Scarce do we guess the things on earth, and what is within our grasp we find with difficulty; but when things are in heaven, who can search them out? Where but the Book of Wisdom would we find things summarized so succinctly? This line explains what the Gospel has been like to me all week. I had to consult the “big guns”—the Church Fathers—to make any sense of it. Pope St. Gregory the Great came to my rescue.
Let’s start by looking at the middle of the Gospel. I find things are often more fun that way, anyway! Jesus reminds us that if we were to build a great tower, we would first plan the thing out, looking at how much material we need, how we’d put it together, etc. If we just “wing it,” so to speak, Jesus tells us that not only will we end up with a half-built tower, but all our friends will laugh at us too. This is a great story to begin an engineering or architecture class with, but what in the world does it have to do with my faith?
Pope St. Gregory unlocked this Gospel for me by explaining that building the tower is a metaphor for gaining eternal life. Thus, if we wish to attain eternal life, we would do well to take some time and calculate what will be required. We may be required to leave our family and friends behind, either physically or spiritually, if they do not wish to join us in following Jesus. In this way, we could be understood to be hating them, as Jesus said we will have to do. Think of it as an athlete training. They punish themselves in the pursuit of athletic skill and excellence, in a way hating themselves, but only because of this greater goal they have. In this same way, we have a greater good we must pursue, Jesus Christ, and this may entail some sacrifice on our part.
But as we sit and count the costs and sacrifices necessary for us to gain eternal life, we will struggle to grasp and understand everything. These are the things of Heaven, after all, how can we know what we will need? When we recognize that building the tower—gaining eternal life—is something well beyond our grasp, then we can take the most important step of them all: we can ask Jesus Christ, the master builder who created the whole universe, to help us. He can help us see what we need to do to build our tower, to gain eternal life.
In much the same way, the advancing army can be understood to represent that moment of divine judgment at the end of our lives. It would be better to surrender to an opposing army when they are far away from a military standpoint—at least from a 1st century military standpoint. This allowed the inferior army to avoid bloodshed and hopefully gave them better peace terms. This parable is meant to help us understand that it is much better to surrender to God’s will now then later. Luckily for us, he is a merciful God. He does not punish those who surrender to him, as a military commander in the 1st century might. Instead, our God assists us in following him. Instead of being two opposing armies of 10 thousand and 20 thousand, we become one united army of 30 thousand.
Brothers and sisters, today the Gospel calls us to take stock of what we must do to enter Heaven. Today, the Gospel calls us to recognize that the only way we can do this is by surrendering our wills to Jesus Christ and following him every day of our lives. Jesus is making a radical demand for each of us today, but it comes with God’s radical promise of eternal life.
23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C
September 8, 2019
Wisdom 9:13-18b; Psalm 90; Philemon 9-10, 12-17; Luke 14:25-33