Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year 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
Today’s Gospel presents us with some very strong words from Jesus Christ. The passage is taken from His discourse to the Twelve Apostles, His closest friends and companions, before they’re sent out to preach the Good News. What we heard, then, is a sort of missionary manifesto, if you will, a declaration of discipleship, a set of standards that we need to believe and hold fast to if we’re to be the missionary disciples that Christ calls us to be. We can break the Gospel into two parts: first, the requirements for being a disciple, and, second, the rewards that come to those who help the disciples. So, requirements and rewards.
Regarding the requirements, Christ doesn’t spare any words: these are perhaps some of the strongest words we find coming from Christ’s mouth in the Gospels. The message is that we have to love Jesus above everything else: above our jobs, our cars and houses, and, yes, even above our family members. Oftentimes we love Christ through our family members, such as when we live out our vocations as sons and daughters, or as fathers and mothers, or as grandparents, and that’s good. This makes us holy, because we’re fulfilling God’s will. However, we have to remember that everything in this world, absolutely everything, is meant to help me get to heaven; I can’t prefer anything to Christ and His will. If there’s something that prevents me from following Christ completely, I need to surrender it, to give it up, and follow Christ whole-heartedly.
Christ points out the way to His followers: “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.” There is no other way to follow Christ than the royal road of the Cross. We can’t overlook the fact that, to His listeners, these words about the cross must have sounded absolutely unbelievable: Cicero called crucifixion the “extreme and ultimate punishment of slaves” (Against Verres 2.5.169), and the “cruelest and most disgusting penalty” (ibid. 2.5. 165.) and Josephus, a historian, called it “the most pitiable of deaths” (Jewish War 7:203). The penalty was so severe that by law the Romans couldn’t inflict it on their own citizens.
And yet, in the face of that awful decision, that radical choice to follow Christ or not, saints can be made. Pope Saint John Paul the Second wrote: “These words [regarding the cross] denote the radicality of a choice that does not allow for hesitation or second thoughts. It is a demanding requirement that unsettled even the disciples and that, throughout the ages, has held back many men and women from following Christ. But precisely this radicality has also produced admirable examples of sanctity and martyrdom that strengthened and confirmed the way of the Church. Even today these words are regarded as a stumbling block and folly (cf. 1 Cor 1: 22-25). Yet they must be faced, because the path outlined by God for his Son is the path to be undertaken by the disciple who has decided to follow Jesus. There are not two paths, but only one: the one trodden by the Master. The disciple cannot invent a different way. . . . [However], it is not suffering for its own sake that a Christian seeks, but love. When the cross is embraced it becomes a sign of love and of total self-giving. To carry it behind Christ means to be united with him in offering the greatest proof of love.” Thus far the Pope.
Carrying the cross can only happen when we really love God and have faith in Him and in His goodness. This is what faith is about: an encounter with a loving God that radically transforms our lives. The person of faith lives differently, because he or she is different; no one can have a radical encounter with the living God and remain unchanged.
If we truly believe, we live differently; we embrace those requirements in all their radicality. All the way back in the first century of the Church, when people were still worshiping the sun and the moon, Saint Justin wrote quite simply: “No one has ever been ready to die for his faith in the sun.” “No one has ever been ready to die for his faith in the sun.” Christian faith is something different, something radical. It’s something so worth living for, it’s worth even dying for. And if the faith is worth dying for, then it’s also worth suffering, enduring, and doing a hundred other things that are less extreme than dying.
Often our first thought is to run from the cross, but, as Saint John Vianney said so well, “On the Way of the Cross . . . only the first step is painful. Our greatest cross is the fear of crosses. . . . We don’t have the courage to carry our cross, [but] whatever we do, the cross holds us tight — we cannot escape from it. What, then, have we to lose? Why not love our crosses and make use of them to take us to Heaven?”
We can ask ourselves: what holds us back from giving ourselves fully to Christ? What is it that we love more than Christ? Do we see our faith as something worth dying for?
This leads us to our second point: Christ also mentions the rewards that will come, not to the disciples, but rather to those who help the disciples and aid them in their mission. It calls our attention that these rewards are promised to those who help the disciples; the reward for the disciples themselves must be far greater.
These verses about the rewards for helping disciples and prophets connect with today’s first reading about the Shunammite woman. There are three things that call our attention: first, she has no name. She’s only known as the Shunammite woman. Even when Elisha calls her, he tells his servant “Call this Shunammite woman.” That makes her a much more universal figure, and reminds us how God’s generosity is extended far and wide. Second, the woman doesn’t actually ask Elisha for a son; it’s as though that reward is something too great to even dream of. In a portion of the text that’s omitted from today’s reading, Elisha asks the woman if there’s anything that can be done for her as a reward, and she says no. It’s only when Elisha’s servant Gehazi points out to the prophet that the woman has no son that Elisha calls her and tells her what will happen. Here, we’re reminded that God’s generosity and rewards to those who help His faithful is magnificent, far beyond what we could ask or imagine. Thirdly, the greatest reward the woman receives isn’t anything material: it’s something far more impressive. The story of the Shunammite woman and son continues, even though it’s not part of today’s reading. When the son grows up, he goes to work in the fields, and passes away; he dies. His mother goes to Elisha, and Elisha performs a very complicated and involved miracle to bring him back to life. All of this, because his mother took care of the prophet.
Let’s consider: if a nameless woman who cared for an Old Testament prophet received something beyond her wildest dreams, something she wanted more than anything else in the world, and received it not only once, but twice when her son was given new life, how much greater will be the reward for those who give themselves to God’s service and to the service of the Gospel of the New Testament? It’s no wonder that in Mark’s Gospel, when Peter starts asking Jesus what their reward will be for following Him, Jesus cuts him off, as if the question can’t really be answered. “Peter began to say . . .” and Jesus knows how far short His words will fall (Mk 10:28). It should really make us wonder, and strive with all our hearts to serve God.
We can ask ourselves: how much do we really trust in God’s promises? How much do we really believe that any sacrifices we make in this life will be rewarded? How much do we really trust God, and how willing are we to give ourselves to His service? What holds us back?
Let us ask for the grace, through the intercession of Mary, Mother of Faith, for the grace to take up our crosses and follow Christ, trusting in His love for us and in His goodness towards those who seek Him.
 Message of the Holy Father to the Youth of the World on the Occasion of the XVI World Youth Day, 14 Feb 2001, 3.
 Dialogue with Trypho, 121.