Sunday Lectionary: Jesus Number One!

I hadn’t planned to write about last weekend’s Gospel reading, but it has kept coming up in conversation and I’ve spoken to some people who have been really troubled by Jesus’ words, perhaps rightly so:

Great crowds were traveling with Jesus, and he turned and addressed them,

“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.  Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.

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.”

Masochism or poor linguistics?

What did Jesus mean when he said we must “hate” our family and even “hate” our own lives? That sounds rather masochistic!

Is this just a bad translation?  Actually, no, it’s not.  The Greek word being used here is “miseo”, which, according to Strong’s Greek Lexicon means “to hate, pursue with hatred, detest”.

Jesus, first in my heart

The misunderstanding of this passage comes not from the literal meaning of the word being used, but from the way it is being used.  In this passage, Jesus is using a Hebrew idiom which is used to express preference, a technique used elsewhere in Scripture (Genesis 29:31-33 and Malachi 1:2-3).

By telling us to “hate” our family and “hate” our own lives, the Lord is telling us that He must be the first great love of our lives and we must love all these other things less than we love Him.  Family is good and a blessing from God, but it must take second place to Him. Perhaps a clearer rendering of this passage would be “If you are to be my disciple you must not love your family, or even your own life more than you love me”.

In fact, loving something more than Jesus is a form of idolatry since we are putting the creature (ourselves, our family or our possessions) before the Creator, God.  It is only when we have these things properly prioritized that we can begin to be disciples.

However, placing Jesus first does not diminish our love for mother, father or wife.  In fact, it increases it!  If our lives are ordered correctly so that we love God above all things, our participation in that divine love will empower us to love others better, in the way that God loves them.

Don’t let the things you own, own you

At the end of this Gospel passage Jesus also says that we must “renounce all…possessions”. This does not necessarily mean that we have to give away everything we own (although some people are certainly called to do that).  It also does not mean having possessions is bad, any more than having a father or a mother is bad!

Jesus is demanding our allegiance and this means putting our possessions in their proper place.  We must be suitably detached from them and only hold onto them very lightly.  Our possessions cannot possess us – we must be wholly Christ’s.  Salvation may be a free gift, but, in a way, it costs us everything.

“Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art. ” – Hymn, Be Thou My Vision

 

Carrying a cross with Jesus

The next sentence makes us even more uncomfortable: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple”.  What does this mean?  Whatever it means, it doesn’t sound like it’s much fun!  Why do I need to carry a cross?  Didn’t Jesus do that for us?

In a general sense this “cross” that we must each carry represents the trials and problems of our daily lives.  Fortunately, thanks to the redemptive work of Christ He has transformed suffering.  Christ’s cross speaks to us of victory, even through, to the world, it speaks of failure.  Thanks to Jesus we can unite the crosses of each day to His and He can imbue them with redemptive value:

“Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” – Colossians 1:24

Cost of Discipleship

 

However, the “cross” here also speaks to us of sacrifice.  Being Jesus’ disciples will cost us something.  Jesus’ suffering doesn’t exempt us from it.  In fact, if we are to live Christ-like lives, it’s inevitable.  St. Paul was very clear about this:

“Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” – Romans 8:17

Following Jesus means imitating Him.  If we do this we will be travelling against the tide of the world.  The world did not like it when Jesus did it and it will not like it when we do it either (John 15:18).  For many Christians, this has literally meant laying down their lives. Are we willing to pay the highest price for being a disciple of Christ?

I’ve started, so I’ll finish…

Jesus then gives us two examples to drive His point home.  Both examples concern people beginning a massive undertaking – the Builder, a new tower and the King, an impending war.  Jesus makes the point that both should consider carefully whether or not they will be able to see their respective projects through to a successful completion before beginning them. Failure on the part of the Builder would mean losing the respect of all those around him and failure on the part of the King would mean losing his kingdom and, most likely, his very life.

Why did Jesus place such high demands upon us at the beginning of this Gospel?  Why must we “renounce” our possessions, “hate” our family and even our own lives?  I think the reason is that if we try to be His disciples and yet still love these other things more than we love Him, we will surely fail and not see our discipleship through to its end.

At some point I may have to choose between my family and Christ.  At some point I may have to choose between my possessions and Christ.  At some point I may have to choose between my own will and Christ’s will, my own life or life in Christ.  My choice will demonstrate whom it is I love more. Jesus must be #1.

Universal Call
 

This is not just a commandment for priests.  This is not just a commandment for monks and nuns.  This is not just a commandment for the super-spiritual types who for some unknown reason like attending Daily Mass ;-).  This is a commandment from Jesus to us all:

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.  Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple…  In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple”

If we wish to be His disciples, Jesus must be our number one priority and our first love.  If we follow Him we will have a cross to carry, but what is the alternative?  As Peter quiet rightly said after another “hard saying” of Jesus:

 

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” – John 6:68

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