23rd Sun [C] 2007

Fr. Charles Irvin

Wisdom 9: 13-18; Philemon 10: 12-17; Luke 14:25~33

Throughout the centuries the reality of family, its value for us, its meaning, and its ideal has been central to our understanding of who we are and what love is all about. Jesus made the notion and ideals of family central to His teaching. “Who is my mother?” He once asked, “and who are my brothers and sisters?” He told us that if we do the will of His heavenly Father, if we love God, do justice and walk humbly before the Lord, then He, Jesus, would give us His mother, be our Brother, and bring us back home to our Father, His Father and ours. He even went so far as to give us His Precious Blood so that we would be His blood brothers and sisters. That is quite extreme, I’d say… as well as quite astonishing.

So it is today in our second reading we find the ideal of family in a quote from St. Paul’s letter to Philemon. Unfortunately we read this passage only once every three years. It would benefit us to study it more often. So it’s quite worthwhile for us to pause today and reflect on it.

Paul is writing this letter from a prison, writing it to the head of a little family of Christians St. Paul founded, probably located in a town near Colossae, in what is today known as Turkey. Paul has Timothy sign it along with him and mentions that five other Christians are also imprisoned along with him. He wants the recipient of this letter, Philemon, to take it very seriously.

I want to highlight for you today the family language St. Paul uses. Timothy is called “brother”, Philemon is addressed as “beloved”, Apphia is “our sister”, and Onesimus is someone St. Paul proudly claims to have “fathered” into the Faith.

Under Roman Law Onesimus was a slave. Here in this letter St. Paul calls for him to be considered by the Christians of Colossae no longer a slave but rather to be regarded by them as “a brother in the Lord.” Later, in his Letter to the Galatians, Paul will broaden out his vision and proclaim that for Christians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek . . . neither slave nor free person … neither male nor female; for we are all one in Christ.” We are family — a loving unified family — with God as our Father.

In the thinking of Jesus, belonging to His family transcends even membership in our own natural family. That is, of course, extreme. But God makes extreme demands upon us. If you take God seriously then you will come to know that Christianity is an adult religion that requires very mature and very adult decisions, decisions that are hard and demanding, decisions that are extreme, because God wants all of our love, not just an hour of our love on Sunday (if, in fact, we give Him even that little crumb!). Belonging to His family has greater importance than belonging to our natural, earthly family, Jesus tells us.

Because of the sad state in which we find American families these days I wonder about the force Jesus’ “family talk” has on us. Perhaps I shouldn’t wonder. Does not the dream of family still have its hold on our hearts and our imaginations? And yet now the fact is that more than 50% of marriages end in divorce. Adultery, promiscuity and infidelities permeate many of our families, even some of our leading families. Children are abused by their fathers… and according to a few news reports their mothers as well. Women are battered, men are held in contempt. Abortion is increasingly a part of our modern American families. Even the very definition of what it means to be a married couple is under assault by those who would have us vies alternative relationships in the same way as we see traditional families.

The sad truth is that the traditional reality of family does not have the same hold on us that it has throughout the past, particularly during the time of Jesus. Is it the model to be using these days in order to teach us about loving others as God wants us to?

But maybe it is exactly the image that Christians should be using in order to learn of the kind of love and commitment Jesus wants from us. Maybe His image, His picture, His vision and model for family is precisely what our modern American families need as an antidote to the terrible sickness that seems to be infecting our society. Maybe Jesus was a whole lot more savvy than we think!

In another letter, this one to the Corinthians, St. Paul speaks of what it means to live together as a family, particularly in the family of Christ. He tells us that if we speak to each other in our families in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, well, then, we are only clanging gongs or tinkling cymbals. If we speak of God’s love and can fathom His mysteries in full knowledge and with a faith that can even move hearts made of mountains of stone, but have no love, well, then, we are good for nothing. If we share everything we have and even burn out our bodies in exhaustion while working for our families, but have not love, well, then, we gain nothing.

Can we live in a family and be always patient? Always be kind? Can we stop living in sibling rivalry and envy? Must we boast to each other? Must we live in competitive haughtiness and pride in order to show others up? Why are we oft times more rude to the members of our own families than we are to outsiders who are not a part of our family? Why do we treat non-family folks better than we treat those in our own families? Why do we fly off the handle at the slightest remark, or because of the smallest little thing that we consider to be out of place in our homes? Why do we keep long records of every time we’ve been hurt and cling to our resentments like we, as children, used to cling to our security blankets? And must we feel happy and vindictive when someone else in our family makes a mistake or commits a sin, and we follow it up with a snotty “see, I told you so!?” This is a long and seemingly impossible list of questions to answer. In answer to them we have hope given us in Christ when He told us: “With man it is impossible. But with God, all things are possible.” Love – true family love – is the antidote to our sickness.

Real love in a family, it seems to me, doesn’t delight in evil but rather rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and is always constant, steadfast, and always persevering. If we never fail in loving those in our families, then our families will likely never fail in loving us. For everyone we’ve ever really loved will be redeemed – it’s all a matter of loving them so much that we won’t cast them aside.

Christ is very demanding; He has the greatest expectations of us. To be a Christian goes far beyond simply being a nice person. To be like God, truly God-like, we must turn the other cheek, forgive seventy times seven times, and always go the extra distance, far beyond what is expected, far beyond what we consider to be fair or just. For God’s measurements are not our measurements; His boundaries are not our boundaries.

And if we are to take all of this “family talk” seriously and really think it through, then we have some forgiveness to seek as well as some forgiveness to give in order that we might truly live in the freedom of the sons and daughters of God as the family He wants us to be. And then with Jesus we can pray the great family prayer He taught us, the prayer that begins with “Our.”

I’m going to pray it out loud now, and slowly. As I do, think of the meaning of its words for you living in your family. Think of your family members and your relationship with them as you hear these words:

“Our Father…” [Note to preacher: Use plenty of pauses in appropriate places].


About Charles Irvin

Fr. Charlie was ordained a priest June 3, 1967 and has served as pastor of St. Mary Student Chapel in Ann Arbor, founded Holy Spirit parish in Hamburg, MI, served as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Ann Arbor and was pastor of St. Mary parish in Manchester, MI when he entered Senior Priest status in 2001. In 1999 he was appointed Founding Editor of FAITH Magazine which has grown into Faith Catholic Publishing located in Lansing, MI. He is now very active in his “retirement.”