Twenty-Third Sunday In Ordinary Time, Year C

In Sunday’ Gospel passage, Jesus is on the move again.  He has left the home of the prominent Pharisee (last Sunday’s Gospel) and is headed toward Jerusalem.  He has seen crowds growing behind him and knows that some of these followers are only tagging along to see another miracle, especially if that miracle includes getting a free meal.  Some of them are following because they’ve been caught up in the mob mentality that has begun to develop around him and his disciples.  Jesus turns to the crowd and says, in essence, “Unless you’re serious about following me, go away!”  It sounds as if he is trying to get people to stop following him!  But Jesus is not trying to get rid of followers.  He just wants them – and us – to know what is involved in being a true disciple.  The cost is high and we need to know what we’re getting into when we say we want to follow Jesus.

We live in a market driven society, so it is not surprising that we sometimes feel the urge to “sell” Christianity in the marketplace of competing ideas and ways of life.

Yet, when Christian mission is shaped toward the “sell” mentality, it more often than not becomes a “low-cost” and “low-risk” commodity.  How else will we persuade others to accept “the faith”, if not by coming in with a lower or better offer?

But is Christian discipleship really a low-cost, low-risk endeavor?  Sunday’s Gospel offers a challenge to the market driven approach to Christian mission.  The passage begins with two lessons on discipleship, then Jesus tells two brief parables to illustrate the importance of “counting the cost” of discipleship and giving up all for him.

Jesus’ first lesson is framed in stark language: “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”.  This statement raises concern for many.  Does Jesus really call us to hate our biological families and our very lives?  It is important to point out two things here.  First, Jesus is using hyperbolic language as he does frequently in his teachings.  Second, is in regard to the use of the word, “hate”. 

We must understand that the Greek vocabulary Luke used had relatively few words in it.  Rather than creating new words for every nuance as we do in English, first century Greek gave each word a broad range of meaning.  The Greek word miséin can be translated as “hate” but it also means despise, disregard, be indifferent to, or love less.  In this particular instance, Jesus is offering a comparison between the devotion one would normally hold sacred only for family members and the devotion required to become one of his disciples.  Jesus is saying, “Love me more than you would even love your family, as important as they are to you.”  He is not calling his followers to hate their families in terms of emotional response; instead, he calls for undivided loyalty to himself.  Giving up self interest and competing loyalties are central to discipleship. 

The next lesson emphasizes the same point about loyalty.  Discipleship is demonstrated by following Jesus and “carrying the cross.”  Keep in mind that, at this point, Jesus’ own cross was not yet on the horizon.  His original listeners would not have been aware of the connection between this challenge and the suffering Jesus would soon experience at his own crucifixion.  To them, taking up one’s cross was a general expression of accepting the burden of great suffering, suffering that could end in death.  It was the same responsibility a soldier would accept, going into war.  If following Jesus meant taking up a cross, it meant staying loyal to him through certain suffering, even to the point of death. 

Neither of these statements, about hating one’s family or carrying a cross, lend themselves to a “low-cost” type of faith.  Instead, they stress the high cost of following Jesus. 

The two brief parables that follow illustrate how to balance the cost by suggesting two scenarios.

If you were going to build a tower, wouldn’t you first figure out if you could afford it?  You wouldn’t want to become a laughingstock because you failed to plan your project well.   And if you were a king going into battle, wouldn’t you first figure out if your army had the strength to defeat the enemy?

If we gloss over these brief parables too quickly we risk missing the crucial message.  In both cases, the building and the battle, Jesus indicates that the cost is too high for the resources available.  No matter what accounting system we use, no matter what assets we think we have, when it comes to following Jesus, we don’t have enough to pay the cost on our own.  This is where our attempts to balance the books fall woefully short and God’s economy takes over.  He provides.  He makes up our deficit.  When we are willing to commit everything we are, everything we have, and everyone we hold dear, to the purpose of following Jesus, God is faithful to do what he has promised.  He has already offered us his entire Kingdom.

Jesus uses these lessons and stories to convey the necessity of “counting the cost” of discipleship.  The cost is high, but the cost of not following Jesus is even higher.  He asks us to leave everything else behind, to make him our first priority.  The lessons Jesus has been teaching us over the past weeks all boil down to this: go all in, or go home.

This Gospel passage could be entitled, “The Cost of Discipleship,” and for good reason: Jesus took faith and commitment to another level.  The passage speaks of the importance of loyalty and allegiance to Jesus over all other competing loyalties, including family, self-interest, and possessions.  He calls his followers to a discipleship that is not cheap, not easy, and not to be entered into without serious consideration of the cost and consequences.

Salvation in Jesus, through Jesus, is not merely a transaction.  It is, at heart, a covenantal relationship.  And no relationship endures and grows without loyal commitments and actions, and sacrifice.  The one who redeems us calls us into costly discipleship.  His invitation to “Follow me” is both gift and demand.

Jesus must have seen the joyful faces around him become somber as his words started to sink in.

Adult Formation