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To generously carry one's cross

June 26, 2017
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A - July 2nd, 2017
In light of today's colourful story in the first reading from the Second Book of Kings, I offer some reflections on the virtue of hospitality.  What lessons of hospitality can we learn from the Shunamite woman and her husband?  Many stories from the Books of Kings speak of hospitality.  Each of the four stories of chapter 4 describes in some way the power of God, through the prophet Elisha, breaking into hopeless situations and shattering them with a word of life.  One of those narratives is about a couple from the village of Shunem [a town just over the hill from the New Testament village of Nain in northern Israel] who provide food and lodging for the prophet Elisha; he in turn promises them a son, even though they had been married for a long time and remained childless.  The couple cares for a stranger who had impressed them by his dedication to God, prayer and social concerns. They interrupt their ordinary activities and private lives to care for Elisha, first with food at their table, then with overnight accommodations.  And in their giving to him, they received so much more in return– the promise of new life, despite the bitter years of barrenness.  Their own gift to Elisha was magnified beyond their comprehension!
The Greek word for hospitality is philanthropia meaning love of human beings, kindness. The virtue of hospitality is praised in the New Testament and it is enumerated among the works of charity by which we will be judged [Mt. 25:35ff].  Jesus depends on it and regards it as important in the parables. He had no home and was frequently a guest along his journey. It was the practice of Paul on his journeys first to visit the Jews and to stay with them, and to stay with the Gentiles only if the Jews refused him.
With the rapid growth and expansion of the church, organization was needed, and we are told that fourth century Antioch cared daily for 3,000 widows, sick, and strangers.  Bishops and widows were especially expected to be hospitable both privately and officially.  Bigger churches and sanctuaries later set up hospices, and where care focused on the sick these developed into hospitals.
Thus far we have considered the positive aspects, elements and manifestations of hospitality.  But hospitality has an enemy:  selfishness and pride.  When we are so wrapped up with ourselves, our own problems and difficulties, or we wish to jealousy preserve what we have and exclude foreigners and strangers from our lives and riches, we are inhospitable. The Shunamite woman teaches us profound lessons for our times!  In the practice of hospitality, we make room for guests, no matter how big or small our house! Let us never forget that the Kingdom that Jesus preached gives special hope to the world's poor and hungry, to those who don't have guest rooms in their homes because they might not even have homes to speak of.
God’s generosity
In the Second Reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (6:3-4, 8-11), God’s display of generosity or grace is not evoked by sin but is the expression of God’s love, and this love pledges eternal life to all believers. Through baptism believers share the death of Christ and thereby escape from the grip of sin. Through the resurrection of Christ the power to live anew becomes reality for them, but the fullness of participation in Christ’s resurrection still lies in the future. But life that is lived in dedication to God now is part and parcel of that future. Therefore anyone who sincerely claims to be interested in that future will scarcely be able to say, “Let us sin so that grace may prosper.”
A message of total renunciation
In today’s Gospel passage, we hear of the first mention of the cross in Matthew’s Gospel – and it is in reference to the cross to be carried by the disciples of Jesus. Those who deny Jesus in order to save their own lives will be condemned to everlasting destruction, but loss of one’s life’s for the sake of Jesus will be rewarded by everlasting life in the God’s kingdom. Jesus preached a message of total renunciation for the sake of the kingdom. Nothing or no one must deter them from their dedication to Christ and his mission. Jesus knew full well that not everyone would accept the gospel his followers proclaimed. Even members of their families might be their adversaries. Those who wished to follow in Jesus' footsteps must be willing to put the gospel before all else, even their own lives. If they chose this difficult path they could be sure that they would share Jesus' destiny of persecution and suffering. Those who refused to "take up the cross" and follow him were "not worthy" of being his disciples (Mt 10:38). Like the prophets of old they must be prepared to suffer for speaking God's word. Whoever offered hospitality God’s messengers received Jesus himself, and God who sent him, and they would be rewarded for their kindness.
Jesus tells us that whenever we practice works of mercy, forgiveness, kindness, we are doing these things to him. He fully identifies himself with the needy, the marginalized and the dependent; the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. Jesus’ reign completely overturns our notions of earthly kingship. The kingship of Jesus consists of ultimate service, even to the point of laying down his life for others.
Whenever I read today’s Gospel passage of Matthew 10:37-42 and reflect on Jesus’ command to carry the cross, I recall some powerful words about discipleship from a great Canadian Jesuit priest and theologian, the late Fr. Bernard Lonergan.  In a letter to young Jesuits about their role as “Priests and Apostles in the Modern world”, Fr. Lonergan wrote:
“If I am correct in assuming that the Jesuits of the twentieth century, like those of the sixteenth, exist to meet crises, then they have to accept the gains of modernity in natural science, in philosophy, in theology, while working out strategies for dealing with secularist views on religion and with concomitant distortions in man's notion of human knowledge, in his apprehension of human reality, in his organization of human affairs. How such strategies are to be worked out is, of course, an enormous question, and I must be content to offer no more than the briefest suggestions.
“First, any such strategy is not a conclusion from premises but a creative project emerging from a thorough understanding of a situation and grasping just what can be done about it. Secondly, it is not some static project set forth once and for all but, on the contrary, it is an ongoing project constantly revised in the light of the feed-back from its implementation. Thirdly, it is not some single, ongoing project but a set of them, constantly reported to some central clearinghouse with the twofold function (1) of drawing attention to conflicts between separate parts and (2) of keeping all parts informed both of what has been achieved elsewhere and what has been tried and found wanting. Finally, all such projects must be in Christ Jesus, the work of those that take up their cross daily, that live by the Spirit in the Word, that consecrate themselves to loving, that banish all tendencies to hatred, reviling, destroying.” (See citation below.)
Fr. Lonergan’s words do not only apply to members of the Society of Jesus, but to each one of us.  May all of our works and strategies be in Christ Jesus, the work of those that take up their cross daily, that live by the Spirit in the Word. May we, too, consecrate ourselves to loving, and banish all tendencies to hatred, reviling, destroying.
 (“The Response of the Jesuit, as Priest and Apostle, in the Modern World, Bernard J. F. Lonergan, SJ.” Published by the American Assistancy Seminar on Jesuit Spirituality, especially for American Jesuits working out their aggiomamento in the spirit of Vatican Council II, vol. II, September 1970, No. 3.)
[The readings for this Sunday are: 2 Kings 4:8-12a, 14-16; Romans 6:3-4, 8-11; and Matthew 10:37-42.]
(Image: Simon of Cyrene carries the Cross by Francisco de Ribalta)
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