The Conditions of True Discipleship, 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), September 5, 2004

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Retreat given at Sacred Heart Retreat House, Alhambra, California
“Living Mary’s Mystery in Christ”
September 3-5, 2004
Twenty-Third Sunday in OT, Year C
Wis 9:13-18; Philemon 9-10,12-17; Lk 14:25-33

1) In the first reading, the Book of Wisdom queries, “For who can learn the counsel of God? Or who can discern what the Lord wills?” Mary, the Seat of Wisdom, in whose school we have been enrolled over the past few days, takes us directly to her son, Wisdom Incarnate, who gives us his counsel in straight-talk and tells us directly what he wills for us. He instructs us very plainly on what it takes to be his disciple. We have come on this retreat precisely so that we might become better disciples, imitating Mary, in following her Son. Let us listen to Him as he challenges us to become whom he created us to be.

2) Jesus tells us that there are three conditions for us to be his disciple:

a) “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

b) “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

c) “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

3) This is no small order. To be Jesus’ disciple, to enter into his kingdom, requires a DECISIVE CHOICE. One has got to be willing to “pluck out one’s eyes,” “to cut off one’s hands” if that’s what it takes to follow him. We have got to be willing even to lose our life, because it is only the one who loses his life that will find it again it God.

4) Many people today do not recognize the seriousness of the call of Jesus. The people in Jesus’ own day had a similar problem. For centuries, they anticipated that a Messiah would come, overwhelm all foreign powers, and they would ride his coattails to great triumph and riches. They were unprepared for the Cross, for suffering, for struggle. Jesus tries to disabuse them of these false impressions by giving us the path to true wisdom and happiness in the Gospel. We can take each of the three conditions in turn.

5) “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” On the face of it, this seems almost too tough to have come from the mouth of Jesus. It also seems to contradict other things God has told us. Didn’t God tell us in the fourth commandment of the Decalogue, “Honor your father and mother?” How can Jesus now be telling us to hate them? Didn’t Jesus say that in marriage, man and woman leave their parents cling to each other and become one flesh? Didn’t God tell us through St. Paul that husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the Church and gave his life to make her holy? How can he now be telling us to hate spouses? Didn’t he in fact tell us that we had to love even our enemies? How could he be calling us to love them and hate our family members?

6) In order to resolve these questions, we need to have an understanding of Hebrew and Aramaic. In these ancient languages, they really had no way to make comparisons like we do in English. In order to express loving someone over another, they generally said they would “love” one and “hate” whoever was second or below. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said the same truth in a perhaps clearer way, “Whoever loves Father and mother more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:37). Jesus was saying that there could only be one absolute in our life. Only one love could have primacy. Only one thing could have man’s ultimate obedience and affection. That is God.

7) This teaching of Jesus is therefore very concrete and leads to an examination of conscience this morning. Do we love Jesus more than everyone else? Do we prefer him to parents, to spouses, to children, to our own lives? Do we love him with “all our mind, heart, soul and strength” or does something else get our mind, heart, soul and strength? Jesus cannot be merely a part of our life. He cannot be just an important “ingredient” in our life, occupying an important “niche” in our personal portfolio. He must be God.

8 ) This gets very practical sometimes. I remember last summer preaching on what Jesus said in St. Mark’s Gospel, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” I preached it as tenderly as I could, but after Mass a few couples came to me saying how “hurtful” what I preached was to them, how such words make it hard for them to come to Mass. I asked them what their personal situation was. In each case, they had been divorced and remarried outside-the-church without having even investigated whether their first marriage might have been null from the beginning. After helping them to see that I was merely echoing Jesus’ words and that the Church wasn’t “making up” a teaching on divorce-and-remarriage, I asked them whether they love Jesus more than they love their new spouses. They paused. I asked them if they had to make a choice between Jesus and their new spouses, whom would they choose? They paused again. Then they asked why they couldn’t have “both.” I said that might be possible, if their first marriages were null, but until that time, they cannot have both and have to choose; that unless you love Jesus to the point of “hating” all others, you’re not worthy to be his disciple.

8) The same thing often comes up in work and family situations. So many times in the last year, people have told me that they cannot come to Mass because they “have to work” or “have to take their kids to play hockey or soccer” or countless other things they “have to” to do on the Lord’s day. When it comes to compromising one’s commitments to God, many people do so easily, but not when it comes to compromising with work, or with sports leagues. If, when there’s a conflict between one’s obligations to God and one’s obligations to something else, if God loses, then one is not truly being a disciple, not putting God first.

