The Cost of Discipleship
What does following Jesus - in other words… discipleship… cost you? Are we ready to follow the Lord wherever he leads us? Today our Lord is teaching us the necessity of detachment from all that we put ahead of God’s will, His love and His truth in our lives. This is a call to live the Paschal Mystery - the center of our faith. Detachment means to not allow any created thing or person distract us from doing the will of God and making God the first priority in our lives. This is absolutely necessary for true discipleship.
In our readings, Jesus is approached by three who think they want to follow Him… but Our Lord offers to the three would-be followers … quite radical, jolting exhortations… that are especially relevant for us:
To the first one He warns that following Him means not notoriety and comfort, but having nowhere to call home - viz. - complete detachment.
To the second, “let the dead bury their dead - you go proclaim the kingdom of God”. That is, waste no time being converted and put your relationship with God before all others.
To the third, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” Looking back on what was is futile, holding on to / distraction of attachments causes you to veer off the straight path leading to God.
Jesus uses the image of the plough. In Palestine, they used very light plows which were guided by one hand while the other hand drove the unruly oxen. This primitive kind of plough needs dexterity and concentrated attention. If the ploughman looks around, the new furrow becomes crooked. He had to look straight ahead in order to keep the plow from going off course. Likewise, if we look back with attachment on what we have freely left behind to follow the Lord, our path will diverge and we'll miss what God has planned for us. Are we ready to follow the path Jesus trod? His grace is sufficient (Paul) and his love is eternal. There is nothing greater we can do with our lives than to place them at the service of the Lord and Master of the universe. We cannot out-give God in generosity. What is holding you back from freely pursuing the Lord and his will for your life?
Jesus is explaining in the three encounters … the cost of discipleship … His language illustrates the gravity and depth of His call to each of us. A death to self in order to rise to new life, as Christ in His Paschal Mystery. This call for a radical turning over of ourselves to Him is nothing new for Jesus. Elsewhere in the Gospel, He says, “if your eye is your downfall, tear it out… if your hand is your downfall, cut it off…” And “he who loves his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for my sake, will save it unto life eternal.” “He who would follow me must deny himself take up his cross daily, and follow me.” All of these passages have appeared in the masses of recent days. Jesus is saying to us today - nothing is more important than seeking the kingdom of God. “Seek you first the Kingdom of God and the rest will be given to you”. This is the price of discipleship: nothing less than making God’s will and His teachings the center of our lives and of our families. Jesus is saying in order to do this … we must practice detachment from sinful thoughts and actions, removing from our lives all that distracts and hinders us from growing in union with God. This is a kind of death… to self-love, self-will. We cannot make peace with the contradiction of complacency, comfort and even sinful vices and also tell ourselves God is most important or central to our lives.
Many Christians often fall into a subtle distancing of ourselves from Jesus - we are a “fan” of Jesus, but not a follower, not a disciple. An admirer, not a disciple. We may talk about the Church and quote scripture, but do we go to Church and do we read the scriptures? We believe … but we don’t get too close, don’t become vulnerable or don’t be pulled away from the comfort zone and distracting pleasures to follow the demanding road to Calvary! Our fallen nature pulls us down towards minimalism and keeping Jesus arms-length - close enough to make us “feel” Christian, but not close enough to bring about a real change of heart and life, completely trusting and following the Lord - who has no place to lay His head, who puts the will of the Father ahead of all things, and puts His hand to the plough, never content with what has been or keeping the status quo.
With the demanding call to discipleship, the Lord gives the grace to respond and to follow Him to the end through the sacraments - baptism, confirmation, confession, Eucharist. We need and receive supernatural help - grace - to respond generously to God’s call to conversion, detachment amidst a culture that screams the opposite every moment. Our Lord is asking us, “what is distracting you from following me? Why do you hesitate? What is it that you prefer to me? Is it a vice, addiction, compulsive behaviors, impurity, wealth, food, social image, popularity, acceptance, technology distractions - computer/phones/social media, over-activity, politics, security…? None of these bring happiness, only passing pleasure. Rather, focus on personal detachment, turn to the needs of others, pray daily and frequent mass and confession for spiritual healing and nourishment.
The detachment Jesus requires is … sacrifice -- the sacrifice of certain creaturely comforts. Jesus appealed to the heart and told them to detach from whatever might hold him back. Spiritual detachment is a necessary step for following the Lord. A necessary means to this is the practice of daily prayer from the heart - a conversation with Christ. Prayer opens our hearts and frees us to give ourselves without reserve to the Lord and his service. While many of us may not be called to leave all physical belongings and family to follow Jesus, we, nonetheless, must be willing to part with anything that might stand in the way of doing God's will.
That said, if we are responding to Christ’s call to follow Him, this does not estrange us from those around us, but quite the opposite! We become more loving, forgiving, interested and especially the presence of Christ to those in our families, friends and workplace. So, following Christ does not lead to selfishness and aloofness from others around us. Quite the opposite… but we must love others acknowledging the truth that God comes first.
St. Thomas More was a good friend of King Henry VIII and was elevated to #2 in the kingdom as Chancellor, but Thomas put God’s revealed truth about the indissolubility of marriage ahead of his own wealth and worldly relationships, as he was condemned to death for high treason for not signing the oath of supremacy making Henry head of the Church in England so he could divorce his wife who bore him no heir. Thomas didn’t change or accommodate the truth to what was comfortable or even to preserve his own life. Thomas said at his execution : “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.” The martyrs of the Church are perhaps the clearest witness to following Christ and not compromising the authentic meaning of love and truth revealed by Christ - putting God’s love and truth even ahead of their own physical lives. We too are called to this witness every day by as Paul exhorts us, “Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly:c immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry.… put on the new self…” (Col 3) Paschal Mystery revealed! The path of true discipleship - the true follower of Christ is detachment and love.
Paul describes the need for spiritual detachment when he says in the second reading: “For you were called for freedom, brothers and sisters. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love.”… “live by the Spirit and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh. For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want.” Discipleship is a call to genuine freedom, which is found in submitting our will to God’s in all things to seek it out, to embrace Him in relationship of love. Only a relationship is worthy of total gift of self and all we have and are.
Elisha slaughtered his oxen, burned his plough (which was the most important and life-sustaining property he owned) - leaving everything to follow Elijah, who is a forerunner and type of Christ in the OT. In the mass for this Saturday morning, Peter says to Jesus: “we have left everything to follow you”. Jesus promises: “everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life.” (Mt 19)
Let us spiritually “leave everything” as the Apostles did and as Jesus calls us to do today, and give ourselves completely to Christ as a true follower, a true disciple. Let us live in the present moment, not looking back at the past and entrusting the unknown future to God’s mercy. Then we will truly experience the glorious freedom of the sons and daughters of God as his disciples.