In 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:
- Matt 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 often 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.
4 Replies to “Four Depictions of Discipleship – A Homily for the 23rd Sunday of the Year”
Msgr. Pope, I just want to thank you for teaching us the truth. I have read several of your articles and it is amazing the effect of truth when one hears it as it was supposed to be delivered. The beauty, clarity and thrust it conveys to the soul is life giving. There are so few in the clergy who seem to have the ability to do this anymore or who even possess it, and I pray that you continue to be as bold, loyal and charitable as you are for the greater good of us all. We need more clergy who will rise up and teach as Christ did and give up on being popular with worldly sentiments. The faithful are actually starving for the healing and uplifting nourishment of the truth of the Gospels, and I thank God for priests such as you. Let us all pray for priests to become more like this shining example of luminosity.
It looks like there is a missing word in this article:
“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.”
I believe you meant to say “Now ‘hate’ here does not mean…”
Thank you Monsignor your insight and analysis is far reaching and insightful, God bless you,,,,,,
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