Four Descriptions of Discipleship – A Sermon for the 23rd Sunday of the Year

090713In today’s Gospel Jesus defines four Demands of discipleship. We can look at them one by one.

I. The CONTEXT of the discipleship. The text says that large crowds were following Jesus and so he turned to address them. Just about any time you find a mention of a large crowd fasten your seat belts and prepare for a hard teaching. Jesus didn’t trust the big crowds who were often out for the goodies. They were looking for miracles, multiplied and free bread, physical healings and a fiery sermon. So upon sensing a large crowd the texts says, rather provocatively, that Jesus turned to address them. He then gives a series of “hard sayings” which seem almost designed to thin the ranks and to distinguish true disciples from the “lip service” crowd.

We will see in a moment what he says. But let’s take a moment and examine other incidents where the gospels demonstrate Jesus’ tendency to distrust big crowds:

  • Mat 7:13 Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
  • Matt 22:14 For many are called, but few are chosen.
  • Luke 6:26 Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.

There is also the tendency in the gospels for the mentioning of a large crowd to be followed by a “hard saying:”

  • Matt 19: 1-6 When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (cf also Mark 10)
  • Luke 11:29 As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.
  • Luke 14:26-27 (Today’s Gospel) Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
  • John 6: 2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick….and He said to them, I am the living bread come down from heaven…..the crowds murmured.

So, the CONTEXT of discipleship is not usually with the crowd. Though many are called, indeed all are called, only few make the cut and become true disciples. There is a kind of remnant theology at work here, to be sure. But it is a common pattern that Jesus thins the ranks and distinguishes the many who are called from the few who are chosen.

This is a fact not only in the Scriptures but it also remains true that the Lord has often had to prune his Church. Even now we are seeing a large falling away, a kind of pruning as large numbers depart who are not able to take the “hard sayings” of Jesus and the Scriptures about sexuality, forgiveness, love of one’s enemies, heroic charity and generosity, and so forth. The CONTEXT of discipleship is with the few, rather than the many.

This insight about the context not usually being the crowd is also important, because there are many today who have a mentality that argues that the Church should “get with the times,” that the Church should listen to the people, and give them what they want, that the Church should reflect the views of the faithful. But this is not the job of the Church. The role of the Church is not to reflect the views of its members as if it were some political party. Rather, the role of the Church is to reflect the views of its Founder, Jesus Christ who handed on his teachings through the apostles and evangelists. More often than not, these teachings will not be in simple lockstep with what the crowd says, what is popular, or what is current.

The context of discipleship is often at odds with the great crowds and this we see, when Jesus turns on them. The first reading today reminds us: For the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans. For the corruptible body burdens the soul and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns. And scarce do we guess the things on earth, and what is within our grasp we find with difficulty (Wisdom 9:13-16)

II. The CENTRALITY of the discipleship. Jesus indicates that we can prefer or love no one more than him if we are going to be his disciples. This extends even to our family relationships: 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. Now “hate” here does mean that we are to have contempt for others or nourish unrighteous anger toward them. What we are dealing with here is a Jewish idiom. The Hebrew language, for some reason, has very few comparative words such as: more, less, greater, fewer, and so forth. Hence in ancient Hebrew if one were to prefer vanilla ice cream to chocolate one would say, “I love vanilla but hate chocolate.” But what “hate” means here in context is that I “prefer” vanilla, not that I literally hate chocolate.

So, what Jesus means is that we cannot prefer anyone or anything to Him. He’s first, he’s number one. Jesus says, I must have absolute priority over the closest human relationships in your life.

If there’s anyone in your life that can talk you out of obeying God, forget ‘em! Anyone who keeps you away from God has too much power. Anyone who can keep you from your Christian walk has too much power. Anyone who can pull you into unrighteousness has too much power.

So if The boss instructs us to do something immoral – sorry boss. If the accountant or lawyers advise saving money by paying unjust wages or cutting necessary benefits – sorry boys. A boyfriend pressures his girl friend to have sex – sorry dear. Peers pressure to use drugs or abuse alcohol, skip school, or steal – sorry buddies. A spouse calls his or her mate away from teaching the children the ways of faith. – sorry honey. A child pressures a parent to that which is unwise or wrong. – sorry child of mine.

