23RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME YEAR C ON SEPTEMBER 8, 2019 (R. 1: Wisdom 9: 13-18b; Psalm 90: 3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14-17; R. 2: Philemon 9-10, 12-17; Gospel: Luke 14: 25-33)
Did you hear that? Jesus has just given us the command to hate. And he even specified that we should hate those who are nearest and dearest to us. But I thought the goodnews he brought is supposed to be all about love. Or did I miss something along the way? Let us take a look at how we got here. Jesus made this pronouncement during his journey to Jerusalem. Last Sunday, he made a stopover to honor the invitation to a dinner hosted by a leading Pharisee. Today, he has resumed the journey. But before going further, he looks at his entourage, and he sees that many people are following him, so he decides to do a quick reality check. He tells them the cost of discipleship; he tells them the three things required of anyone who wants to continue the journey with him, they include: (a) hate your immediate family, including yourself; (b) carry your own cross; (c) renounce your possessions.
Yes, I understand when Jesus talks about “carry your own cross;” yes, it makes total sense to me when he talks about “renounce your possessions.” But what about hate your family? After struggling with this thought for a long time, I had to go back to my high school / minor seminary in Nigeria for the solution. I grew up being very competitive academically. The grading system for pupils/students in primary (elementary) / secondary (high) schools in Nigeria is such that positions are assigned from the first to the last in each class based on scores in homework, tests, and examinations, and the record is made public at the end of the term. I was privileged to be first in class for most of my elementary and high school days in Nigeria. The feeling that came from being the first in class was one I could hardly trade for any leisure. I also saw the first position as an incentive for my parents, who were sacrificing a lot to keep me in an expensive school. 
Now, let me share with you, some of the things I did to maintain what I thought was my birth-right, the 1st Position. Being a boarding school, we did a lot of things in common as students. During our after-class study hours, sometimes I felt sleepy, but before dropping my head on my desk, I looked around to see what my classmate who came 2nd the previous term was doing. When I saw him sleeping or playing around, I felt safe to sleep, but when I saw him reading his books, I forced myself to remain awake to study. When I saw my classmate who came 10th, 15th, etc studying all night, I didn’t feel threatened; I did whatever I wanted to do not minding what he was doing. You may not be proud of me for this next one, but trust me, I already went to confession for it. When exams were close, and my classmate who came 2nd the previous term came to ask me to explain a particular topic, let’s say, how to balance equations in chemistry, I was usually very “prudent” in my explanations, I did not say everything I knew for fear that he might take away “my” 1st position. But when the other classmate who was 10th, or 15th, the previous term came to ask me the same question, I took my time to explain, and I double-checked to be sure he understood. My main principle was, “Emmanuel, Beware of the second best!” That was my mantra. In all I did, I was very conscious of the second-best in my class. He was my number one suspect. To keep my first position, I had to monitor all his moves.
The first position was so important to me that I could not stand someone else taking it away from me. That is what Jesus is saying today. He wants us to beware of the second-best. He wants us to guard the 1st position zealously with all that we have. But who is the first position here? God is the first position. Heaven is the first position. Our salvation is the first position. Who is the second-best? It is our nearest and our dearest. It is our immediate family. We need to be mindful of them; there is a high possibility of them standing in the way of the first position. C.S. Lewis argues that “It is usually not evil things, but the good things and the noble things that stand as idols, as roadblocks and detours on our journey to true joy. The things that are capable of fooling us are the good things. They are so good that they make good counterfeits.” Remember, “It takes a saint to make another saint fall.” 
In every competition, in every contest, the second-best remains the greatest threat to the best. God is the best; nothing is good enough to take the place of God; no matter how good a thing might be, the moment it pretends to take the place of God, it turns into a demon. Lucifer was an angel of light and highly exulted until he decided to attempt to take the place of God, then he was cast into the bottomless pit. When Jesus asked his apostles, “Who do people say the Son of Man is…Who do you say I am?” Simon relied on the Spirit of God, and he gave an answer (acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God) that merited him “thumbs-up” from Jesus. He was also given the name Peter (Rock), the foundation on which Jesus would build his church. Shortly after that, Simon Peter decided to go ahead of God, to discourage Jesus from the cross, which was God’s will. Jesus turned to him and said, “Get behind me, Satan” (Matthew 16: 23), for the rock of foundation was becoming a stumbling block. In Matthew 5: 30, Jesus admonished his followers saying “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off… it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go to hell.” Hate your family means, beware of the second-best; it means, nothing is good enough to stand in the way of God.
There is no such thing as a part-time Christian. You are either in or out. Jesus said, anyone who is not with him is against him (Cf. Matthew 12: 30). Giving God, the first position does not mean that we must spend every second of the day in the Church. It means that all we do should be at the service of God. The beauty of it all is that when we give God the first position, every other thing will be added unto us (cf. Matthew 6: 33). 
When you go to the shopping mall, you see something you like, and you want to take it home. You first find out the cost then you decide either to part with your money and go home with what you saw or you go home with your money and forfeit what you saw. Now, we have seen heaven, we have seen our salvation, we have seen discipleship, and Jesus has told us the cost, but the question now is: are we ready to pay the price?

Rev. Fr. Emmanuel Ochigbo

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