In the 1940s there was a reporter for Time magazine who was following the home rule movement in India and particularly the role of Mahatma Gandhi. The reporter was very interested in the story so he convinced his editors to send him to India to cover Gandhi and the movement. He arrived in India and found Gandhi. He then began to move around with his entourage. Speech after speech and town after town he was seen as part of the entourage.
One day one of the Indians observed, “You spend so much time with Gandhi, why do you follow him?” The reporter looked puzzled, thought a moment and replied, “Please do not take this the wrong way, I think Gandhi is a good man, in fact a great man, for what he is doing. However, while I may be an admirer, I am not a follower. In other words I am not following Gandhi, I’m following a story.”
The remarks of the reporter bring home a very important distinction – the difference between an admirer and a follower. There are many people who are admired for either their goodness or some ability or skill that they possess.
The examples are numerous: our armed forces are admired for their bravery and courage, Albert Einstein is admired for his work in physics and mathematics, Robert Frost is admired for his poetry, Brunelleschi is admired for his architecture, St. Teresa of Calcutta is admired for her charity, the list could go on and on. While many people admire these individuals or groups, few people would consider themselves followers.
The distinction between “admirer” and “follower” is a good one to make especially in light of Sunday’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew.
Jesus is speaking about discipleship. A disciple is someone who “follows” the master or teacher. The disciple learns from the master (here the term is used not in the sense of “ruler” but one who has perfected a trait or skill and wishes to pass it on to others). Jesus is not interested in people being “admirers” of him; he wants us to follow him. The emphasis is strong and clear in this Gospel passage.
Jesus begins by saying: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” Jesus is not making a statement on family life her; rather he is speaking about discipleship. If anyone wants to be a “follower” or “disciple” of Jesus then the relationship they have with Jesus has to be first in their lives. It has to be the foundation of all other relationships, the most important of which are family relationships.
Jesus continues, adding that the disciple in order to “find life” must “lose his life” and “take up his cross.” Jesus, the teacher and master, is showing the disciples how to do this as they journey with him.
The continual dying to self is an essential part of discipleship and Christian living. This culminates in Jesus’ dying on the cross and rising to life three days later. Following Jesus entails not watching him from a distance but engaging in the life he offers.
Jesus continues to speak on discipleship in the next series of sayings. He begins: “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” The disciple will represent the master.
In our situation, we are called to represent Jesus in the world today. The way we authentically do this is by “following” him. Jesus then goes on to speak of accepting a “prophet” because he is a prophet or a “righteous” man because he is a “righteous” man. Both the “prophet” and “righteous” man are to be received because they represent God, so long as they are authentic. The disciples are trained for these roles and are given these roles by the Master. An “admirer” would not be able to take on these roles; only a “follower.”
Finally, Jesus speaks of concern for the poor. Discipleship entails learning to love as Jesus loves. Recognizing the needs of people around us, especially those in need, is essential to discipleship. This is one of the most practical and repeated instances of “losing life” to “save life.” Christian discipleship finds its fruit in charity and love.
Jesus teaches us about discipleship. He calls us to be committed to him. He calls us to walk with him on the way of life. He calls us to be “followers” not “admirers.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.