So, do you get it? No one is to have priority of Jesus Christ and what he teaches. The word “hate” here may not be literal but on second thought, if Jesus really does have priority in our life it may cause some to say, “You’re so devoted to him, I think you hate me!”

We need to attend to this since too many of our human relationships cause us to sinfully compromise our walk with Jesus. Some people have too much power, a power that belongs to the Lord.

III. The CROSS of discipleship. Jesus says, Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me
cannot be my disciple. So if we want to be a disciple we must be willing to carry the cross.

Now the cross comes in many forms, but in the end, to be a disciple does not mean we are in any way exempt from the troubles and trials of this world. Jesus indicates that we will be hated by the word (cf Jn 15:20), persecuted and sorely tempted by this world. But if we hold out, victory will be ours.

It is a simple rule: No cross, No crown. There are some who want to preach a prosperity gospel. There are others who demand a gospel stripped of its moral imperatives. Still others demand an updated faith that tickles their ears and affirms their aberrant behavior.

But Jesus points to the Cross, not to torture us, but because it is the only way to glory. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (John 16:33). Now, for a little while you may have to suffer various trials…(1 Peter 1:6). And this wisdom is already evident, when we consider that even in this world, all of what we most value, Family, talents, career, achievements, all came at the cost of sacrifice. Sacrifices bring blessings. Jesus is not into pain for its own sake, but because sacrifice brings blessings.

IV. The COST of discipleship – And thus Jesus continues: Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work the onlookers should laugh at him and say, ‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.’ Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops? But if not, while he is still far away, he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms. In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.

Jesus asks us to count the cost of what he is teaching here. Discipleship is costly. Jesus gives the image of someone building a tower or of a king going to battle. But, truth be told, these examples are distant from us. So Jesus brings it home and says to us: anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.

The Greek word ἀποτάσσω (apotasso) translated here as “renounce” also means, “to say farewell.” And the Lord is reminding us that heaven costs everything. Ultimately we must say farewell to everyone and everything we consider precious here in order to inherit heaven. This of course is not something that waits merely for death.

At one level, we give back everything to God as we go, little by little. We have all given back loved ones. Perhaps too we have given back youthful figures, strength, good health, and so forth. Ultimately we will give it all back.

But at another level the Lord is clear to say here that we must be willing to part with anything that hinders discipleship now, not later. The fact is that many things attach us to this world and make discipleship difficult. Are we willing to de-clutter our life, simplify and get more focused on being disciples? Or will we go on setting down roots here and amassing a worldly kingdom?

What’s it going to be, the world or the Kingdom? Count the cost. See what it really means to be a disciple and what it cost, then decide. In the end, heaven costs everything. But you’re going to lose it all anyway. It is a wise man who gives away what he cannot keep to gain what he could never buy.

What Jesus is looking for are disciples who, having counted the cost and realistically assessed it, are ready, nonetheless, to be his disciples. Tag-alongs, lip service Christians, fair weather folks, need not apply. So today Jesus is looking at a big crowd and teaches in a way that is meant to distinguish true disciples from the “lip service” disciples. We are asked to ponder in which category we most truthfully belong.

12 Replies to “Four Descriptions of Discipleship – A Sermon for the 23rd Sunday of the Year”

  1. I think these hard sayings that Jesus spoke make more sense in light of our condition of original sin and just how grave the sin our parents Adam and Eve committed, that merited death for all of us.
    Saint Paul said “we were all children of wrath”.
    The humane race is a condemned race.
    Most people, me included, tend to think of themselves as not so bad.
    Hearing these hard sayings from Jesus makes us stop and think “why would God who is all Love and Goodness itself demand so much.” how unappealing it is naturally speaking to renounce every desire, according to these sayings.
    Unless touched by Gods grace.
    “Who can save us from the body of this death?”
    I think much of the hard sayings that Jesus spoke were hard because of the difficulty there is for most of us to recognizing our own condition.
    Not seeing the sickness the remedy is not recognized.
    Reflecting on those hard sayings I would have to say that our “natural” condition is much worse than most of us are used to thinking.

