Francis J. Caponi, O.S.A.
Ps 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14 and 17
Phmn 9-10, 12-17
I am pretty sure that all parents have, at one time or another, found themselves in the position of trying to get their child to do something difficult or boring or distasteful, and having their child refuse with these words: “You know, I didn’t ask to be born!” The logic of the complaint seems to be that, by not actually requesting birth, the child must now be held to a lower standard of compliance with parental oversight. If children asked to be born, then it would be their own fault that they were here, and they would have to accept the consequences of mowing the lawn, doing the dishes, and studying algebra. But since they didn’t ask to be here, they expect to be cut some slack.
My brothers and sister and I said this on a few occasions. My mother would often say something like this: “That’s right. You didn’t ask to be born. You were a gift. But I can’t exchange you.”
Of course, the complaint makes no sense, since you can’t ask to be born before you exist, and once you exist the deal is done. Still, there is a logic to it. All adults know that there can be quite a difference between something we want to do, and something done primarily out of fear or legal obligation. There are many things we have to do, and we can do them well; but there is something about those things we choose for ourselves that makes them more meaningful – our careers, for example, our friends, and our hobbies.
Now this presents a challenge for Christians. Very few of us remember our baptisms. The decision was not made by us, but by our parents or guardians. Someone else made the vows on our behalf. Before we could even understand what was happening, we were given the identity of a Christian. This was done for the best of reasons, so that we might be freed from original sin and share in the community of Jesus Christ from our earliest days. But still, it was not our choice. We were not consulted, and, in a very real sense, being baptized was an accident of our birth: had we been born into other families, we might not have been baptized. This raises the question: Is our commitment to Christ one of those things we have to do, one of those things we did not choose for ourselves but which now we are obliged to stick with? When the hard work of raising children in the faith, being generous to the poor, and forgiving our neighbors becomes too overwhelming, do we wish we could turn to Christ and say, “You know, I didn’t ask to be baptized!”
In today’s gospel, Jesus tells two parables, both of which have the same point: important undertakings require careful planning. When you set out to do something like building a tower or going into battle, common sense tells you to prepare. Consider your energy and resources, and try to anticipate the problems you may encounter. If you don’t think ahead, once you begin you may quickly run out of steam, or obvious obstacles will baffle you, and you won’t reach your goal. People will see your half-finished tower and think, “That’s poor planning.” Spectators will watch one army twice the size of the enemy’s demolish his troops, and think, “There’s a king who couldn’t count.”
Likewise, Jesus calls us to think about being his follower. We were not in a position to give any forethought about our commitment to Christ. But that commitment requires daily renewal. Married couples know they have to renew their vows each day in acts of forgiveness and sacrifice, lest their vows wilt and fade. New homeowners know becoming part of a neighborhood involves more than signing a deed.
Discipleship is a way of life, and it requires commitment and careful planning.
Do I want to continue to follow Christ? Every person baptized as a child has to give that question serious thought sooner or later. If I come to Mass, say grace before meals, and occasionally come to confession only because I am carrying on a childhood habit, Jesus tells me that’s not good enough, that won’t sustain me in the difficult times when my cross is heavy and peace eludes me.
If we are here because we are afraid God will be angry with us, or to avoid disagreements in our family, Jesus tells us that is not good enough, and we will not be able to finish what we have begun. Christ want followers who want to be with him because they want to be with him, because they have heard the gospel and they want that new life and want to share it with others. None of us would be happy if our best friend said, “The only reason I talk to you is because I am scared of you,” or, “I am nice to you because I want something from you.” We would be devastated to hear that. Why would Christ rejoice to hear that from us? Christ wants his followers to be his friends, because only in the love of friendship can we hope to finish what we have begun. When the hardships of life come upon us - illness, unemployment, divorce, loneliness, betrayal, grief - we had better be Christ’s friends, or soon we will stop being Christ’s followers.
Our commitment to Jesus, once made for our good but without our consent, must be freely given. As in so many things, Saint Paul is our best example. In the second reading, Paul is in prison in Rome, and with him is a slave, Onesimus. Paul has converted Onesimus to the faith, and now he is sending him back to Philemon, his master. He has to do this, though he would like to keep Onesimus with him. Paul writes, I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary.
So is it with us and Christ. If once, when we were children, we were carried to church by others, we must now come freely. If once we did the right thing because someone was watching, now we must walk the path of virtue because we want to follow where Christ leads. Our parents may not have asked us then, but Christ asks us now, at this very Mass, if we will choose to follow him – and to follow him out of love.