Address given at St Michael's Limerick City on Sunday 4th September 2016, the 15th after Trinity
Do you know the difference between supporting a cause and being committed to it?
Well the next time you sit down to a nice cooked breakfast you might think of this: the hen that laid the egg you’re about to eat was certainly supporting your high-cholesterol breakfast, but the pig from which the rashers came was truly committed to it!
Today’s Gospel reading from Luke (14:25-33) is about commitment – about commitment as a disciple of Jesus. Jesus is telling the crowds travelling with him what it means to be his disciple.
But at first hearing, what he says is really quite shocking, isn’t it? Surely Jesus can’t have insisted that to be his disciple you must hate your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters? It sounds as if he wants his disciples to be cold-hearted fanatics!
What I want to do today is to tease out what Jesus really did mean in this passage, and what it might mean to us today.
Would the crowds travelling with Jesus have found his teaching as shocking as we do?
At one level, I think they might have been even more shocked. For a Jew to hate mother or father would be more than shocking – it would be a blasphemy against God himself, a violation of the 5th Commandment given to Moses. If you remember, this reads: ‘Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee’.
And again, although the idea of carrying the cross is a very familiar metaphor to us, two Christian millennia later, it would have been quite repulsive to a Jew at that time. Stoning was the Jewish punishment – crucifixion was a barbaric practice recently introduced by the hated Roman occupiers. To say that disciples must carry the cross would have been like saying today that they must travel in the cattle-trucks to the gas chambers and ovens of Auschwitz.
But at another level, I think they would not have found Jesus’s words at all as strange as we do. There’s a long tradition in the Semitic languages of the Middle East of using over-the-top rhetoric to make a point. It continues to this day – think of Saddam Hussein’s rhetoric about ‘the mother of all battles’ for instance. Here as in many other places in the Gospels, I think that those who heard Jesus’s words would have understood very clearly that they weren’t to be taken completely literally, but that they were used to make his point as vividly as possible.
So what is the point that Jesus is making? Actually, I think there are two.
First, Jesus is warning his followers that to be his disciple, to follow his road to the Kingdom of God, may cost them everything that they hold dear. Everything; absolutely everything.
Matthew (10:37-38) puts different words into his mouth, in what seems to be another report of the same teaching, when he has Jesus say: ‘Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.’ The point is not to hate your family – that is just a rhetorical device – the point is that to be a true disciple of Jesus you must love him - you must love God - more than family, more than anything! And you must be prepared to suffer unjustly because you love God more than anything else.
And Jesus is also warning his followers that before they commit themselves they must ask themselves if they can see it through. Just as they would with any other project. They will be taken for fools if they make a commitment that they can’t live up to. Just as if they were building a tower – the reference is probably to a watchtower which people built in their fields so they could protect their crops. Or just as a wise king would – or any wise leader - before leading his people to war. You cannot make a true commitment without having calculated whether or not you can live up to it.
And second, Jesus is seeking to inspire his followers to make that commitment to be disciples.
Think for a moment about Churchill’s great speech to the British parliament and people when he became Prime Minister early in WW2: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’. That speech was calculated to rally the British nation behind a determination to fight on for victory. He went on: ‘You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs — Victory in spite of all terror — Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival’. Churchill used shocking language in his rhetoric, to draw on the human quality of altruism, in order to rally his people behind him. And he succeeded in this aim. Altruism is characteristic of our humanity. No doubt it evolved with our species – but I prefer to see it as given to us by God, when he made us in his image.
Was Jesus drawing on that same quality of altruism when he chose to use his shocking language? I believe so. And Jesus offered his disciples a vision even finer than Churchill’s victory, a vision of the kingdom of God, which they would help bring to pass.
I can’t believe that Jesus expected every single person in the crowds that day to feel able to make that great commitment. Perhaps there’s a role for camp-followers, for fellow-travellers, for supporters, as well as for committed disciples in the service of God. And Jesus must surely have known that even those who did commit themselves would at times be unable to carry it through - they would find their courage fail them. Even that great disciple Peter denied his teacher three times!
But Jesus promised those first disciples that he would always be with them, helping those who wavered to renew their commitment. They experienced his resurrection and received the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. With his help they went the distance. They obeyed his command to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’. And succeeding generations of disciples have continued to do the same. We are here as Christ’s church 2000 years later, to give witness to their success in continuing Jesus’s project of salvation.
We Christians are the crowds travelling with Jesus today.
What should we take from the words he spoke 2000 years ago? Well, just the same things, I believe, that Jesus wanted those who listened to him then to take: warning and inspiration.
Jesus warns us that we must not set out to follow him lightly – he teaches us that his disciples must be prepared to give up everything they hold dear, if that is what is asked of them. And he warns us to consider carefully whether we can pay that price before we commit ourselves to being his disciples.
But if we listen to him, Jesus also inspires us to make that great commitment, and will help us to live up to it, as the first disciples did, and as so many others have done over the centuries. Will we commit ourselves to follow in their footsteps? Will we?
St Ignatius Loyola understood this, I think, when he wrote his beautiful prayer, which I shall finish with:
Teach me, Good Lord, to serve You as You deserve:
To give, and not to count the cost;
to fight, and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do Your will.
Through Jesus Christ Our Lord.