9) The clearest example of loving God more than all other loves comes with whether we try to compromise in any way with sin, to give us an excuse to do something that would displease God even in a little way. The early saints had a motto, “Better to die than to sin.” If it came to God or to anything else that they wanted that might displease God, they always chose God. The paramount example of this is martyrdom. The martyrs wouldn’t sacrifice their obligations toward God even for the sake of saving their own lives. They are his true disciples. That’s why Jesus said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate … even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” For a true disciple, our fidelity to God is more important than our physical existence. Jesus’ words in the Gospel are very appropriate here: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mk 8:35).

10) The second condition Jesus specified is “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” There are many Christians today, including some priests, who seem to behave as if Jesus said, “Pick up your pillow, pick up your warm blanket, and follow me.” Jesus talked about the CROSS, and he did so BEFORE his crucifixion, before his disciples could fully understand what Jesus had prophesied, that we would die hammer to a Cross. So the thrust of Jesus’ words must have been even more shocking. It would be as if Jesus said today, “Pick up your noose and follow me.… Grab your potassium cyanide, get a hold of your lethal injection: let’s get going.” Jesus was telling us to take hold of the very thing that crucifies us, that kills us. The point in carrying the Cross each day is not just putting some more weight on our shoulders that we can offer up to please the Lord. The point of crucifixion is so that WE MIGHT DIE, die to ourselves, so that Jesus might LIVE. Do we pick up this Cross each day? What does it look like? Do we allow ourselves to die to ourselves, to our egos, to our own will on it, or do we fight against it with an increased pride and individuality?

11) The third condition is “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Jesus said these words after his analogy of the man’s building a tower and the king’s going into battle. Then he said, “in the same way,” we would be as foolish trying to be his disciple without giving up all our possessions. We can’t do it. We won’t follow through. This seems to be a shocking condition. Jesus was driving at something he had said elsewhere in the Gospel. “No one can serve two masters; for he will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Mt 6:24). He then gave that sentence a clear practical application: “You cannot serve both God and money” (Mt 6:24). By his statement about giving up all our possessions, Jesus does not mean that we necessarily have to liquidate our bank accounts tomorrow, but he does mean that ALL of our possessions need to be given to God, dedicated to His service. We’re stewards, not owners, of everything we think we own. Everything we have God has given to us. He calls us to use it for his service. Feeding our families obviously constitutes a part of that stewardship to God, as is providing proper shelter, clothing, education, etc, but it constitutes a part. We’re going to be called to give God an accounting of all the “talents,” all the resources he has put at our disposal (cf. Mt 25:14-30). Do our things own us or does God own them? Are we attached to them, or detached from them? If we’re attached to our things, Jesus tells us today, we cannot be his disciple.

12) These are tough words, and a person who wants to be a true disciple of Jesus will act on them with God’s help. Jesus has a lot of groupies today. He has a lot of fans. But I’m not sure how many true disciples he has, who live by these criteria. There’s a story I first heard in Italy of a male porn star who was being interviewed by a reporter. The reporter discovered that the porn star had gone to the Catholic University of Milan and asked him if he had felt uncomfortable there. The actor said that, on the contrary, he loved it there and had some great courses. He described his favorite course, given by a famous ethics professor. The actor described how he sat in the front row, took great notes, asked questions (a relatively rare thing in Italy) and aced the final exam. The reporter thought it might be an interesting angle to go interview that professor for the story. She asked the professor if he remembered his now-famous student. The professor replied, “He was never my student.” The reporter replied, “But he said he sat in the front row of your aula, used to ask questions, and did superbly on your final exam.” “That is all true, but he was never my student,” the professor retorted. The reporter was confused, so the professor clarified. “To be a student means to do more than attend some lectures and give the teacher back what the teacher taught. Especially in an ethics class, to be a student means to put what the teacher says INTO PRACTICE, and that man was NEVER my student.”

13) The word “disciple” comes from the Greek word for “student” or “learner.” I wonder how many people today treat Jesus the way that porn star treated his Catholic ethics professor. I wonder how many could say to Jesus, “I come to Mass every week,” “I read the Bible each night,” “I come even on retreat,” to whom Jesus might say, “But you have never been my disciple, because you don’t put what I ask you into practice.” The word “student” comes from the Latin word for ZEAL, “studere,” and to be a student likewise means to be zealous, to be on fire, for what Jesus teaches. Today’s challenging words from Jesus allow us a good indication of whether we’re disciples “in spirit and in truth” or only in name. Do we put what he asks us to do into practice with zeal, preferring him to everyone and everything else, picking up our crosses each day, and using everything he has given us for his purposes?