    About the crowd;
    I think it is good to be in the crowd if this represents being in the church, as opposed to outside the church. Even though it is not a guaranty of salvation, it is a very good first step.
    In the crowd there is often present those that are attracted to God imperfectly and in a worldly way, but some day, may be open to improvement when challenged by authority.
    I believe that is why Jesus did this.
    As an example to those in authority in the church. To not be afraid to utter hard sayings in due season.

    But it should be said that honestly, it is difficult to be very sure about ones own heart, and i don’t think anyone should feel discouraged when they experience this, it is important to stay in the crowd/church in the mean time, and do our best to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” “not knowing if we are worthy of praise or blame.”
    Our detachment from the world and love for God is an ongoing battle.
    it is natural that many start off following Jesus as a member of that crowd.
    By Gods Grace we have the sacrament of confession that forgives sins even if the contrition is imperfect and motivated by fear of punishment. God’s mercy to the crowd.
    This is of great help for many of us who are not so sure if they are among the few elect.
    Prayer is meant to help us love God.
    The more we love Him the less we will be lip service catholics.

    Thankfully martyrdom is not demanded on a large scale yet, but It may be coming.
    Considering the possibility of a 3rd world war it is an incentive to take these hard sayings more seriously and not put off amending our lives.

  2. I “think” you left our a word in this sentence i.e. NOT. “Now “hate” here does mean that we are to have contempt for others or nourish unrighteous anger toward them.”

    A really tough and excellent reflection Msgr. I loved it! One question–does Jesus say or imply anywhere what becomes of those who do not become His disciples? Or is it that those who do are more truly blessed (both here and/or above) because of their relationship/obedience to Him?

    1. In the parable of the wedding guests where the man that did not have the appropriate clothing on and was cast out, Jesus said that the reason was because “manny are called but few are chosen”. Saint Augustine interprets the one man in the parable as representing the many in the Church and the rest of the people in the wedding feast as representing the few in the Church. Saint Augustine also interprets the appropriate garment to be Charity or love of God.

  3. My son is a faithful Catholic. He is married with a new baby. He is the sole support of his wife and child. He went to school for six years and is a licensed pharmacist. He has steep student loans he is paying off. He also is helping financially two or three relatives that find themselves unemployed.
    Pharmacists openings are very hard to find at this time. He is grateful to have found a position.
    At times, he has, at the risk of losing his position, told customers who call on the phone he does not have the morning after pill available; even though his employer stocks it. He has even on occasion, told someone at the counter he does not have it available today and they take their prescription somewhere else to be filled.
    I know it is a great stress for him.He is doing his best under state laws and employer directives
    It would have been easy for me several years ago, when this was all theoretical to say “Just quit.” Go train for another few years, take on more student debt to do something else. Meanwhile be a martyr and join the unemployed, tell your wife that you will be leaving your safe neighborhood because you can’t pay the rent anymore. If your marriage starts to falter because you are unemployed, and your child suffers well that is the price you will have to pay.
    When I see him with his family, I could never suggest that.
    Am I wrong?

    1. Hi Anne, my heart is sad for your son and his family’s situation. I cannot imagine what that must be like. However, as a fellow married young man, I can tell you that nothing would make me want to have to look at my wife and son and tell them I compromised our faith for worldly concerns. We must remember that St. Paul and the Church’s Magisterium instruct us that we must never do evil that good may come of it, even if that is lying to keep a job. Jesus even called Satan the “Father of Lies” – not good family company I want in our house. Perhaps if he is honest his employer will respect his conscious objection? A clear conscience is worth more than all the gold and material wealth of this world.

      I hope I don’t come across as holier-than-though, but I felt compelled to reply to your question. Take care, and rest assured of my prayers.

