Jesus offers the crowd following him a teaching on discipleship in today’s Gospel passage. He offers several insights, invitations and challenges in the teaching. Taken together, we can see an emphasis on the priority of discipleship, putting God’s way above our ways.
In Jesus’ day, as in ours, there are a lot of demands on our attention, our time, our desires and our responsibilities. How do we order these? We either do it reflectively or instinctively. When we examine how we use our time, make decisions, form our thoughts on issues of the day, we can get an insight on our priorities from a practical perspective.
One of the aspects of Jesus’ ministry is the prophetic. He speaks God’s word similar to the prophets of old. As God’s messenger, his word has authority. He represents God. This is a helpful context in understanding today’s passage. Following Jesus and the Gospel is making a choice for God.
As Jesus begins, we might be startled by his words: “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.” Is he telling us to hate? To hate our relatives? Is he degrading family relationships?
The simple answer is no. We see in the Gospels wonderful examples of Jesus’ acknowledging the importance of family relationships – starting with his own. His compassion to parents with sick children, his interaction with the widow of Nain, Lazarus and his sisters are just some examples where he affirms family relationships. Perhaps the most dramatic and repeated example is that he reveals God as his Father and our Father.
So what is Jesus getting at?
He is saying that all relationships have to be put in their proper place with our relationship with God. The same is true for one’s relationship with one’s self. Jesus is not calling for self-hate, but rather self-emptying. Following him means emptying one’s self of selfishness and being filled with the love that overflows in self-giving.
This leads to him summarizing: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Discipleship is demanding and requires effort. Love is demanding and requires effort. Mercy is demanding and requires effort. The cross is the perfect witness of God’s love and mercy. Following Jesus entails an embrace of the cross – laying down one’s life in love. This is the way of God.
Jesus uses two illustrations to give further insight into discipleship. The first uses a building project as an image. The person building a tower will plan, calculate the cost and then determine if they should start the project. There’s an adage today that might capture the meaning: “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Jesus’ point here seems to be that the one who follows him should be prepared to see the project through to the finish. The “planning” for this project is making sure one’s priorities in life are in order.
The second illustration uses military imagery and has a similar theme. The king – before entering a battle – will make a determination as to his strength. Can his forces see the battle to the end? If not he will not enter the battle and will sue for peace. The king is doing due diligence for his mission. Jesus is calling his disciples to have the same kind of diligence in following him.
The passage concludes with Jesus saying: “In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” Here again the emphasis is on priority. Possessions are not bad, but they can easily become a stumbling block to discipleship: recall Jesus saying “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mt 19:24). So Jesus’ calling for a “renunciation” of “all possessions” is a call to view our possessions in their proper perspective. On the scale of priorities, where do possessions fit? Where to they fit in relation to living the Gospel? To following Jesus on the Way?
Jesus calls us to be his disciples, to follow him on the way to the Father. Following him leads to the source and fullness of life, our heavenly Father. He exhorts us to make this the highest priority in our lives today.
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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