14) Mary, whose mystery in Christ we have been trying to live during these days, was a true disciple. She said “fiat” to God even though it might mean her death (because she would have conceived a child outside of wedlock and therefore could have been stoned under the mosaic law), even though it might mean the breakup of her marriage to Joseph (if God hadn’t intervened with him in a dream). She picked up her Cross each day and followed her Son all the way to Calvary. Her heart was pierced so many times on account of her son, but by those piercings her heart was even more united. And she was poor and detached from material possessions — so poor that she gave birth in an animal cave and laid Jesus in a manger; so poor that she and Joseph couldn’t even afford a lamb for Jesus’ presentation, but had to use two turtle doves — and found in God her sole treasure.

15) The apostles likewise were true disciples. They were ordinary people just like us, but they were ones who said yes to God and tried to remain faithful, even after their falls. After Peter had betrayed the Lord three times to keep himself warm by a fire, Jesus, after his resurrection, gave Peter a chance for a new beginning. To symbolize that new beginning, he called him by his original name, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me more than these?” (Jn 21:15). We don’t know whether the “these” were fish, or the other disciples, or something else, but Jesus’ question was, essentially, “Simon Peter, do you love me more than anything else?” Peter said truly that he did. The apostles picked up their Cross and followed the Lord, all but one of them dying by crucifixion, accounting themselves worthy to bear suffering “on account of [Jesus’] name” (Acts 5:41). And they were detached from the material world, poor in spirit, finding their treasure in God. They traveled with “no gold, or silver, or copper in [their] belts, no bag for [their] journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff” (Mt 10:8). So poor were they that Peter could say in truth, when a man asked them for alms on the steps of the temple, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk” (Acts 3:6).

16) Finally, Blessed Mother Teresa, whose first feast day the Church celebrates today, showed us during our own lifetimes how to live by these principles. The spirit of the Missionaries of Charity she was called by God to found, and by which she lived, featured “total surrender, loving trust and cheerfulness, according to the example shown by Jesus and Mary in the Gospel.” She loved Jesus above everything and entrusted herself totally over to God in joyful love. She took on Christ’s Cross to the fullest extent and realized that the Cross is not so much a symbol of pain, but rather of the love that makes even the pain of crucifixion bearable. She lived as a “missionary of charity,” a missionary of that type of love which is shown only through, with and on the Cross with Jesus. And the detachment of Mother Teresa and her MCs is legendary. I remember well the story of Sr. Ajay, the superior of the Missionaries’ convent in New Bedford where I go to celebrate Mass and preach some conferences. She was just recently transferred. My bishop asked her, “Are you ready to go?” and she replied, “I’m all packed,” humbly concealing the fact that the only possessions she has to her name is a little toiletries kit and a second sari (habit) that she washes as she wears the other.

17) God calls us to a similar discipleship of putting him first, living sacrificially out of love, and putting everything we have at God’s service in our ordinary life. But to do this well, we have to have a plan. This is what Jesus was describing by the two images of the man building a tower and a king going into battle. Unless we “first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether [we have] enough to complete it” or “first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand,” we will fail in the endeavor. In the face of the greatest project God has ever given us — being his faithful disciple all the way into eternal life — we have first to sit down to plan how to finish the project of fulfilling the criteria he gives us today. Anything less is foolish.

18) Those concrete plans are the best way to end our retreat. A retreat succeeds or fails on the basis of whether it changes us, whether we leave the retreat with plans to live a more ardent discipleship. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, who preached in this very chapel retreats like this in 1970 and 1975, always used to judge the success or failure of a retreat on the basis of how many of his listeners he could persuade to keep one concrete resolution: to make a daily holy hour for the rest of their lives. It didn’t matter how many people praised the eloquence of his conferences; if people didn’t make that resolution, he considered himself a failure. On the other hand, even if people began to snore during his meditations, if they left the retreat with concrete plans to live that holy hour, then he considered the retreat a success. At the end of this retreat, I’d like to propose four resolutions for you to consider, to help you continue to “live Mary’s mystery in Christ,” which is the mystery of a discipleship according to the criteria Jesus described in the Gospel:

