We have another challenging teaching from Jesus today, including the instruction to
- “hate you father, mother, wife, children, and your own life,”
- to carry our cross,
- and to renounce our possessions.
This is not a message of comfort, but about the cost of discipleship. Let’s examine these challenges one by one:
- Hate your father, mother, etc.
This “hate” is not referring so much an emotion, but to action. It means not always doing what other people want. I preached before about the causes of division in our families. If we are standing up for the truth, then it’s going to rub some people the wrong way. If we are living the life of Christian discipleship, there will come a time to stand up for what we believe.
This particular message could not be more relevant than it is today. We live in a culture that wants comfort and tolerance. This concept of tolerance has been pushed further and further into what Pope Benedict called the “dictatorship of relativism.” Relativism means that opinions get confused with truth.
I remember in school we used to have this exercise when we would read a sentence and label it: “Fact” or “Opinion.” It was an exercise in identifying truth, which is objective/outside of me, and opinion, which is subjective/inside of me. I wonder if they still do those exercises in school today.
Relativism erases that distinction. It says that I can have my truth, and you can have your truth. But don’t you dare try to impose your truth on my truth. That’s not very tolerant. Don’t be such a bigot. Don’t be such a hater.
The reality is that people often get offended by the truth. And yes, they may end up hating you for saying it, for standing up for it. They will call you the hater, when it is their own distorted view of the world that makes them hate the truth, even hate the one who says it.
- Carry your cross
Just as the first warning means not always doing what others want, the second means not always doing what I want. It means to willingly take up these difficulties that are a result of our discipleship. It’s not going to be comfortable. It’s going to require sacrifice and pain. But it will be worth it. Being a disciple of Jesus is worth it, because it will make us holy and worthy of heaven.
The constant temptation in our lives is to lay down that cross, or try to trade it in for a smaller one. I once saw this cartoon strip that illustrated the point so well. A man was given a large cross to carry. After struggling to drag it along for a few steps, he asked Jesus for a lighter one. So Jesus gave him a shorter, smaller cross. But this one became heavy too, and so once again, he asked for a smaller, lighter one. Eventually he was easily carrying a tiny, very light cross. Then he came to a large ditch, and heaven was on the other side. All the other disciples took their large, heavy crosses, and laid them down across the ditch, which enabled them to walk across it into paradise. But the man with the small cross was unable to get over the ditch; his cross wouldn’t span the distance. That is what taking up our cross is for—it is our means of redemption. It makes us like Christ. The cross makes us his disciples.
And the cross isn’t comfortable. But, as Pope Benedict XVI once said, “The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort—you were made for greatness.”
- Renounce your possessions
Paradoxically, our possessions can sometimes end up controlling us and taking first place in our lives.
I can remember when I was a boy, the thing I wanted most for Christmas was a Nintendo. My classmate, Andrew, who lived three blocks away had one, my classmate Chris had one, and my cousin Brian had one. I loved going over to their houses to play Nintendo, and long after I left their houses, our conversations usually involved video games. Then, one Christmas, my parents finally bought my brothers and I a Nintendo—best Christmas ever. The hours melted away between Christmas Day and the first day of the new semester. Any free moment in the day, my brothers and I were playing video games. But then, as expected, the game took first place in my life. I neglected my chores, I spent less time outside, and my brothers and I had frequent skirmishes about whose turn it was to play. After all, there were three of us and only two controllers. We got in so many arguments that my Dad had to take the Nintendo away for a time. It was the worst. The thing that was at the center of my life was taken away. I didn’t know it at the time, but our possessions ended us owning us, and made us uncharitable towards each other. Now, I’m not just condemning video games here. It can be anything that keeps us from having Christ at the center of our lives.
As we mature from children into adults, we gather more possessions, and we have greater control over the things we buy. But the disciple, even if he is rich, knows how to be a good steward. That means not letting our possessions control us.
I had to learn this lesson again when I was moving back from seminary. I had collected many souvenir coffee mugs over the years I spent in seminary, and when I moved back to Texas, I was disappointed when I opened my boxes and saw some of my coffee mugs broken. Likewise, I had amassed a collection of music and liturgy books, and icons—some quite hard to find—and in a moment, one box was lost. I was quite upset with a certain shipping company at first, but I had to admit, these are just things. They are possessions, and while they may be useful or have sentimental value, they are just things, and I can’t take them with me forever. Best to be detached from them now. On the Last Day, none of it is going to matter. It’s like my friend Fr. Chris Gray says, “It’s all gonna burn.” It’s moments like these that remind us what’s most important, and that so many possessions are not part of discipleship.
In each of these teachings, Jesus reminds us that he wants disciples who are committed to following Him and who hold nothing back. The cost of discipleship will be different for each person. For some, it will require time and energy. For others, a change in relationships. For others, answering a call to religious life. For others, a sacrifice of wealth and possessions.
So, brothers and sisters, we who are called disciples of Jesus Christ have our work cut out for us. The cost of discipleship is high, and Jesus never said it would be easy. But, he did say that it would be worth it.