Yesterday Suzanne and I went to a funeral. Friends of ours buried their father, and among his children was a priest who celebrated the beautiful funeral Mass.
To bury the dead is one of the seven corporal works of mercy, and to bury one’s parents is also an act of filial piety, of the honor or reverence that we owe to our parents under the fourth commandment.
To care for our aging parents, and to bury them at death, are among the most necessary duties that we owe to our parents — and, if anything, this duty was even more deeply felt in Jesus’ day than in ours.
Jesus took very seriously the obligation to provide for one’s aging parents. This is what he blasted the Pharisees for not doing.
Loving Your Enemies, Hating Your Family
All of which heightens the shock of one of the most distressing things Jesus ever said, in today’s Gospel.
So your father is dead and you want to bury him first and then follow me? Leave those who are dead to bury their own dead.
You’ll follow me after saying goodbye to your family? No one who puts their hand to the plow, to work in the Lord’s field, and looks back to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.
Do those words sting? If they don’t, we’re not listening!
Our Lord says so many things that we find comforting and reassuring.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Such beautiful, hopeful, encouraging words from Matthew’s Gospel!
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
These are difficult words, but exalted. Even if we feel very far from living up to those words, if we see other people living them out, if we hear stories about heroic forgiveness or generosity to enemies, it’s inspiring. It makes us want to be more virtuous ourselves.
But what Jesus says today in Luke’s Gospel doesn’t seem beautiful or exalted. It seems outrageous. Leave the dead to bury their own dead?
Jesus’ Hard Words About Family Ties
The fact is, Jesus often seems to downplay family ties, including filial piety. Later in Luke’s Gospel he says:
If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.
Love your enemies but hate your parents and your family! Love your neighbor as yourself, but hate your own life! What a religion! “What great violence is necessary,” says St. Augustine,
in order that a man may love his enemies, and hate his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brothers! For He commands both things who calls us to the kingdom of heaven.
G.K. Chesterton once quipped that “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”
Jesus goes a step further: Love your enemies, but be prepared to hate your family members, because if you follow me, your family members may be your enemies! From Matthew’s Gospel:
Brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death…
I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man's foes will be those of his own household.
He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
Notice that instead of hating parents and family, here Jesus says we must not love them more than we love him. This, of course, is what it means to “hate” our parents and family: We must not love them more than we love Jesus.
But this isn’t a matter of feelings, this love and this “hatred.” It’s about actions. Jesus is warning his disciples that following him may mean turning their backs on their own family, who may reject them, expel them from synagogues, bring them before authorities, deliver them up to persecution and even death.
What do you do when your family members force you to choose between them and following Jesus? Many saints have had to make that call. Take St. Perpetua, whose father wanted her to renounce her faith. She refused and was imprisoned and eventually martyred.
Francis of Assisi was brought before the bishop by his outraged father. St. Clare was also opposed by her father. Thomas Aquinas’s family was so opposed to his religious vocation that they hired a prostitute to seduce him.
Are we prepared to turn our backs on our families if it came down to it?
The True Family of Jesus and the Human Family
If we are, Jesus promises us a new family, not just in heaven, but here on earth.
Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.
Jesus came to form a new family, a new people of God, the Catholic Church, which is nothing less or other than the divine communion of the Holy Trinity shared with us on earth.
Membership in the Catholic Church, in the family of God, makes us partakers of the divine Nature. It makes us all brothers and sisters of one another in a way that makes natural family bonds insignificant in comparison.
All other divisions among human beings — differences of race, sex, nationality, age, education, income — mean nothing in Christ. Whether we are Jew or Gentile, male or female, old or young, rich or poor, white or black or brown, wherever we come from, whatever our nationality, whatever language we speak — we are all brothers and sisters. This is our family.
Even the division between Christian and non-Christian is a cause of division for them, not for us. For our part we are all brothers and sisters, non-Christians included.
Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, writes in his famous book The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood, that “For the Christian, every man is ultimately a brother” — either a brother in Christ or that “other brother” in the parable of the Prodigal Son standing out in the field, refusing to come in to the party, but not rejected or excluded.
Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists are our brothers and sisters. Even if many of them reject us, we don’t reject them. The whole human race is one family, all born of Adam, all redeemed in Christ, all sharing the common fatherhood of God, though not brotherhood in Christ.
Who Is My Brother?
This what we’re called to as Catholics. We have a long history of failing to live up to it.
Antisemitism, racism, discrimination against women, discrimination against the poor — these and other forms of tribalism and prejudice have existed among us since the days of the early Church. St. Paul warns today in the second reading about “biting and devouring one another,” adding, “beware that you are not consumed by one another.”
What about now? When we look at the Church today — when we look at our lives — how well do we live this out?
Have you ever noticed how many Catholics go to Mass like they go to a supermarket, to pick up the sacraments. They fulfill their obligation, but the Church isn’t their home, their family. They don’t know the names of the people in the pews around them. They dash for their cars during the closing hymn instead of talking to people who should be their brothers and sisters.
That’s not how it’s meant to be.
When we walk past a Muslim on the street or in the supermarket, do we see a brother or a sister? What about a homeless person? What about a police officer? What about someone wearing a political slogan we disagree with?
When we hear about Latin American children in cages, sleeping on hard, cold concrete — with nowhere to rest their head, in our Lord’s words from today’s Gospel — unable to bathe or change their clothes, do we think of them as our own children?
The immigration debate in our country is complicated, and there are no simple answers. No right answers, anyway. Wrong answers are another story! Warehousing people in inhumane conditions that are neither clean nor safe, is wrong — no matter where they came from, how they got here, who they are, or which party is doing it.
Loving Your Neighbor, Hating Your Country
Many people today put political or nationalistic concerns above our common humanity. No Catholic can do that.
On Thursday we celebrate the Fourth of July, a patriotic holiday. Patriotism, proper love of one’s country, is a virtue — one that the Catechism covers under the fourth commandment, the same as honoring your father and mother.
Which means that when Jesus talks about “hating” your father and mother, he’s also talking about “hating” your country when your country’s actions are hateful.
Every member of the human family is our brother or sister, from unborn children to undocumented immigrants. Liberal or conservative, straight or gay, Jewish or Christian or Muslim or atheist.
I’m not saying none of these differences matter. Some of them may literally be the difference between heaven or hell — and it’s important to say that! It’s also important to say that God is their judge and ours … and he will judge us, in part, by how we judged them.