hopes towards the ground floor of a person, a love that aims to see them as the will and hope of God.
But it is not an easy love – something to give while sitting back on a lazy afternoon (although this love is good in its own way) for we as humans are creatures of habit, and old ways die hard. Love is not something to happen once, nor is the call to discipleship a single voice at a single time in our lives; it is ongoing, it is constant, and we must answer it to the foundation of our beings. We see just this in the situation described in the letter to Philemon – here the slave owner must not only cease his treatment of man as slave but must constantly renew his aversion, his hatred of Onesimus the slave in favor of his love of Onesimus the brother – for the former will invariably return. Human society has not changed because one person frees a slave and Paul’s loving hope to introduce a former slave into a community of slave-owners comes with dire social consequences. Nor will Philemon’s whole life, lived with slaves as a norm, suddenly change so that he never doubts, so that he never wonders, that things might have been better before. Philemon’s whole life, his past and present, has not changed simply because he made a mental choice or because he has had water poured over his head – even if that water is the water of life. For in order to truly follow Christ he must make a sacrifice over and over again, perhaps even every moment of his life.
And indeed this is the beauty of the letter and the hope of all discipleship – that Philemon stepped away from – indeed hated – his own past and found a new life, a new mode of living – that he entered into an open sibling-hood with all humans – not just with all humanity. And this call to discipleship, for Philemon and for us, is not within a singular moment but is iterative, happening again and again, even until the end of our lives and that is the seriousness of the call; that is the demand and hope of constant goodness in the way of our Lord. It is a call not to hate a person but to keep ever open to the soul of another, before the past, before all actions. It is a call to be active in our love, to reach down within ourselves and those around us to see that we need no reason to love, no social responsibility to do good things. It is, as Emilie Townes writes, to dare to live the holiness that is inherent in each of us.