WHO DO YOU BELONG TO?
Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A
January 27, 2008
This Sunday, as the readings introduce us to the public life of Jesus, to his call to discipleship, a theme that will resonate in the next few Sundays, we are confronted with a very deep, but foundational question to answer on our own. Who do I belong to?
The Corinthians offer us a sneak peek at human nature, specifically at our propensity for division, for bickering, for disunity, and all sorts of interpersonal strife and fractiousness. “I belong to Paul … I belong to Apollos … I belong to Christ.” Judging from the passion with which Paul writes to the factionalized members of the church of Corinth, then caught up in petty squabbling and inane “party politics,” it would not be hard to imagine what he is writing about as jutting straight out of our own personal and group experiences. Disunity and lack of oneness in so many aspects of our lives are an integral part of our human experience. In my 25 years as a priest, one of the greatest challenges to my pastoral leadership skills (or the sore lack of it) had to do precisely with trying to unify people who otherwise are good, talented, committed, and dedicated individuals, but who simply could not get their act together. Disunity, as the experience of the pious Corinthians shows us, is also part and parcel of the lives of those who consider themselves disciples of the Lord. We see factionalism and division in the Church, in religious life, in parishes, in covenanted communities, among people who otherwise are expected to show good examples as followers of Christ.
In a tone that almost smacks of exasperation, Paul asks his fractious readers: “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with the wisdom of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.”
Alas, disunity does not happen only between and among individuals and peoples. There, too, is inner lack of integration, an inner loss of unity within oneself, a psychological or spiritual split that gets in the way of our capacity to leave everything behind in order to follow the Lord. This is the lack of personal integration that came as one of the consequences of original sin that alienated people from themselves, from others, from the world, and from God.
Time was when, courtesy of humanistic psychology of decades past, the fashionable question to ask oneself in the course of one’s search for identity was “who am I?” People were told that the absolute prerequisite to self-fulfillment was a solid and clear articulation of one’s self-individuation, one’s self-identity, one’s personal self-definition vis-à-vis the whole external world populated by others who are supposed also to define who they are. As an avid follower myself of the tenets of humanistic psychology, I have no reason to discredit such an approach towards personal self-fulfillment. As a pastoral counselor, I believe in the wisdom and helpfulness of the approach towards self-possession and self-definition. However, as a priest and teacher of theology, as one who would rather that psychology and spirituality be integrated in order to help myself and others find their way gradually not only towards self-fulfillment but fellowship with others and the Lord, I am fully one with Merle Jordan who suggests that the really all important question to ask other than “who am I” is “who do I belong to?”
Who do I belong to? Who are those whose orders I really follow? Whose beating drums, and whose music do I really dance to? Jordan wisely suggests that those who really mean a whole lot to us all are the “idols” or “false gods” that we really worship, beyond whom we claim are our real, personal God.
There are some curious details in today’s gospel that should offer us a clue or two with regard to this important personal question that all would-be-disciples ought to ask themselves. First, we are told that Jesus called fishermen busy with their trade. Recent biblical scholarship would have us disabuse the notion that they were poor, uneducated people, who hardly had anything to leave behind. On the contrary, fishermen were the equivalent of modern-day entrepreneurs who had a thriving, flourishing business, and who, therefore, were individuals who were conversant with the language of management and administration on a day-to-day basis. Peter and Andrew, their father; James and John, and their father Zebedee were no suckers. Neither were they penniless bums who had nothing better to do than follow a ragtag band of itinerant good-for-nothings. They were people who had something to leave behind. “[Jesus] called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him.” They did not have “complexes” about their belongings, to use that famous word made popular by the psychologist Adler.
But there is one more detail that ought to make all of us pause and reflect – the figure of the fathers of the two pairs of brothers whom they all “left behind” – again, without any complexes and complications. The father was part of the story, a figure that more or less stayed in the background. But the figure of the father was not among the “emotional baggages” that hindered the four would-be apostles’ ability to follow the Lord with alacrity and utter dedication.