a) Prayer — The best way for you to grow in love of God above all other loves is to make the time for him every day in prayer. I’m always amazed how many people tell me that they don’t have time to pray. We don’t have time not to pray! The average American watched six hours of television a day. We spend more than seven hours in bed. We generally eat at least three times a day. Most of us spend a good deal of time on the telephone and on the computer daily. Surely we can find a half-hour for the Lord. The form of prayer can vary. We can make the commitment to spend time with Him in the Blessed Sacrament. We can contemplate His face with the help of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Rosary. The particular form the resolution takes does not so much matter, as the fact that we will make the time for him each day, because in any of the ways approved by the Church, Jesus can and will nourish us. Prayer is also the place where we receive God’s help to carry our daily Crosses as well as confer with him about how best to use the various resources he has placed at our disposal.

b) Daily Mass — At daily Mass, we come to listen to Jesus speak to us in Sacred Scripture and to have him feed us with his body and blood, to strengthen us to face the various struggles we will encounter in our daily discipleship. To attend daily Mass would clearly require sacrifices for many people, perhaps getting up early, fighting traffic, pushing off some appointments to later in the day, but wouldn’t these sacrifices be worth it, if in exchange you were to receive God? This is another concrete way in which you can make sure God is your chief love. You can unite yourself to his Cross in the Mass, putting yourself on the paten. This is the best way to make sure we’re not just spending our days serving mammon in our work, but serving God first and foremost.

c) Regular Confession — In following Jesus’ footsteps, we will occasionally fall. This great sacrament is where Jesus tends our wounds, forgives us our sins, and strengthens us with his own power to begin again. He instituted this sacrament on the night he rose from the dead (cf. John 20:18-22), because he knew each of us would need it. The great saints have said that if we really want to become a saint — which must be the goal of every disciple, for Jesus does not want us to be mediocre — then we should go to Jesus in this sacrament at least once a month. Confession helps us to recognize whether we’ve been loving God with all our mind, heart, soul and strength, especially on the Cross. It forces us to examine anything to which we’ve been attached besides God. And we receive God’s help to recommence.

d) Spirit of Sacrifice — As Jesus clearly attests in today’s Gospel, his disciple will “love others as he has loved us,” giving up his own life for the sake of others. While Jesus does not call all of his disciples to martyrdom, he does call each of us to be great in serving the rest out of love. The greatest way to grow in true, Christ-like love, is to “deny ourselves” for the sake of others (cf. Mt 16:24). This spirit of sacrifice helps us to overcome our own egos, our own comfort zones, our own possessions and helps us to become much more like Christ. It helps us in our whole lives to “make up for what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24).

19) A retreat is only as good as the resolutions made and kept. Our resolutions will be what allows the seeds God has planted in us through Mary on this retreat to grow. Our resolutions will determine whether we’re just fans of Jesus or true disciples, who are constantly in the search of learning and growing in imitation of Christ. The Lord said, in the parable of the sower and the seed (Lk 8:5ff), that there are essentially four types of receptivity to his graces, like the graces he has tried to give us during these days.

a) “Soil along the path,” which is trampled down and hard. This is the type of person who is already so set in his or her ways, so stubborn, that not even God on a retreat can change him. The seeds can’t get through.

b) “Rocky soil,” which is superficial. This is the type of person who might have loved some of the “insights” on this retreat and “received them with joy,” but who will not work on concrete resolutions to create the furrows so that the seeds might be nourished and grow over time. Jesus says that these people “have no root” and in the time of testing will fall away.

c) “Thorny soil,” which chokes the good seed. Jesus says this refers to those “who hear, but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.” Notice that the thorns Jesus refers to are not sins (which obviously would choke the life of the seeds God has planted), but cares, anxieties and worries on the one hand, and blessings like riches and pleasures on the other. To allow the seeds God has planted to go, one must be brutal in confronting these cares and pleasures, which get in the way of an increased discipleship.

d) “Good soil,” which Jesus says is soil that bears fruit, “thirty, sixty or one hundred fold”(Mt 13:8). Jesus describes these people as those who, “when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance” (Lk 8:15).

20) Mary had the best soil of all, soil that was constantly bearing fruit. May she intercede for us that we, too, may have her type of faithful receptivity, and so that, through concrete resolutions, the good seeds she has helped to plant in us during these days may have the chance to grow. Jesus, who calls us to be his disciples, will give us all the help he knows we need to be good ones. May we say yes to him like Mary did in Nazareth, like she did at the foot of the Cross, so that we might have the chance to say “amen!” to him forever in heaven.