Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time – Year A


Edward V. Hattrick, O.S.A. 

2 Kgs 4:8-11, 14-16a
Ps 89:2-3, 16-17, 18-19
Rom 6:3-4, 8-11
Mt 10:37-42

In today’s gospel there are four words that I find quite unnerving. They occur three times in rapid succession, so there’s no missing them: “not worthy of me.”

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.

Whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

Whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.

These words are severe. They are definitely not “Christianity-lite.” You are not worthy of me. What can we do?

When a work of fiction sells 27 million copies, is translated into 56 languages, and contains no sex, violence or four letters words, I become curious enough to read it. Written by Paulo Coelho, a Brazilian, it’s called The Alchemist. Towards the end of the book, the Alchemist tells a shepherd this story.

“In ancient Rome, at the time of the Emperor Tiberius, there lived a good man who had two sons. One was a renowned poet in Rome itself, the other a soldier in the distant regions of the empire.

“One night the father had a dream. An angel appeared to him and told him that the words of one of his sons would be repeated throughout the world till the end of time. The father awoke from his dream ‘grateful and crying,’ so proud was he of his son.

“Shortly later the father died, and again met the angel who had appeared to him in the dream. ‘You were always a good man,’ said the angel, ‘so I can now grant you any wish you desire.’ The father replied that he would like to know which words of his son’s poems would be quoted for all generations.

“With that the angel projected the man and himself into the distant future, where an immense crowd was repeating his son’s words, but in a language the father didn’t understand. ‘Which poem are they repeating?’ he asked.

“The angel replied, ‘Those poems were popular at the time, but now they’ve been forgotten. The words you’re hearing were said by your other son, the Roman soldier who became a centurion. One of his servants became ill, and your son went in search of a rabbi who could cure him. When he found him, the rabbi said he would go to the centurion’s home and heal the servant. But your son said, “My Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof. Only say the word and my servant will be healed.” These are the words you are hearing.’”

That’s the story. How is it connected to today’s gospel? The gospel warns us three times to shape up or walk the plank. But the story reminds us that every Sunday during Mass, just before communion time, we confess our unworthiness when we say, Lord, I am not worthy to receive you. But that’s not all we say, for immediately we add, But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.

Only say the word and my soul shall be healed. What is the only word I must say to be healed? What is the wondrous word that will heal my unworthiness? The word, I think, is faith. The centurion in the gospel completely trusted Jesus. Jesus asks the same from us: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me” (John 14:1).

How do we acquire faith in God, in all things, great and small? It’s a bit of a mystery how the centurion acquired the trust he had. As a Roman, his only god was the emperor, and as a soldier his faith was in the sword. But since this pagan warrior’s words are the ones we quote during Mass at the very moment when Jesus actually enters into the house of our hearts, I think it is the Mass that increases our faith, provided we participate in it with awareness of what’s going on.

We commonly refer to “the holy sacrifice of the Mass.” The pivotal word here is sacrifice. During every Mass Jesus is offering himself anew to the Father for us. His sacrifice is to offer himself for us here in this church today, just as he offered his life on the Cross for us many centuries ago.

What is our part in this sacrifice? Picture the original scene. Beneath the Cross are many people. There are soldiers who are indifferent: Just doing our job! There are onlookers who are curious, like people who gather at the scene of an accident. There are dear friends who are broken-hearted and horrified. And then there is Mary. Mary sees all that the others see, but with a quantum leap in searing pain, because she is the victim’s mother.

But she sees more than that. She knows what her son is doing, and why. She knows he is making this sacrifice willingly for our sakes. She recalls his words: “There is no greater love than this, to offer one’s life for your friends.” And so, unlike the others, Mary is offering her heart with her son’s, her life with his, to the Father in an act of complete trust. Not one pierced heart, but two, are being offered to God, both trusting that their love and hope and bottomless faith will be rewarded.

This is what we should be doing at Mass: offering ourselves totally to Jesus and with him to the Father. Mass is a joining of our hearts to the Lord, and then offering ourselves with him in total trust to the Father. Let me tell you a very simple way of making this self-offering. At the consecration Jesus says to each one of us: “This is my body which will be given up for you.” When you hear these words, repeat them in turn to him: “This is my body, given up for you.” This makes the giving of self an exchange, like the vows of a wedding. Do this every Sunday! “This is my body, with its false desires and vanities. This is my body, with its holy longings and happy hopes. This is my body, all of me, good and bad – I give it up for you.” This is the faith the Lord gives to us, this is the trust he desires from us, that we turn our whole lives over to his mercy and his justice, confident that he will make our lives a worthy and acceptable sacrifice to the eternal praise of God the Father.