How strange Our Lord seems to us, at times!
And yet, that appreciation is more truly the sign and the measure of our alienation from Him! We search feverishly and anxiously these days for more people in our Churches, and, in that respect, we regard ourselves as being motivated by the true Christian spirit of evangelization. And yet Our Blessed Lord was not, apparently, over-pleased by the fact that Great crowds were travelling with Him, for we are told:
He turned and addressed them, ‘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. Whoever does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
Why such a difference between Jesus and ourselves?
First of all, let us give careful attention to the actual situation which provoked those words of Jesus: we are told that great crowds were travelling with Him, and Jesus effectively told them -- with sorrowful compassion for their well-intentioned but only surface-love -- that only those who would follow after Him, behind Him, walking in His footsteps, along His ways, and learning from Him, could possibly become disciples who might eventually learn to walk -- as the apostles -- with Him.
And there we have a partial answer to the question above, ‘Why such a difference ...?’ It is because too many Catholics these days want and pretend to walk with Him before they have learned to walk behind Him and learn His ways.
Jesus, looking at the ‘great crowds’, wanted disciples who would learn, first of all, obedience and self-commitment: disciples willing to learn, that is, to commit themselves to His Spirit and submit themselves, with Him, to His Father in total love and trust. We moderns, on the other hand -- if we are willing and able to recognize, understand, and admit our own motives and propensities aright -- want and seek after ‘great crowds’, ostensibly indeed, to fill our churches, exalt Mother Church, and give glory to God, but also -- and all too often -- to satisfy those more personal needs we might even be hiding from ourselves: that is, to quieten our spiritual anxieties and comfort our fears, to confirm our Catholic confidence or even stir up our pride.
Whereas Jesus did all in humility for total love of His Father and suffering mankind, we do so much from deep-rooted self-love and subtle self-interest.
And looking back again at the Gospel account, why did our Lord use such an emotive and, dare I say it, ‘objectionable’ word as ‘hate’?
As you probably know, ‘hate’ in that context means ‘put in second place’; and it’s objectionable connotations are useful because Jesus wanted to strongly -- very strongly -- emphasize the fact that God must always come first; parents, family, even self, always second, never before God. However, we should notice too that Jesus understood such ‘hatred’ to be a cross for human nature; part, perhaps indeed the essential part, of that cross He immediately went on to refer to when He added:
Whoever does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
Again, Jesus speaks most earnestly of the need for any one wishing to become a disciple of His, to seriously ‘count the cost’; and yet we, so light-heartedly at times, seek to encourage converts and claim back ‘lost ones’ by the fellowship we can offer them, and also by the joy of our family and parochial gatherings: such as the tender simplicity of our baptisms where the innocence of the child so easily prevails over the sublimity of the prayers being offered and responsibilities being assumed, and the splendour of our weddings where the beauty of the bride-to-be and the parents’ hopes for future happiness and fulfilment assume a heart-tugging pre-eminence over the lovers’ for-better-or-for-worse commitment to each other before Christ, over the Church’s prayers for the blessing and abiding presence of the Spirit, and for God’s greater glory in His universal plan of loving salvation.
Jesus once said (Matthew 23:15) to some Pharisees,
You cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves,
and that should be borne in mind by us today, lest our modern zeal makes new converts twice as superficial in their Catholicism and discipleship as too many of us have long been.
Our Blessed Lord summed up His thoughts in these few words:
Anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be My disciple.
St. Bede gives us great help to rightly understand these words, for he distinguishes clearly between those called to ‘leave behind, relinquish’ all possessions, and those here called to ‘renounce’ such possessions: that is, those called to take great care that they do not allow themselves to be possessed by their possessions.
What, however, are we to understand with that word possessions?
It does not refer to merely material things, for there are many human spiritual realities we appreciate and treasure: for example, ‘my freedom’ was of great significance in the early years of the Church and, indeed, still is in many parts of the world where Mother Church -- even to this day -- suffers persecution; and there are, of course, the frequently encountered and unworthy memories of such treasured freedom lingering on the lips of those who like to invoke ‘my opinion’ to excuse their public words and actions. ‘My reputation’, ‘my good name’, ‘my peace of mind and heart’, are also among such ‘possessions’ which a man can value much more highly than merely material things.
Jesus’ words: 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; and Whoever does not carry his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple, seem to refer to personal bonds of love on the one hand and to our instinctive rejection of suffering on the other, and here Jesus’ words were soon to be backed up by His own Personal example and experience whereby they have acquired a most touching intensity of significance and depth of meaning for us.
For, surely, His deepest Personal suffering came when He had to leave His mother – already a widow – as He died in great ignominy and ‘excruciating’ pain on the Cross on Calvary: committing her, of necessity, to the loving care of one of His disciples, not to family; and the greatest physical and psychological torment of His humanity undoubtedly began in the garden of Gethsemane where He – sodden with sweat like drops of blood -- besought His Father three times that He be spared the trial!
If anyone comes to Me without hating his father and mother ...
Whoever does not carry his cross and come after Me ...
As, in our Gospel reading, Jesus looked round to see the crowd travelling with Him He would appear to have foreseen what ... the biggest and most terrible WHAT of His life ... lay ahead of Him; and surely the words He uttered, those very words before us, are most heavily laden with heart-rending meaning and significance, penetrated through and through with that total love and commitment which would lead Him, most compellingly, to leave His mother a Childless widow in Israel, and to take upon Himself the horrible pain and total ignominy of the Cross:
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. Whoever does not carry his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.
The awareness of His Passion and Death was always with Jesus, close to the surface, never to be ignored or disdained, because He needed to prepare Himself for Satan’s final assault and thus fulfil His own longing to give the ultimate expression to His love for His Father and for us when the opportunity came. Therefore, as with the great crowds who, light-heartedly travelling along with Him, stirred His pity and sorrow for their incomprehension of what was truly involved, so too did James and John later on stir Our Lord to a similar response:
‘Teacher, grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus answered them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptised with?’ (Mark 10: 35-38)
Our Gospel story is much more emotive than that episode with the somewhat ‘pushy’ mother of James and John and her two still young and ambitious sons, for in our Gospel the great crowds seemed to instinctively recognize their shepherd; but most touchingly for Jesus, they themselves were, unfortunately and most sadly, no better than sheep in their following of Him for they had so very little comprehension of what He was doing, and no idea where He wanted to lead them or what were the forces against them.
It was for such a situation that we heard in the first reading:
Scarce do we guess the things on earth, and what is within our grasp we find with difficulty; but when things are in heaven who can search them out?
Dear People of God, let us give most heartfelt thanks to God for our Lord and Saviour come down for us from heaven; let us endeavour to serve Him with ever deeper and more sincere love, with ever greater humility in our understanding of Catholic truth, and with quiet and patient confidence in our witness to and suffering for the coming of His Kingdom.