The Cost and Conditions of True Discipleship, 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), September 9, 2007

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Twenty-Third Sunday in OT, Year C
September 9, 2007
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?” In the Gospel, Wisdom Incarnate 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. Let us listen to Him as he challenges us to become whom he created us to be.

2) He 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, is not a cake walk. It requires a DECISIVE CHOICE. One has got to be willing, as Jesus says elsewhere, to “pluck out one’s eyes,” “to cut off one’s hands” if that’s what it takes to follow him (Mt 5:29-30). 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 (Mk 8:35).

4) Many people today do not recognize the seriousness of the call of Jesus. The people 2000 years ago had a similar problem. For centuries, they anticipated that a Messiah would come, overwhelm all foreign powers, and allow them to 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 by the conditions of true discipleship he lists in today’s 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, and 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. Do we love Jesus more than everyone else? Do we prefer him to parents, to spouses, to children, to our own life? Do we love him with “all our mind, heart, soul and strength” or does something else get our mind, heart, soul and strength. One of the great temptations of the devil today is what I like to call the “Jesus is part of my life” spiritual cancer. We think that all Jesus wants is for him to be important to us, rather than most important; that all he asks is to be part of our life, rather than the center. Jesus is telling us in today’s Gospel that he cannot merely be an “ingredient” in our life, occupying an important “niche” in our personal portfolio. He must be God.

a. This practical aspects of what Jesus is talking about sometimes are pretty obvious. I remember that when I was on the Cape a few years ago, St. Mark’s Gospel came up in which Jesus says, “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 on this Gospel as tenderly as I could without watering it down. Nevertheless, after Mass a few couples came to me saying how “hurtful” what I had said was and 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 and I were not “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 one of them 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. If there is a choice between loving Jesus and following his teaching or loving a second civil spouse and rejecting Jesus’ teaching, if a person chooses the latter, then the second civil spouse is a Barabbas in that person’s life. Jesus calls us to love him to the point of “hating” all others if we’re worthy to be his disciple.

b. The same thing often comes up in work and family situations. Many times people tell me they cannot come to Mass because they “have to work” or “have to take their kids to an event” or countless other things they “have to” to do on the Lord’s day. The reality is that 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, and other commitments. 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, for a true disciple puts God first.

c. 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. Jesus said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate … even life itself, cannot be my disciple,” and that’s why to be a true disciple means to be willing to be a martyr for Christ. We’re called to treasure our spiritual life more than we treasure our physical life.. 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).

8 ) 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 the life of a disciple is supposed to be easy, as if Jesus said, “Pick up your pillow, take up your warm cuddly blanket and follow me.” Jesus talked, rather, about the CROSS. The even more remarkable thing is he mentioned the Cross BEFORE his crucifixion, before his disciples could fully understand what Jesus had prophesied, that he would die hammered to one, which would have made the thrust of his words even more shocking. It would be as if Jesus said today, “Pick up your noose and follow me” or “Take your seat beside me on the electric chair and strap yourself in.” 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. Today is a day in which we’re called to ask ourselves whether we pick up our Cross each day to follow him, knowing that the Cross is what unites disciple and Lord, student and Master. It is through the Cross, as St. Paul recognized, that “the world becomes crucified to us and us to the world,” as our pride, our ego, our selfishness are all killed (Gal 6:14). It is only by being “crucified with Christ” that we can say, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:19-20). That’s why we cannot become true disciples without the Cross, because it is by means of the Cross that we learn to say to God in deeds and not just in words, “Not my will, but thine, be done!” (Mt 26:39).

9) The third condition is “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Jesus said that we would be as foolish as a man’s building a tower without sufficient supplies and funds, or a king’s going into a battle he cannot win, if we were to try to be his disciple without giving up all we own. It can’t be done. This seems to be a shockingly challenging condition, but 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). Unless we give up our love of money, unless we make the choice not to serve money, then we cannot be his faithful follower. Each of us, in some way, is faced with the choice of the Rich Young Man, the choice between Jesus and all our stuff; the Rich Young Man walked away from Jesus sad because he preferred his material possessions to Jesus; if we wish to follow Jesus joyfully, then we simply must prefer him to all we have. By his statement about giving up all our possessions, however, Jesus does not mean that we necessarily have to liquidate our bank accounts tomorrow. But what he is saying is that ALL of our possessions need to be given to God. All of them must be part of our service of God. In other words, we’re stewards, not owners, of everything we think we own; everything we have God has given to us and he calls us to use for building up his kingdom. 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). The question for us is do our things own us or does God own them? Are we attached to them, or detached from them? Are we investing those resources to help ourselves and others grow in the faith, or do we think everything is fine if we give God only a fraction, when he has given everything — down to his body and blood — for us? If we’re attached to our things, if there’s part of our stuff with which we would not part right now if Jesus were asking it of us, then we’re not really fully his disciple.

10) These are tough words. Jesus well knew they were tough when he said them. But out of love he wanted those who wanted to follow him to know what the cost of discipleship is. He told us that just as he was hated and killed, so we would have to face the same fate. He told us that just as he washed others’ feet, forgave his enemies, and prayed for his persecutors, we would need to do similarly. In the criteria in today’s Gospel, Jesus is not asking us to do anything he himself hasn’t done for us before. And, as with anything he challenges us to do, he promises to give us all the help we need to live up to those commitments.

11) What we have to get out of our mind is that we can have a type of “bargain discipleship,” a “Christianity light,” in which we’re somehow able to have God and all our idols, too. Such a Christianity really doesn’t exist, although there are many preachers who try to preach it and many of the baptized who try to live it. It’s just not real. We need to be more than a “fan” or a “groupie” of Jesus. To believe in Jesus means to do what he says, not just when it’s easy to do or pleasing, but even and especially when it’s hard and challenging.

12) In today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us that to be disciple we must put him first, live sacrificially out of love, and place everything we have at God’s service. This is the path toward heaven. This is the path to receiving the fullness of Jesus’ love. This is the path to real human happiness. Jesus promised us as much in the Gospel after Peter asked him, “Lord, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus responded, “Truly I tell you, … everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life” (Mt 19:29). There’s no greater life insurance policy that that! There’s no greater guarantee or guarantor! Like a man building a tower or a king heading into battle, we must count the cost of discipleship — not just part of us, but all of us! — and with God’s help, pay the price, knowing that Christ is the pearl of great value, the treasure buried in the field, worth sacrificing all we are and have to obtain!