In the Gospel of Luke (14:25-33), great crowds were traveling with Jesus. Let this be the starting point of our reflection.
Due to a number of reasons, those great crowds have been reduced considerably over the centuries and, as it is painfully obvious, even more so in our lifetime. Today, we find out the main reason why our number is so reduced. It happens as soon as Jesus, who is resolutely heading for Jerusalem to embrace his cross, turns and addresses us in a way that is shocking beyond belief.
“If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Without hating our parents?
What happened to the fourth Commandment? “Honor your father and your mother, that you may have a long life in the land which the LORD, your God, is giving you. (Exodus 20:12) Well, Luke himself assures us that it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the smallest part of a letter of the law to become invalid. (Luke 16:17)
We have to keep in mind that “hating” is hyperbolic language intentionally used by Jesus to make HIM the absolute top priority of every disciple’s life. But, although hyperbolic, this terminology forces us to pause, face real situations and admit how even the closest human ties can become stifling, dysfunctional, destructive, toxic and even hate-filled. Thus, shocked by these words, we wonder, although just for a moment perhaps, that if we place the Lord as the absolute top priority in our life, we will enjoy a life of freedom, creativity, real productivity and blessed joy.
Discipleship is indeed supposed to be chosen in view of productivity (bearing good fruit). Discipleship is accepted so that our innate creativity can contribute to establishing Jesus’ Kingdom of truth and life, holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace. In revealing to us the steep cost of discipleship, Jesus mentions the building of a tower and marching into battle with a limited number of troops.
Nobody plans to build a tower anywhere but in the most strategic location for optimum result. Nobody marches into battle unless it is strictly necessary for protection and defense of real people whose lives are very dear to the king. Jesus seems to indicate, therefore, that the high cost of discipleship is necessary for two unconventional reasons. The more desirable the outcome, the higher the personal cost expected of the disciples engaged in the effort. And also each genuine disciple of Christ must be ruled and practically “possessed” by divine craziness, by the foolishness of the cross (to borrow St. Paul’s terminology), or by the underlying paradox that runs through the Gospel from cover to cover.
Perhaps the best illustration of the ever-present paradox of the Gospel is given by this passage from the gospel of John: Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. (John 12:24)
The vision of discipleship proposed by Jesus aims at good productivity enhanced by creativity. Now, bearing good fruit, working with Jesus to establish his Kingdom requires freedom from stifling ties some of which are mentioned by Jesus.
We already saw how certain family ties, which are marred by sinfulness, will keep us away from productive discipleship and can be destructive or at least counterproductive. But, if we stop to think about possible stifling and constraining ties, we realize that there are so many of them and all demanding a piece of our consideration, of our time, of our energy and, most ominously, of our heart.
It is no wonder, therefore, that we tend to straddle between the demands of these ties and true discipleship of Jesus Christ. Back and forth we go with a torn heart and a troubled mind because we definitely love Jesus, but we also see the value of keeping at least some of the other ties. By stressing the necessity of carrying a cross, the instrument of defeat, infamy and indignity, the Lord is not helping at all. He is rather increasing our anxiety.
Yet, he doesn’t stop there: he insists that we renounce also all our possessions. The cross is different for each one of us, because we are all different. Yet, it is also the same for all in the sense that it is defined by whatever struggle and pain we are called to embrace as we surrender the control of our lives over to the Lord. Indeed, the cross, understood as suffering and struggles, is the plight of every human being due to original sin.
The radical difference proposed by Jesus to us as his disciples lies in embracing it and in following him to our Calvary and to bearing fruit rather than enduring it as a curse. And the possessions we ought to give up consist of anything upon which we rely to find security and relieve our anxiety. It can be money, property, material possessions, but also a prestigious degree, honors, recognition, power, control over key areas of our life and that of our loved ones, etc. This painful spiritual impasse caused by the scary demands of discipleship can be solved in a rational and prudent way only by taking time out to calculate the cost expected of us and plan our strategy in the light of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus warns any potential disciple that one who cannot come up with a decision and stick with it or one who abandons the struggle will become the butt of ridicule and dishonor. We ought to be shocked also by the fact that Jesus demands we place him ahead of anything and anyone else, including ourselves, to carry our cross, and to sell all our “possessions,” SIMPLY in virtue of who he is.
Let us face it: the Lord does not need to lower his bar, not even one bit. After all he is risen! He has vanquished all his enemies. He has conquered even death.
Who Jesus is and his victory over all evils, death included must be the deciding factor in our choice to accept the very steep personal cost and embrace the foolishness of the cross. If Jesus becomes absolutely our top priority, we can continue to care for our families and relations; we can meet the demands of our calling in life, be productive citizens of society and do all as if everything depended on us while keeping in mind that, in reality, everything is unfolding according to the Father’s plan.
As the Lord’s genuine disciples there are two utterances of the Bible that should guide us: With God all things are possible. (Matthew 19:26) I can do anything in Him who is my strength. (Philippians 4:13)