The National Catholic Review
It is not unusual for a gospel reading to employ highly exaggerated language and examples. We see and hear them in the passage from Luke 14:25-33. Should we, as followers of Christ hate our parents, spouses, children, and siblings? The mere thought seems antithetical to the Christian message. And removed from the context of the narrative, it surely is. Nonetheless, it would also be wrong for us to conclude that discipleship can be ours without a price. There is a price, and that price is high, and this is the message emphasized in the Gospel. Luke starts with the family as the status quo. He upsets that status quo with the cross. He gives examples of how we might avoid the cross, and them sums it up with a slight allusion to the status quo. The hyperbole in the opening verses is a literary convention of the ancient time and place. One outlandishly exaggerates a point to make a point. So we can set those off-putting remarks aside and get to the point itself. And what is that? Christ’s grace is freely given, but it is not cheap. That grace has come into the world by the price of the Savior’s blood. Anyone who wishes to be a disciple of Christ, to partake of that grace as well as be an instrument of grace for others, can only do so by abandoning all counterfeit and inflated currency. Jesus is speaking these words to a multitudinous crowed that has been trailing him around. Do they know what they are getting into? He tells them: "Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." (14:27). In the midst of the thrill and excitement of being close to such a prophet and teacher, Jesus lets it be known that discipleship is not all wine and roses. In his jarring description of the how a disciple should treat family members, Christ is not saying literally that any of us should hate the people we love. Rather, he is emphasizing that we should put ourselves at the level of risk appropriate to being a disciple. We find that our families are our sources of love, security, and identity. If this is true in a society such as our own, it was even truer at the time of Christ when families were so extended that clans and tribes defined the nation state. In a sense, he calls on each of us to untie our boats from their safe harbors of family, friends, and even national security and set sail to the sea. Disciples are bound to take the Christian risk in opposing those structures in both society and even the Church, that in anyway deal with others unjustly and mercilessly. Doing so, however, places one in a highly vulnerable position, and no one likes to end up forsaken on a rocky shoal as so often happens to disciples. The cross is a risk, and risks are messy. Believers through the centuries have long known this fact. In the Sunday reading we heard from the Book of Wisdom, "For who can learn the counsel of God? Or who can discern what the Lord wills? For the reasoning of mortals is worthless, and our designs are likely to fail" (9:13-14). Christ may have had this understanding in mind when he moves to his examples: "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?" (14:28) and "...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?" (14:31). These are teasing questions; they force us to surface our excuses. Both imply that we should engage in a project only when we are one-hundred percent sure that we will successfully complete our buildings or win our battles. The irony is, however, that if we were to follow this advice, we could not be disciples. To be a disciple entails a certain amount of risk; disciples cannot be the metaphorical equivalents of the successful builder or army general. They must be prepared to have that tower collapse on their heads and have those enemy hordes come smashing over their defenses. History is full of examples of people who risked everything on the slimmest of margins, and brought Christ into the lives of many. Most often, these people achieved the respect for their unswerving dedication to the Gospel. Some died a natural death, as in Blessed Mother Theresa, and some died a martyr’s death, as in Archbishop Romero. And every so often one appears on the scene who seems to defy any conventional description or manner of life, as in Oskar Schindler, made famous by the movie, Schindler’s List. The one common trait among all of these people, however, is that at some point in their lives, either sooner or later, each one abandoned all calculation for self-preservation and took the risk of discipleship. Christ finishes speaking by tossing the ball in our court, "So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions" (14:33). This verse sums up everything said so far. The greatest obstacle to discipleship is possessions. It should be no surprise to any of us why Christ comes down so hard on possessions. In and of themselves, there is nothing wrong with possessions, but as today’s Gospel demonstrates, they inhibit if not preclude discipleship when they become for the owner the source of meaning and security. If we put our faith and security in possessions, whether those possessions be wealth, power, family, or academic degree, we have entrusted our lives to counterfeit currency. So then, is there any security and safety in this life? Well, actually, outside of Christ, there really isn’t. I mentioned above the paradoxical reality that Christ’s grace, though freely given is not cheap. True, Christ pours out the blood of his grace with risky abandon, but unless we are willing to abandon our false securities, that grace will not find us. This Gospel tells us not to hate but to love. We are to love what is good and true. Families are the rivers of this love and water us all with it, but they are not the source of the love. The source of the love flows from the side of Christ, and we can only be disciples when we put down everything else to channel that love to others just as our families channeled it to us. Michael Patella, OSB