Seeing It Through: 23rd Sunday OT
The words of Jesus here in the fourteenth chapter of Luke are a literary kick in the stomach. We’re going to try to make sense of them, to receive this Word with the proper mind of the Church rather than some personal interpretation. To do that, we’re going to start in the rather confusing middle, then look at the end of the passage, then finally see what we can make of the shocking beginning.
Think of a man who’s starting to build a tower. Maybe, just for the sake of example, he’s a priest in a rural parish that’s building a church and wants the church to have a big tall tower. Everybody’s excited about the tower. And anxious. So they get started! They dig the footing and start laying the foundation. Courses of stone begin to rise one after another. When the tower is maybe thirty feet high, just starting to get good, they go for more stone but there’s none to be had. The building fund is exhausted. The supply is spent. The work stops. And the aborted jagged stump of a tower stands in silent ridicule of the foolish man who began something without first considering whether he had what it took to finish.
Think of a man who’s considering going to war. He would be a fool, and he would be just the same kind of fool, if he went marching off toward his target without considering whether he had what it took to see it through.
These scenarios, proposed by Jesus, are at least a little enigmatic. But there’s a clear common core we can keep in mind: It’s about taking stock of yourself and your resources, and considering before you start some great project whether you have what it takes to see it through.
What’s the project Jesus is talking about? He’s clear and unmistakable here: he’s talking about being His disciple. That’s the great project. Are you in? Not so fast! You don’t start something like this without considering whether you have it takes to see it through. He says “Anyone who does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple,” and that’s when he starts talking about towers and battles. Then at the end: “None of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions.” The Greek here for “possessions” is a bigger concept than that one English word. It’s not only about stuff you own, it’s about all that is yours, everything about you. Jesus is calling for a total renunciation of the ego before you start the project of discipleship. If you aren’t willing to see that through, this project isn’t for you.
Jesus wants disciples. He isn’t trying to talk you out of it. But He has a warning for disciples who start on the easy path, casually, unreflectively, without the resolve and the resources to see it through. It’s one thing to follow him down the road on a bright sunny day and eat some miraculously multiplied fish and loaves. It’s quite another thing to keep vigil with him in Gethsemene, to have a cross laid on you shoulders, to follow him to Calvary. Being in this church right now pretty much proves that we’re all interested in being his disciples. These words, I think, challenge us to consider whether we’ve really thought that through. Whether we’re serious about it. Whether we’re in it to the end.
Now, as promised, we’re going to circle back and tackle those shocking words from the beginning of the passage. “‘If anyone comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple.” This would be a great time to hit the old Greek again, and point out how the translation is difficult and the original isn’t quite as awful as it sounds. Sorry. As far as I can tell, the Greek is every bit that strong. No help for us there.
How to begin to make sense of this? We can eliminate some interpretations easily enough. We know the Lord can’t be telling us to ignore the Fourth Commandment to honor our father and mother. We know we speaks elsewhere with great tenderness and affection for parental love and family bonds, and of friendship too. We know he taught the strongest possible version of the indissolubility of the marriage bond. So we won’t understand his meaning if we think of violating any of these things.
These words have to be understood in light of the larger point he’s making. Being his disciple means loving God more than anything. And more than anyone. That can be a shattering concept for us, and maybe that’s why Jesus chooses such shattering language. Maybe he wants to shake us up enough to really face what it is he’s asking.
What Jesus is saying is that he won’t compete with anything for your heart, not even your own family. He can’t be calling us to love our families less; He is, of course, calling us to love God more. To love God above all.
This can provoke some soul-searching. Do I love God more than the people I love the most? How do I even measure that? How do I tell? And is God really asking me to choose? Is God somehow jealous or threatened? Well, no. But for our hearts to be rightly ordered, and for our relationships to be rightly ordered, love of God has to come first.
If this seems hard to understand, I think we’ll find that our experience bears it out. Saintly married people know firsthand that the best spouse is the one who loves God more than you. Human love finds its fullness and perfection when it is under love of God. When it’s placed above God, it has become an idol. That’s not just bad for your relationship with God; it’s bad for the relationship you’ve made an idol of.
To take one example: I’m afraid many young people are taught to expect total fulfillment, perfect happiness, in a romantic relationship. It’s a sort of vague notion that if you get into the right romance, that’s going to be the key to perfect satisfaction. It can indeed be the key to a great deal of satisfaction. Someone may complement you miraculously, you may be soul-mates called by God to complete union, but no human being can totally complete you. No romance, no friendship, no human relationship of any kind can bring you ultimate fulfillment. Asking someone else to give you that is unloving, because it’s cruelly unfair. You expect someone to give you that, and when you wake up one morning and the restlessness is still there, that can only mean they’ve failed you. It’s sad to watch two people trying to squeeze that total fulfillment out of each other. They just choke the life out of each other, insisting that “you have to make me happy, you have to fix me.” No one can bear that burden, and if you ask them to you’ll only destroy whatever love there could have been.
Human relationships - romantic, spousal, parental, filial, friendship - are profoundly good... in fact, they are the best thing in the world. That’s why they make such convincing idols! But to make an idol of them is to poison them. To work the way they should, they have to fall under our relationship to God, not compete with it.
We’re dealing here with some of the most challenging words spoken by Jesus in the Gospels. You probably wouldn’t claim, as I wouldn’t, to have achieved perfection in meeting this challenge. Remember that the same Jesus who said “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” also said “Be not afraid” and “Your sins are forgiven.” When we fail, when we fall short, when our tower doesn’t reach high enough, when our battle ends in a rout, then we have to trust his mercy and power to save.
But at the same time, we should be honest and realistic about what discipleship means. Trust his mercy when you fall short, but never, ever presume to lower the bar. Being his disciple means taking up that Cross, submitting everything to the love of God. Our Lord’s shocking words today should remind us just what it means to call ourselves “Christians.”