This year the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary time falls on September 8th, my parents’ 62nd wedding anniversary, and our first one without them. There is nothing ordinary about that date in our familia, a celebration of a long-lasting love that even makes us possible. Now, this year, we are struggling to cope with the hard reality of their physical absence. The date is also loaded with Marian connections — something Dad especially appreciated — the liturgically designated Nativity of Mary. For Mom’s familia, who sojourned to the USA through Cuba, it is the fiesta of Nuestra Señora del Caridad. In my family September 8th is remembered as an extraordinarily blessed day!
With this context in mind, imagine how jarring the gospel sounds as Jesus tells the crowd that discipleship requires hating one’s parents, spouse, children, siblings. As we were growing up, “hate” was a four-letter word in our home. My mother did not allow us to say it. She would not be pleased to hear it come from the mouth of Jesus, let alone read aloud at Mass on the birthday of his mother!
It is tempting to explain away the intent of Jesus in these words, or soften the tone, or even take comfort in the possibility that Jesus was deploying a hyperbolic literary device. Without qualifiers or conditions around the imperative to hate, it is difficult to rationalize theological interpretations that focus on the costliness of discipleship. It is hard to reconcile the prince of peace and the God of love with despiser of your own life and family.
The scholar in me can understand the eschatological context that fueled the intensity of Jesus’ demand in the gospel of Luke. I can comprehend the radicalness of a discipleship that strikes at the heart of the status quo by calling for a reorientation of social and primary relationships. I can appreciate a command that supports a disciple’s vocation if it is obstructed by familial pressures and disapproval or distracted by property and possessions. The commitment of discipleship requires a careful cost analysis as does a construction project or the waging of war.
But I cannot get past the word hate. Perhaps that is because of my own context where profound familial loss provides a stark contrast illuminating the potential long-term cost of hate. Or that my mother’s voice continues to ring with her own prohibition against our use of a word from which sometimes there is no return. Or maybe it is the context of a summer marked and marred by hate, incendiary language, cruel national policies, hateful actions and costly consequences.
There are times when our scriptures may make little sense to us because the words are of another era or because they hit us at particular moments of struggle. We like to think that the Word of God brings comfort or necessary challenge, we don’t want to consider that the words of a gospel or of our ancestors in faith may feel off or even wrong. Context matters, not just in discerning the meaning of ancient sacred texts, but in terms of our personal and communal engagement with these readings from the particular places we find ourselves in the moments of engagement.
Context also matters when it comes to the history of reception and interpretation of texts. The gospel isn’t the only difficult lectionary reading to contend with today. The letter of Paul to Philemon is avoided in some African American churches because of a history of interpretation by white Christians who deployed it, among other Pauline epistles, in support of chattel slavery. Theologian, minister and theological educator Howard Thurman, in his book Jesus and the Disinherited
recalled his grandmother’s aversion to Paul. She told him about the preaching of the slaveholder’s chosen white minister who frequently utilized Pauline texts in services with those enslaved. She explained to her grandson, “he would go on to show how it was God’s will that we were slaves and how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us. I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible” (31).
In the Wisdom Commentary
that includes Philemon, the feminist authors remind us that “people ‘felt’ the impact of the interpretation of this letter on their bodies” (209). Exegesis of these texts had and have consequences; these readings “have not been purely academic or theological exercises but have figured centrally in questions of life and death” (209). Sometimes we need to sit with that discomforting reality before a text can resonate in new ways with communities who bring their lived experiences and changing questions in real-time.
There is practical wisdom in a lectionary cycle. While we may face the same readings over a fixed time, we rarely if ever engage them from the same place — we read them, and they read us anew. In this time, from this place, the costliness of hate evident in the consequences of separating children from parents, of targeted violence, of derogatory language, of cruel practices, of increased racism and white nationalism makes rejection of family an unreasonable price to pay for discipleship. In three years, when these readings return on the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, it won’t be on the date of my parents’ anniversary, and we can earnestly hope that people will not still be feeling the impact of hate on their bodies.