Missionary disciples

Each year as we cycle through another start of the catechetical year, the U.S. Bishops Conference gathers parishes around a common theme. This year we are asked to promote the theme: “Living as Missionary Disciples.” Being a missionary evokes images of exotic travels into the outermost regions of the world, carrying the cross and Scripture as we bravely face peril for the sake of the Gospel. We are not being asked to go much further than our backyards in this missionary endeavor; but we are asked to be a disciple, a much more difficult assignment.

Discipleship and membership do not go hand in hand. We have heard plenty of people publicly proclaim that they are members of the Catholic Church, only to follow this with their own interpretation of what this means. And it isn’t as simple as activating the cliché, “What would Jesus do?” whenever faced with a life decision. Discipleship requires full buy-in to the paradoxical logic of the Kingdom of God. The weekday Masses during this year have given us a crash course in discipleship as presented by the Gospel of Luke. Luke’s audience was a lot like the people sitting beside us in church. Some were destitute, others very well off, and then in between were all the property owners who would be considered middle class. 

Unlike his synoptic partners, Mark and Matthew, Luke was writing to an audience of Gentiles caught up in a Greek world that was not familiar with the Old Testament mores on economic justice, welcoming the stranger and feeding the poor. Many of Luke’s audience were wealthy members of a Greek society that looked down on the poor. Imagine what it must have been like to hear Jesus’ Beatitudes and woes in the Sermon on the Plain. The poor will be blessed in the Kingdom, but the rich have already been taken care of and will receive nothing. The hungry will be filled in the Kingdom, but the satisfied will not receive more. The weeping will laugh, but those who are laughing now will weep. The people who are slandered and persecuted because of their discipleship will be rewarded, while the ones who society praises will get no honor in the Kingdom. 

Like the people hearing Luke in the first century of the Christian movement, we have our own struggle overcoming our ingrained cultural attitudes in order to embrace the upsidedown perspective of the Kingdom of God. The logic of the Golden Rule is easily embraced by even the most secular of individuals, but the standard of the Kingdom goes far beyond this.  Rather than “do onto others as you would have done onto you,” we are told to do onto others as God would. We might be tempted to dismiss this as Gospel hyperbole, but discipleship is that hard, and not open to interpretation. As Bishop Donald Hying once said, “An intentional disciple is a Catholic maximalist, not asking what the minimum is that must be done in order to be saved, but rather asking what can be done for the sake of the Kingdom of God.”

Even though Luke’s Gospel was a beacon of hope for the poor, it is said that he was really the evangelist for the rich. The people to whom he wrote had already accepted Jesus Christ, but they needed to hear that it will go well for them at the end: “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man.” The denunciation of the rich was not so much about their personal portfolio as it was the idolatry of pursuing wealth above all else. It was calling the rich to go beyond simply offering charity, but to change the structures in society that keep the poor in their marginalized place.

Fortunately for us, the Catholic Church has enshrined Kingdom logic in her social teaching. As Archbishop Daniel Flores explains, “Church teaching regarding the obligations of society to insure a just wage for laborers, educational opportunities for children, and most of all, suitable living conditions for families, have all basically been about applying the Gospel to the emerging complexities of the economic life of the modern age. Without this kind of faithful application of the Gospel to the conditions of the world, the faith would become a mere museum-piece for the historically curious.” No matter where we stand in our ideologies, whether religious, political or philosophical, we are all called to follow the not-so-common sense of the Kingdom of God. When all of this starts to make sense to us, then we know we are disciples, and out we go on our mission.

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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