We are celebrating the gift of grandparents this weekend at St. Michael’s by-the-Sea. When I first read the gospel reading for this occasion I was a little concerned. Our Lord teaches, ”If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” What a terrible passage for Grandparents Day! But then I realized, Jesus says nothing about grandparents! Phew.
As for all the rest of those relationships, well you may want to brace yourselves for a contentious brunch.
We actually covered some similar territory a couple weeks ago when we encountered Our Lord’s words in Luke 12, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division; houses … will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, etc.” Here again Our Lord appears to be sowing more seeds of family division, “You cannot be my disciple … unless you hate father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes even your own life (just not your grandparents, they’ve been through enough grief already).”
Is Jesus really inciting us to hatred? No. Certainly not! This teaching, as I’m sure many of you will recall, is not about hating others. It is about the importance of both our priorities and our commitment as disciples.
The priority piece is straightforward. We are called to put Our Lord first in all things. It is in this context that Our Lord speaks the provocative words of “hating” various relationships. He is not really inviting us to hate our family and friends and violate his own second and great commandment. He is exhorting us to beware the temptation to prioritize these relationships ahead of him; to replace him with them.
This can be done in a variety of ways. It can be done with positive and healthy relationships, which so enliven and enthrall us that we forget about God. It can also be done in more subtle and subversive ways with unhealthy and negative relationships. The rocky marriage, the estranged sibling or child, even the darkness of loss and grief; the troubled waters of strained family relationships can swiftly overcome and drown out Our Lord from his rightful place of first importance in our hearts.
No, it is emphatically not the people that we are to hate. That’s actually part of our sin! That’s part of the problem! There is entirely too much hatred in our hearts, our homes, our communities, and the world. The church fathers teach that, “the command to hate one’s kindred and his own life … is not to be taken literally. Rather we are to hate the way our relationships with others can hinder our total dedication to the Kingdom of God, which takes precedence even over family ties.”
This is, of course, much easier said than done, and brings us to our second point; which is the commitment required to be a disciple of Jesus. Again the teaching is straightforward; to be a disciple of Jesus requires 100% commitment. It is an all-or-nothing endeavor.
It would be easy to misconstrue our Lord’s words as some kind of heavy-handed threat. “Unless you hate your family you cannot be my disciple … unless you carry your own cross you cannot be my disciple … unless you renounce all you have you cannot be my disciple.” But these are not arbitrary requirements, like some cruel hazing we must endure for initiation as a disciple. Jesus is not saying this like “you’re not allowed in, you’re not permitted to be a member of the secret religious club” unless you pass all these tests; he’s saying it like, “it doesn’t work, the system, the plan of salvation, it doesn’t work, unless you go all in.” When Jesus says, “You cannot be my disciple,” it’s not a heavy-handed threat, it’s more of a matter-of-fact description. It’s just simple logic. It’s like, “You want to surf? Cool. Well you can paddle around all you want in the ocean, but unless you fully commit to a wave, you cannot surf. You cannot half commit and expect to pop up and ride down the line. That’s not how it works. Unless you fully commit, it simply cannot be done.”
An even more striking example of this principle of the Christian life is found through the waters of baptism, where our old self, the old man or woman is crucified with Christ, and, put plainly, dies. There is no halfway or partial death. Death is death. We cannot compartmentalize our lives, our behaviors, our pursuits, our relationships so that some are dead and others remain alive; over here, in this private little area, reserved all for ourselves. No. Death is death. And it is more than a metaphor when it comes to the Christian life. This is the nature of our commitment to Christ. That we have died, and now our life is hid with Christ in God.
St. Paul reminds us that, “If we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him.” St. Symeon the New Theologian writes, “the cross and death consist in nothing else than the complete putting to death of self-will. He who pursues his own will, however slightly, will never be able to observe the law of Christ the Savior.” In order to be a disciple of Christ, we must prioritize him first, and commit to doing so in all things.
Lastly, this all-in commitment of discipleship is not a one time affair. Maybe you were baptized as an infant and have never even considered your voluntary role in this vocation as a disciple of Jesus. Maybe you were blessed with a profound spiritual experience which permanently altered the course of your life and initiated your commitment as a follower of Jesus. Perhaps this is the first time you’ve ever really considered the idea of complete commitment, and truly pondered counting the full cost. Either way, which ever way, be of good cheer, this is not a one time decision.
It begins in baptism yes, but it continues as an ongoing, life long, daily, hourly — even sometimes several times within an hour — decision. As Our Lord says earlier in St. Luke’s gospel, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
Life is fluid, it keeps moving, situations arise, circumstance change, and with each new day comes new opportunities to put Jesus first in line, and new temptations vying for control of and priority in our lives. They can be obvious, bad stuff, like willfully and knowingly choosing sin, but more often than not the slide away from Our Lord is much more subtle. The fear of a troubling situation, the anxiety of a strained relationship, grief or loss; life’s circumstances have a way of slowly and subtly cutting to the front of the line of what gets our time and attention, taking priority of place in our hearts, and eroding the fullness of our commitment to Christ.
Jesus says, “whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” The commitment is comprehensive. There is no room to keep anything back for ourselves. If it feels drastic, severe, scary even … it is! But we must remember that we are not renouncing all that we have so that in the end we will have nothing. We are renouncing all that we have, that is, putting it behind Jesus, at the back of the line, so that we might inherit everything that God has promised to us, that is, everlasting life.
May God give us grace to bear our own cross and follow Jesus in all things that we might be counted as one of his disciples; that in dying to ourselves, we might enjoy the abundance of life that is promised to us through Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Adapted from the sermon. Audio available here.