My own personal journey towards wholeness, in my own trajectory of growth towards ongoing maturity, along with my more than a decade of experience in formation work with seminarians, have shown me just how powerful and strong a figure the father (or the primary authority figure or caregiver) is, in a person’s ability to really “leave everything behind and follow the Lord.” My own experience and those of many others who passed through me tell me just how easy it is for anyone to belong not to God, but to a conjured up “idol” that one has made as object representation, as a projected image of the father one had, or the father that one lacked or did not have. Such an image of a “false god” continues to wreak havoc in the life of one who has not properly and sufficiently worked through his unacknowledged, or denied issues for or against this father figure. I have seen seminarians who hated me, and rejected me as an authority, not for who I was, but for who I reminded them of. I have also met up with those who idealized me, who idolized me, and who treated me like I was the answer to all the questions they ever had. Invariably, people would either “reject” their father-image, or “idealize” it. There was usually no middle ground. For those who rejected their object representation, sooner or later, they see nothing but disappointment, for everyone who resembles their father in any way, end up disappointing them. For those who idealized their object representation of their father, they continue on with their illusion, but they end up not finding the ideal father they never had. So they become drifters, finding ideal father figures in elusive personalities, whom they end up enthroning as their “false gods,” thereby giving them “divine status.”
Today’s liturgy, among many other things, is a very clear lesson on the psychological meaning of genuine discipleship, and on the fact that he who calls to discipleship has also brought good news to a people ‘walking in darkness.”
We all are wounded individuals, each of us with our own personal story of father and mother figures who may well have provided us in our tender growing up years with not a “good enough” mothering or nurturing, as the case may be. We all have our own stories of rejection, our own versions of idealizing, and our own versions of “see no evil, hear no evil, do no evil” sort of mentality. The full spectrum of psychological defenses came to our temporary rescue at the right times when we most needed them. But the more we took resort to them the more we felt we were retreating into a world replete with darkness. We were really in the dark, for we did not know any better.
I am convinced that the Lord who calls us to discipleship, first and foremost, calls us to self-possession. Before we can follow, we first have to give up something. Whilst it is true that no one ought to confuse the Lord’s call with the need to “leave behind” all one’s possessions, that the former need not have the latter as an absolute “conditio sine qua non,” the call to discipleship does entail leaving behind our psychological baggages that stand in the way of genuine discipleship. We are “called for” discipleship, but we are not necessarily ‘called from” possessions and belongings. But being called to discipleship definitely means also a call from the effects of those baggages and idols that we worship deep inside. Discipleship is a call from the Lord. And discipleship entails a need for those who are called to veer away from all that militates against the total surrender to that call. It is a call to “worship the only true God, in spirit and in truth.”
In the words of Merle Jordan, we have to “take on the gods” that we have absolutized or idealized and idolized in our lives. If all the petty squabbling and disunity tell us anything, it is simply that we who make up the ‘body of Christ” may not have fully given up our “false gods” in favor of the only true and living God of Jesus Christ our Lord. No wonder there is so much fanaticism in our midst, so much categorical and rigid thinking from among some ultra conservative church leaders and lay members who only see the world and all reality in terms of black and white. In the same vein, no wonder there are still those vague, undefined drifters, the ultra liberals for whom there is nothing definite, nothing certain, nothing final. These are people, who, in their search for the idealized father figure whom they have internalized all these years, have no qualms about putting worship of the one true God alongside worship of gurus and charlatans who tell them that the way to find and love god is to find the same god in themselves, to divinize themselves, and to see everything as god. The father they missed in their growing up years is the father they continue to miss in their constant search for such “self-atoning” practices as perpetual self-deprivation, self-inflicted hunger, and a “feel-good” spirituality of saccharine idealism and pollyannish – if, misguided – hopefulness, not really for heaven, but for “nirvana” that is nothing but undefined bliss and happiness that is based on negative emptiness.
There is, at bottom, nothing negative about the call of the Lord to discipleship. It starts with good news in the first place. The good news for all is expressed so nicely by Isaiah: “anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness … the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in a land of gloom a light has shone.” That light has to do with one who revealed an image of a God who is “Father,” a God who “loved the world so much that he sent his only begotten Son,” a God who calls us as much to physical and psychological wholeness, as to holiness.
For those who hear the Lord’s call and listen to him, discipleship is not primarily a “leaving behind.” It is, first and foremost, a testimony to the world that all others now are secondary, that “no better serves me now, save best,” for now I have found something infinitely better than everything else, for now “I belong to Christ.”
Who do you belong to?