What matters to God? Do our sins, even if we repent? Do our virtuous actions count even if we turn away? What really matters to God?
Twice in today’s short gospel Saint John the Baptist says, “I did not know him.” This line struck me because there can be a temptation in thinking that knowing a lot about Jesus is the same as knowing him. But if Saint John the Baptist is an example, then we know that we learn more about Jesus when we really know Jesus. Knowing Jesus, having a relationship with Jesus, and seeing that relationship take root when we become disciples of his, is a good goal for all of us.
I remember the first time I really heard today’s gospel. It was September 12, 2001. When I read the words of today’s gospel, the hair on my neck stood up. After the horrific events of September 11, I heard the words of Jesus in a way that cut me to the heart. ” “To you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic.” And just when I thought I had been rattled enough, Jesus continues. “For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, and get back the same amount. But rather, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back.” And I realized on that day that it was too simple to think that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said. He did. In fact, he died for our sins. I know that I cannot live these words on my own. But I can try to be open to his grace. I can seek forgiveness. And I can seek a deeper relationship with him that even makes these hard words possible.
Go into any bookstore and find the “self-help” section and there are really an unbelievable number of books. It seems that many have an opinion that doing something easy will make life perfect. And if we are not careful, the Christian life can be reduced to the same “self-help” philosophy. If we go around doing good, we will be better. But Christian discipleship is more than this. It is entering into a powerful relationship with Jesus, and allowing that relationship to change us, perhaps even allowing it to take us where we do not want to go. Jesus is not a self-help guru, but the divine Son of God who heals our sin and brokenness and calls to something more than we can imagine.
The gospel today has an interesting quote from Jesus about the need to hate our parents to become a disciple. Can he possible mean that? The commandments tell us to honor our father and mother. Nothing in the gospels indicates Jesus did not love his mother. The gospel makes much more sense when we understand that the word hate in the Greek world was used as hyperbole to make the main point clear: to be a disciple is very hard work.