Jesus teaches us about discipleship in this Sunday’s Gospel account. When we look at “disciples” at the time of Jesus and the ancient world we can see all different types. The word means “student” or “one who learns.” Naturally the implication is given that the disciple learns from someone, a teacher.
In Jewish circles this person was called, as Jesus was at times, “rabbi.” In the Greek world, the “learning” that took place was that of philosophy. In the Scriptures we hear of disciples, or of John the Baptist, or of Moses or of the Pharisees.
Yet Jesus’ understanding of a “disciple” is something different. Surely Jesus teaches his disciples about how to live and he invites them to ponder the ways of the Father and of truth, but there is something more basic that comes first.
Fundamental to those who follow Jesus is a relationship. In the call of the first disciples (in St. Mark’s Gospel it is the very first action Jesus takes in the public ministry — stressing its importance) is to call people to discipleship. The words he uses are telling: “Come follow me.” The invitation is not to some “way of life,” though that will come. The invitation is not to some principles for living, though they will come. The invitation is not to a rule of law, though that will come. Underlying all these is a call to a relationship — come follow me.
Jesus invites his listeners and would be disciples to follow him. He invites them to be with him, to walk with him, to get to know him and to be his friend. He wants to know them and he wants them to know him. The companionship they share will grow and develop into a deep friendship. And as the come to know him and his love, they will follow. The relationship here is one of a deep and abiding friendship that continues to grow and develop the more the disciples spend time with Jesus.
The same invitation that Jesus offered to Peter, Andrew, James and John, he offers to us. He invites us to follow him. So we might ask, how does the relationship grow? How does it develop? One part of any solid and good relationship is the ability to converse. In other words to talk and to listen.
Most people today live busy lives with a lot of responsibilities, whether they be in the home with family, in activities in which the family members are involved, in work and the varied responsibilities that brings, in civic or social activities or any other varied activities. Perhaps instead of adding one more thing we might use the Mass as an opportunity to grow in this relationship.
We come to Mass each Sunday at a different point in our lives. When we arrive and take a few moments of silent prayer we might say in our hearts: “Lord, here’s where I am this week. This is where I find myself in life. Here are the joys I experience this week. Here are my hopes. These are my concerns.”
This is our time to talk. Then as Mass begins we have time to listen. We listen when we say our parts, when we hear the prayers and when the Scriptures are proclaimed. Through these the Lord speaks to us and as the Spirit within us engages these words we are moved.
The Scriptures for this Sunday’s liturgy speak to us about following Jesus and being his disciples. One of the key elements that comes across is that the relationship involves a commitment. We entrust ourselves to him. It is almost like Jesus saying that in order for this relationship to grow we need to trust and to be steadfast in the relationship just as much as he is committed to the relationship.
Hence when he encounters people who only want to “go in” in a partial way he says: “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” In other words, holding on to the past or prior relationships or ways of living rather than focusing on him will only leave one floundering.
A similar situation arises between Elijah and Elisha in the first reading. Elijah invites Elisha (whom the Lord designates as his successor) to follow him but Elisha is focused on other things. It is not that saying farewell to his family is a bad thing; that is not the issue here. Rather it is putting a condition on the relationship instead of allowing it to be a free embrace.
St. Paul, in the passage from Galatians, speaks of the freedom we have in Christ. As St. John Paul II once summarized: this is not a freedom from but a freedom for, a freedom to love.
The call to discipleship is a call to a relationship. The relationship is with a loving and merciful Lord who calls us his friends. He invites us to follow and wants us to follow but does not force us to follow. He wants us to freely love him (and each other) as he loves us.
Our discipleship is one of relationship — a relationship that can grow and develop our whole lives as we regularly hear his words in our hearts: “Come follow me.”
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.
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