Anyone who does not carry his Cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
In today’s Gospel Jesus seems to do all he can to put people off from following him. No sane, reasonable person, he seems to say, would seriously consider becoming his disciple. A disciple of his must hate his family, and even his own life. At this point we rush to the learned footnotes, and we read, with relief, that “hate” here is a Semitic idiom. It refers not to negative emotion, but to preference. Nevertheless: the language Jesus uses is deliberately, provocatively strong, even violent. It would not be less shocking for a contemporary Jew than it is for us, because precisely their religion put enormous emphasis on love for one’s own family. Then Jesus says that any disciple of his must be ready to carry his Cross. This is an invitation willingly to undergo the most horrible, humiliating, extreme manner of tortured, agonised death, quite commonly carried out in public at the time, as a very effective means of terrifying the subject population. Finally, to follow Jesus you have to give up all your possessions; otherwise, “you cannot be my disciple”.
Jesus spoke these words on his final journey to Jerusalem. He addressed them in the first place to those who were with him because caught up in the excitement and enthusiasm of the crowds. Happy to follow the superstar celebrity, and eager to witness yet more sensational miracles of healing, they hoped above all for imminent political liberation. But no: discipleship of Jesus must cost a lot more than easy conformity with the crowd. St. Luke’s Gospel is the only one to report the two rather strange comparisons Jesus makes here: the man planning to build a tower, and the King preparing to set out for war. It’s as if Jesus here turns and confronts the fickle rabble. Do you want to follow me? He asks. Think: it will cost you more than you bargained for. Are you ready or able to pay the price?
The sayings are deliberately paradoxical, and the comparisons certainly cannot be pressed. Because actually it would never be reasonable to sit down and decide not to follow Jesus. No: every sane, reasonable person should want to be his disciple, and should be happy to pay the full price he asks, with joy and gratitude.
Today’s Gospel gives us the chance to affirm once again, to ourselves, to one another, to the Lord, that yes: we do want to follow Jesus! We do want to be his disciples! For he is the Lord. He died for us, and rose again from the dead. He is the Son of God; he is our Saviour, our Redeemer, our Life, our Light, our Salvation, our Hope, our Love, our Glory, our Joy. He is not a threat to us, not a harsh tyrant, not a cruel Master. No: Jesus came to heal, to liberate, to lift us up. He offers to take away from us what we want and need to get rid of – to be free from. That is, above all, our sins, and also our worldly attachments. In their place he offers us what is utterly and ultimately desirable: a share in his own divine Sonship; true holiness; the fullness of eternal life; union with God in heaven.
If we understand this, then we see that the demands spelled out in today’s Gospel are actually consoling, rather than frightening. Because we want Jesus to be not just one feature in our life, taken more or less seriously, but truly our all. We want to belong to him totally; to have his life in us; to be filled with his Spirit; to share his relationship with his Father. And therefore we want also to die with Jesus to sin, and to self. We want to be perfectly conformed to the one who, although he was rich, became poor for our sake, in order that we might become rich through his poverty (2 Cor 8:9).
Today Jesus reminds us that the choice to follow him is the most radical decision we could take in our life. It touches us far more deeply than, for example, the decision to join a political party, or to emigrate, or to get married. Jesus must be more important to us than our family; more important to us even than those we love most in the world; certainly more important to us than anything we could ever possess. Yes, let us say it boldly and aloud: Jesus is more important to us than our comfort, or status, or health, and even than life itself. And if we don’t realise that, or if we hesitate to affirm it, then we are fools. If we think that we can be true disciples of Jesus, by going to Mass occasionally, and saying the odd prayer, maybe even wearing a cross, and making occasional donations to charity – while remaining radically selfish, and easily going along with the norms and patterns of our secular society – then we deceive ourselves, and our great need is to be jerked out of our spiritual torpor, and truly converted.
Today, thank God, in Rome, Mother Teresa of Calcutta is being held up to the whole Church, and the whole world, as an example of one who really did follow Jesus; who was his true disciple, and who as a result is now certainly in eternal glory. As the price for her own discipleship, Mother Teresa gave herself completely. Did she first sit down to estimate whether or not she would be able to give all that Jesus might ask of her, before she started? No: this tiny woman from the land of state atheism was well aware of her own radical incapacity. So she made no attempt whatever to trust in herself, but relied totally on the Lord, who promised to give her all she needed in order to be faithful to him. And so she was. Mother Teresa lived and bore witness to unconditional charity; she mediated the love of Christ for every human person, and especially for the poorest of the poor.
Mother Teresa embraced radical poverty, and became in a sense the richest and most powerful woman in the world. She renounced her own family and country, and landed up as a sort of universal mother. Have you noticed how her title of Mother still sticks? She could be Mother to anyone and everyone, after the model of the Blessed Virgin herself, because she herself knew and walked in the love of God for her.
At the heart of Mother Teresa’s mysticism was the cry of Jesus on the Cross: I thirst. She understood that far from putting us off, or driving us away from himself, in some mysterious sense Jesus has a desperate thirst, even a desperate need for our response, for our love, for our generosity. So she set herself to slake that thirst, by loving Jesus to the end, and by loving people, especially the poorest, in the same way.
Through her example and intercession, may we all be encouraged and inspired to do the same.