In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus defines four demands of discipleship. Let’s look at them one by one.
I. The CONTEXT of discipleship – The text says that large crowds were following Jesus and so He turned to address them. Just about any time you find mention of a big crowd in the Bible, fasten your seat belt and prepare for a hard teaching. Jesus didn’t trust large crowds, who were often merely after what they could get out of Him. They were looking for miracles, for multiplied (and free) bread, for physical healing, and for a fiery sermon.
So, upon sensing a large crowd of people, Jesus turned to address them. He then gives a series of hard teachings, which almost seem designed to thin the ranks and distinguish true disciples from ones who are merely giving “lip service.”
Before discussing what Jesus says to them, let’s examine some other incidents in the Gospels that also illustrate His tendency to distrust big crowds:
- 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 7:13).
- For many are called, but few are chosen (Matt 22:14).
- Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets (Luke 6:26).
Often the mention of a large crowd is followed by a hard teaching:
- 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” (Matt 19:1-6; Mark 10).
- 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 11:29).
- 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” (Luke 14:26-27).
- … 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 (John 6:2).
So, the context of discipleship is not usually with the crowd. Though many are called—indeed, all are called—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 not just a fact in the Scriptures; the Lord has often had to prune His Church. Even now we are seeing a large falling away, a pruning, as many who are not able to accept the hard sayings of Jesus and the Scriptures (about sexuality, forgiveness, love of one’s enemies, heroic charity, and generosity) depart. The context of discipleship is with the few rather than the many.
This insight about the context is also important today because there are many who argue that the Church should “get with the times,” that she should listen to the people, that she should give them what they want, that she should reflect the views of the faithful. The role of the Church is not to reflect the views of its members, as if it were some political party. Rather, it 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 lockstep with what is popular or current.
The context of discipleship is often at odds with great crowds of people. We see this 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 discipleship – Jesus indicates that if we are going to be His disciples, we can love no one more than we love Him. 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.
The use of the word “hate” here does not mean that we are to have contempt for others or to nourish unrighteous anger toward them. Rather, this is a Jewish idiom. For some reason, the Hebrew language has very few comparative words such as more/less and greater/ fewer. If one preferred vanilla ice cream to chocolate, one would say (in ancient Hebrew), “I love vanilla but hate chocolate.” This would mean that I prefer vanilla to chocolate, not that I actually hate chocolate.
So, what Jesus means is that we cannot prefer anyone or anything to Him. He is first; He is number one. Jesus says that He must have absolute priority over even the closest human relationships in your life.
If there’s anyone in your life who 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.
If your boss instructs you to do something immoral, just say, “Sorry, Boss.” If your accountant advises you to save money by paying unjust wages or cutting necessary benefits, say “Sorry, no.” If your boyfriend or girlfriend pressures you to have sex, say, “Sorry, Dear.” If your “friend” pressures you to use drugs, abuse alcohol, skip school, or steal, say, “Sorry, Buddy.” If your spouse calls you away from teaching your children the ways of faith, tell him/her “Sorry, Honey.” If your child pressures you to give him something unwise or sinful, say, “Sorry, child of mine.”
Do you get it? No one is to have priority over Jesus Christ and what He teaches. The word “hate” here may not be meant literally, but if Jesus really does have priority in our life it may cause some people to say to us, “You’re so devoted to Him that I think you hate me!”
We need to attend to this, because too many of our human relationships cause us to compromise our walk with Jesus. Some people have too much power over us, 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. If we want to be a disciple, we must be willing to carry the cross.
The cross comes in many forms, but in the end, being a disciple does not mean that we are in any way exempt from the troubles and trials of this world. Jesus indicates that we will be hated (cf Jn 15:20), persecuted, and sorely tempted by the world. If we hold out, though, 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 sinful behavior.
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). This wisdom is already evident if we consider that even in this world, all of what we value most (family, talents, career, achievements) comes 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 – 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.
In this teaching, Jesus asks us to count the cost. Discipleship is costly. Jesus gives the images of someone building a tower and of a king going into battle. These examples may seem distant to us, so Jesus “brings it home” by saying, 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.” The Lord is reminding us that Heaven costs everything. Ultimately, we must say farewell to everyone and everything we consider precious in this world in order to inherit Heaven. This is not something that happens all at once when we die.
On one level, we give back everything to God little by little as we go through life. We have all given back loved ones. Perhaps we have already given back our youthful physique, strength, or good health. Ultimately, though, we will give it all back.
On another level, the Lord is saying that we must be willing to part now with anything that hinders discipleship. Many things attach us to this world and make discipleship difficult. Are we willing to simplify our life and focus on being a disciple? Or will we continue 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 costs and 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 in order to gain what he could never buy.
What Jesus is looking for are disciples who, having counted the cost and realistically assessed it, are nonetheless ready to be His disciples. Tag-alongs, lip-service Christians, and fair-weather friends need not apply. In today’s Gospel Jesus is teaching a big crowd in a way that is meant to distinguish true disciples from those merely giving lip service. We are asked to ponder in which category we fall.
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Four Depictions of Discipleship – A Homily for the 23rd Sunday of the Year