September 6, 2010

Homily for Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Fr. Rene Butler

Jesus says we cannot be his disciples unless we “hate” our father, mother, sister, brother. This is an excellent illustration of how different our culture today is from that of the ancient Middle East.

It is hard enough for us to understand the Middle East today. One of my cousins is married to a woman of Lebanese descent. She dislikes funerals the way they are celebrated in our culture. She told me, “When my husband dies, I’ll be wailing and screaming and throwing myself on the coffin.” It’s the only way of grieving that makes sense to her. “What makes sense, what is obvious and natural,” is an important distinctive element of every culture.

Now go back 2000 years. No wonder the Bible is so hard for us to understand at times. It reflects a different world, a different time, a different culture.

The French have no word that means “home” in the complete sense, with all the emotional components the English word implies. Some words are truly untranslatable in any exact way from one language to another. If this is true of modern languages, imagine what it is like for ancient languages.

In the Bible, “acquaintance” is rare. People are seen as friend or enemy, kin or alien. Similarly, the verb “to like” is virtually non-existent in the Bible. You either love or hate. And even though the New Testament was written in Greek, it still reflects ancient Middle Eastern thought and culture.

Imagine you have had a meal with friends at their home. When they ask, “How was it?” how do you respond if the only options in your language are “fabulous” and “lousy”?

The language Jesus spoke was a language of either-or. So how else could he say that we have to be faithful to him above all without an all-or-nothing expression?

Maybe he would have said it differently in 20th Century English. But the meaning would still be the same. Faith first. Love first. Jesus first.

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