      1. Thank You Matthew. Please pray for all Catholics who find themselves with ethical issues in their work. I think of library workers who must check out semi pornographic materials magazines like Cosmo or books like Fifty Shades of Grey. I think of news paper editors who are setting up columns for the wedding section and have two men or two women celebrations to include. I think of public school teachers who have a chapter on sex education in their Health books that are neutral on abortion. I think of those who work for companies that make a practice of sourcing their merchandise from slave laborers in third world companies where lives are lost in factory fires.. I think of those who pay city taxes like we do here in NYC and some of the money goes to providing free condoms.
        The list could go on.
        I am wondering though if those of us who are fortunate enough not to have ethical issues in the workplace are really guilt free or are enablers and cooperators even though we are not on the front line?
        For example if I go to Costco or Walgreens or CVS and buy merchandise am I not contributing to their profit and keeping them in existence? All of these sell abortion drugs.
        If I buy clothing from JCPenney with a certain label and read that their factories are unsafe and several people have died am I not contributing to this tragedy?
        Where does the cut off take place? Is it really fair to say only the person at the end of the chain is in a state of sin? For example, a pro life pharmacist opened a pharmacy a few years ago in a mid size city that did not carry abortafacients. It went out of business because good faithful Catholics felt perfectly free to patronize the chain pharmacies that had lower prices. Were they morally guilty?
        Evil triumphs when good men do nothing because “they are not in the front lines.” Unless we all feel morally responsible for what has occurred in our society, and stop scapegoating the pharmacist, or the cashier at the grocery store who has to ring up the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated at the register for a teenager, or the bus driver who has to let a group of kids off at the local movie theatre showing a R or O rated movie…the freefall will continue.
        I guess what I am saying is that it makes me sad that my son is left holding the responsibility for an evil that could condemn him to Hell while all the rest of us can keep buying from these same big drug chains that sell abortion drugs and keep them in existence but can have a clear conscience and we can condemn the guy who is the last one in a chain we have ALL forged.

        1. We all do the best we can. My wife and I have scaled back TREMENDOUSLY our purchases, and we try very hard to investigate the stakeholders of companies we patronize. However, there is a difference between remote and immediate participation in evil. I could never counsel your son, a man probably not five years removed my younger, to directly lie to avoid losing a job. We may come up with many different analogous moral situations (like the librarian you mentioned), but all analogies fall short of the real thing. It may not be as sinful, or at all sinful, for the librarian to check out Fifty Shade of Gray to a patron, but it is ALWAYS sinful to lie. That was my only point originally, without trying to lose any sympathy for your son’s difficult situation. Your son’s responsibility is first and foremost for his own soul, then the souls of his wife and child. Then everything else comes after that. To assume that those of us who aren’t pharmacists or cashiers don’t still have to make the kind of decisions he does daily only serves to further try to incorrectly absolve us of our responsibility.

  4. Amen. I believe that for those who make it to heaven, the bible will be opened up to them and they will understand, clearly, what is contained therein.

  5. “There is a kind of remnant theology at work here, to be sure. But it is a common pattern that Jesus thins the ranks and distinguishes the many who are called from the few who are chosen.”
    The comment about the crowd being thinned reminds me of Jerub-baal trimming the ranks, even to the point of inviting the faint of heart to leave. Judges 7:32 also in Judges 7,8&9 and in 1 Samuel 12:11. How much of the Old Testament setting the stage for; being a foundation of; etcetera of the New just keeps turning up.
    Interesting about Samuel, in that his name ends with the syllable “El” which seems a short form of Elohim and may imply God’s favour, or the like. Also with archangeals, Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel and the prophet Daniel. Like the “Ah” syllable at the end of so many of the prophets’ names. Is this like the same, or similar, sound at the end of “alleuluia ” which is the first syllable of “Yahweh”?
    Heard of this (mostly) on a late night talk show that specializes with the unusual.

  6. This gospel passage is a reminder that we have to get our houses, (our whole lives) in order.

  7. Try your sincere best and leave the rest to the immense mercy of God.

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