The Gospel for September 4th, 2016: “Sayings on Discipleship”
Reflection: Swallowing the Hard to Swallow
This first gospel of September follows three challenging gospels in August that I would characterize as “hard to swallow.” “Hard to swallow” is an idiom that is often used to describe something as difficult to accept or believe. On August 14th we had Luke 12: 49-53, “Jesus: A Cause of Division;” on August 21st was Luke 13: 22-30, “The Narrow Door; Salvation and Rejection;” and finally last weekend on August 28th, we read Luke 14: 7-14, “Conduct of Invited Guests and Hosts,” where Jesus turns up the heat on the guests and host at a banquet. Each of these made me squirm a bit in their uncompromising language.
Today’s gospel, “Sayings on Discipleship” continues that trend. The chief reason for this discomfort comes from these three lines:
Line 26, “If any one 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.”
Line 27, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”
Line 33, “… [E]veryone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.”
My first inclination is to soften them up and make them more palatable. To pull one of those moves like, Jesus doesn’t really mean this; instead, He means something that does not require me to sacrifice, change, or suffer in any way. That would be wrong and unhelpful. Jesus is trying to change us–to make us holy and fit for Heaven. Still, I think a literal reading of these lines is confusing and daunting as well. So let’s just go through each one on it’s own and consider what it might be saying to us in the context of this day and age.
The bugaboo in line 26 is this notion of “hating” one’s family and even one’s own life in order to be a Christian disciple. If Jesus asks us to love even our enemies (Luke 6: 27), why would He asks us to hate our family and ourselves? Shouldn’t we love them all? I think Jesus is definitely calling us to love everyone; hate is not to be taken literally. However, He calls to love with unselfishness, the love called agape, that is about willing the good of the other. Quite often our emotional attachments to the security of our family and ourselves gets in the way of the good that is God’s will. Imagine if Martin Luther King Jr. had stepped aside from his leadership role during the Civil Rights movement because of the threat to the safety of his family and himself. It would be easy to see him as not loving–or rather “hating”–his family because he undertook the risk. Despite King’s flaws, it easy to believe his motives were unselfish and an answer to God’s call to bring justice to an America that had grown ripe with racism. Did King hate his family? No. Rather, he trusted in God’s plans for him with a faith that exemplifies true Christian discipleship. The risk of protecting one’s family or self out of the need for preservation before God’s will is real. God does not want us to hurt our families, but we must always trust in his plans for them, not our own. It is the faith of Abraham who was prepared to sacrifice Isaac at the Lord’s command. Like all other aspects of our lives, it requires a surrendering of our will to His. Very few of us will be called to make sacrifices that look like “hate.” Mostly, we must continue to walk this high wire act where loving our families means respecting each relative’s free will, forgiving family members when they hurt us, and living the truth of Christ’s centrality in our lives even when our kin doesn’t approve or agree. Only God can help us stay on the wire.
Line 27 indicates discipleship requires carrying one’s cross to follow Jesus. This to me is beautifully metaphorical as it plays off of Jesus’s literal carrying of the cross as a necessary step in saving His people from sin. Just as that exhausting journey to Calvary caused our Lord inestimable physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering, so to do the trials of each of our lives demand us to suffer. Some of those trials are self-imposed from giving in to sin; some given to us as a part of God’s plan; but all provide the opportunity to purify us and grow closer to Jesus if we can forgive and accept as He did in the hope of eternal life with God the Father. The only way to overcome our propensity for selfishness and to truly serve others is to be willing to suffer and look to God for relief, mercy, and the strength to endure. It is in those experiences that we learn that all life can only be found in Him.
Line 33 asks us to renounce all our possessions. Is that realistic in this day and age? Let’s face it, even the Catholic Church owns buildings and property. While I do think there is tremendous value in simplifying our lives and reducing our dependence and attachment to our possessions. I don’t think it is wise or helpful to suggest we all need to give up all our possessions tomorrow. I say that because so many people, including myself, are not ready and would only resist with greater intensity. Instead, I think this gospel should be read as a challenge to continue to detach ourselves from our possessions, to love people instead of things, and to depend on God instead of the products of this world for our happiness and security. In this reading, the self-denial of fasting from rampant consumerism and excessive materialism during Lent and other times of the year becomes a concrete means to develop a true detachment from our possessions. Furthermore, an effort to increase our willingness to charitably give to those in need our money, possessions, talents, and time will bring us closer to the ideals of putting God and others first. I am consistently struck when I am around elderly persons who are clearly losing their physical and mental capacities by the fact that inevitably we will reach a point in our lives where all those possessions can’t help us anymore. Our bodies will perish and our dependence on God’s mercy and love will be all that remains. If we reject Him, death is all there is.
To close, these three lines taken together remind me of the formula made famous from Gayle Sayers’ autobiography, “I am Third.” God first, others second, and me third. It is the great challenge of our lives to overcome our innate propensity to put our own needs first. Our Creator would not ask us to do this if it wasn’t necessary for us to be gathered up in Him. We must learn to imitate and participate in His agape love toward all His creation. Only then will we be Holy enough to share in the purity of Heaven. He knows we can not do this alone, that we need His help. This is why He sent us Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Church. This is our destiny. It will take patience, suffering, and sacrifice in this life. And it will take God in all His manifestations and grace. We just don’t ever want to lose sight of that truth for a second. So we say a prayer and swallow the truth of today’s gospel which will change us for the better.