Chances are you or someone you know is failing to follow the warning Jesus gives on the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A. And chances are, this doesn’t feel like a failure at all. It feels like the loving, righteous thing to do.
But what Jesus warns about in Sunday’s Gospel is one of the greatest threats the Church faces in any age, and failing to listen to his warning has literally laid waste to the Catholic faith in large parts of the world today.
What Jesus warns about is loving your family more than you love him.
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me,” he says.
The first place we see the impact of this is in daily routines — morning, noon and night.
- In the morning, we have the intention to pray — but we don’t, because we would rather chat with a family member, interact with friends and family on social media, or answer emails. Or maybe we’re the problem for someone else: Our family member doesn’t pray because we put demands on their time.
- At noon, we want to say grace before lunch — but we don’t, for fear it might offend someone we are with, or might embarrass us if someone sees us praying in a restaurant.
- In the evening, we intend to pray a family rosary — but someone in the family always complains, so we decide to skip it rather than fight for it.
Jesus wants us to recognize that in each of these cases we are choosing to love others more than we love God — which is a pretty straightforward failure of the first and greatest commandment, “Love God above all things.”
Furthermore, he wants to teach us that love and sentimentality are two different things.
Sometimes it feels like rudeness when we decide to assert God’s place in our life: It feels wrong to cut a conversation short to pray, or to acknowledge Christ in front of people who might feel bothered by that, or to interrupt personal pastimes to spend family time with God.
But we can’t rely on our feelings in this area, because our feelings in this area are disordered. After all, we don’t feel rude like we should when we interrupt a conversation with our family to answer a work email; we don’t feel rude when we converse in church after Mass in front of people who might be bothered by that; and it doesn’t bother us a bit to interrupt our family members’ pastimes to get them to serve us in some way. Actions that feel like rudeness to us when we do them to favor God feel fine or even noble to us when we do them to favor ourselves.
So we have to learn to distinguish between what feels right with what is truly right. And we don’t just have to do this in our daily routines. We have to distinguish truth from feelings in what impacts our lifelong worldview, too. A few examples:
- First, think of gluttony or greed. These are deadly sins, but we often find ourselves overlooking or even aiding and abetting them in a loved one’s life because we don’t want to upset them. Soon, we are inclined to join someone in overeating or drinking too much; or we start thinking that putting money first in our life is our spousal duty.
- Or, to look at something even worse, we always knew that abortion is wrong, but then, when someone we know was contemplating abortion we “accompanied” them with false comfort instead of challenging them with real love. Or we simply avoided the issue, saying nothing in order to spare their feelings. Over time, we change our beliefs in order to justify our actions, and start believing that denying an unborn child’s right to life is somehow an act of love, or that sticking up for an unborn child is wrong.
- Or, take the definition of the human person and of marriage. Nearly everybody once believed that, as Barack Obama put it when he was running for president, “marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman.” And we intuitively knew that changing the definition of marriage would push more people into lifestyles that, as Biden Administration research points out, are far more prone to depression, addiction and suicide. But many people changed their opinion of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex movement because it felt like the loving thing to do for the sake of a family member.
In these cases, when our loved ones objected to Jesus Christ’s way, truth and life, we sided with our loved ones’ errors because of the feeling of love — and ended up turning our back on Jesus, the source and summit of love.
St. Augustine gave one answer to all of these dilemmas.
When our family says to you “Love us,” Augustine said to answer, “I will love you in Christ, not instead of Christ. You will be with me in him, but I will not be with you without him.”
He’s right. Loving your family in Christ is the only way to truly love your family, because Jesus Christ is the only answer to the aching longing we and our family members feel.
St. Paul explains how this works in the Second Reading. “Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” he says, then explains why this matters. He says that our baptism doesn’t just give us life after death — we are baptized so that we “might live in newness of life” right now. In other words, we find in Christ everything we are seeking. In him all the desires people talk about come true: we “get more out of life” and we “live life to the full;” we “renew our relationships” and we even “feel fulfilled.”
So, we gain quite a but by being baptized into Christ’s life. But we also gain from being baptized into his death, because “You, too must think of yourself as dead to sin,” he says. This means that the grace of baptism is capable of delivering on a whole other set of personal goals. It gives us a way to be “free from addiction” so that I can finally “live my best life,” “live for others” and at long last “become who I was meant to be.”
St. Paul sums it all up in a phrase: “If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.”
What does it mean to “live with Christ”? Jesus gives several examples in Sunday’s Gospel.
“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,” he says. That means: Attempting to have total control of your life ends in disaster. Surrendering to God in faith, hope and love, ends in triumph.
Then, Jesus gives specific scenarios of people who “Love God above all else and love their neighbor as themselves.” Those who receive a prophet, or a righteous person, or even give only a cup of water to a disciple, will all be rewarded, he says. How? By more abundant life.
The First Reading gives the example of the influential woman who got a baby because she received a prophet. For others it will be other forms of abundant life. In our daily routines, if we choose prayer over personal time, service over selfishness and public witness over cowardice, our families will grow stronger. In our lifelong worldview, letting Christ in can redirect and renew our codependent and toxic relationships. Loving and serving a loved one through an unintended pregnancy or helping them find forgiveness and healing after abortion can lead to a lifetime of gratitude and love. And we can become a true “ally” to loved ones if we help them discover the Catholic Church’s beautiful teachings about the goodness and inherent purpose of human sexuality.
It’s not easy to choose to love God more than family members, but what follows from those choices is far better for you and for them.
First, we have to be able to say to our family, “I love you but expect you to respect my beliefs.”
Soon, we will be able to say them, “I love you too much to lie to you about your choices.”
But ultimately we will tell them: “I want to live a free, full life in God. I want that for me and I also want that for you.”
And that’s the greatest love of all.