23rd Sunday Year C – Lectio divina on Lk 14, 25-33
Jesus spent some time preaching in Galilee and he encountered a measure of success. He was constantly surrounded by a group of disciples, and often sought out by people who wanted to hear him speaking about God, and to be cured of their illnesses. At a certain point on the road to Jerusalem, Jesus decided to take advantage of the fact that a large crowd was following him to warn his close disciples of the price his followers would have to pay. In this way he told them all, not just the disciples but the crowd as well, that to look for him it is not enough to feel the need for him, and to follow him, it is not enough to rejoice at the benefits to be achieved. Quite the opposite, the consequences of following him are very demanding. Jesus wanted his disciples to take time before deciding to follow him. He did not want then, nor does he want now, to be followed by people who are unaware of where they are going or what they are called to do if they follow him. Jesus was not interested in having a big number of disciples, but rather disciples who would accept the consequences of their ‘yes’. And he wanted them to follow him freely.
25 Now great multitudes accompanied him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30 saying, `This man began to build, and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace. 33 So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
I. Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it
We should take notice of the fact that Jesus addresses this harsh and extremely demanding teaching on discipleship to all who wanted to share the road with him, whether they were disciples or not. It was enough for him that he had a crowd. He wanted to warn them of the conditions they would have to accept if they wanted to be his disciples. The crowd that were with him were already following him. But it seems that Jesus was not satisfied that they simply accompanied him. He wanted even greater sacrifices of them. And he turned to them and, straight to their faces, he made unheard of demands of them.
Jesus imposed three conditions, in a very straightforward manner, with no beating about the bush. It is worth noting that all three conditions were formulated in the negative. Nobody can be my disciple if they do not put me before everybody else (Lk 14,26), if they do not take up their own cross (Lk 14,27), and if they do not renounce all they possess (Lk 14,33). Anyone who is not able to accept all three conditions should not even dream of being a disciple, even if they are already following him.
Only the first demand, the most difficult and unnatural, is conditional. No duty, however sacred, can be more binding than the decision to follow Jesus as a disciple. Following Jesus relegates love for parents, brothers and sisters, and even oneself, to second place. It is important to note that the love that Jesus deserves is neither before nor after love for others, but at the same time. We do not have to stop loving our family members in order to follow Jesus. Nor do we have to be his disciples in order to love him more than those who are dear to us. While following Jesus, the disciple’s heart cannot have any other love at the same level, not even the natural and sacred love for family and for oneself.
The second and third demands made by Jesus are brief, and both of them are negative. Only those who can carry their cross and renounce their possessions are capable of following Jesus. There are two details that should not pass unnoticed, because they express an idea that is new. The cross we must carry is our own, but we have to carry it after him. It is not just any cross, but the cross of one who follows Jesus, the cross that is given to us in order to follow him. Renouncing our possessions is not something vague and generic, and is not just a resolution for the future. The goods are those we possess, all of them. Nothing is excluded. The renunciation must be total.
Following this demand, Jesus invites his listeners to stop and consider if it is worth their while undertaking a journey that could end badly. He uses two images – a man building a tower and a king going to war. The higher the price to be paid, the more prudence is required before undertaking the risk. Jesus does not want followers who are enthusiastic but do not know what they are undertaking.
II. MEDITATION: apply what the text says to life.
Many of those who accompanied Jesus on the way to Jerusalem had no idea what was ahead of them. Jesus stops along the way to warn them. From now on, not everyone who wants to can accompany him, and not even all those he has called, but only those who are ready to pay the price involved. It comes as a surprise that he says this to a crowd of people who are already following him and not just to the few who are his closest disciples. As he makes his demands more radical, he opts for a wider audience, but because his demand is so drastic, he makes it optional. From now on, only those can follow him who are so free as to be able to renounce the best of what they have, their families and all their possessions, everything. We should thank Jesus that he did not impose these superhuman conditions. When he asked us to free ourselves from everything that is dear to us, he left us free. When he announced how much it would cost, Jesus left following him optional. Jesus extended to everyone the possibility of following him, when he stated the conditions for doing so. Anyone who is not capable of renouncing everything – one’s family and all one possesses – cannot follow the Lord.
Jesus anticipated the request of his listeners and told them to take time before deciding to continue to follow him on his journey. This was because he did not wish then, not does he wish now, to be followed by people who are unaware of where they are going, or what they are being called to if they continue the journey with him. For Jesus, the important thing was not how many disciples he had, but that they should be willing to accept the consequences of following him.
What Jesus asks of those who want to follow him is, to put it bluntly, outrageous. No matter how much we try to play down the radicalism of his words, it is still unreasonable that he demands of us, as a prior condition, even just to become his disciples, that we love our dear ones less than we love him. Even God did not ask that much in the ten commandments. It is true that God commands us to love him first and above everything else, but he also commanded us to love our parents and our neighbour as ourselves. By expecting them to love him more than any other person, Jesus claims from his disciples more than any other master has ever claimed or could ever claim. By demanding such an exclusive love, he expects those who follow him to give up all other love, however good and worthy it may be.
That the love between parents and children, or between brothers and sisters, or between husband and wife, should give way to the love due to the master, is an unheard of demand, if not an impossible one. It is certainly not a normal request or one that is easy to fulfil. It is true that Jesus does not insist that we renounce our love for others, but it is unusual that he demands from those who follow him that they should love him more than their dear ones. He is not content with being one among the people we love. He must be the first and the principal one. The disciple must not love even himself of herself more than the master. The fact that this condition is optional, leaves us more freedom in our decision to follow him, but does not make following him any easier.
If any doubt remained, and so that no one would have any excuse, he goes on to add that anyone who does not take up the cross and follow him is not worthy to be his follower. If they want to be followers of the master who is journeying towards the cross in Jerusalem, the disciples must take up their own cross. Jesus had already said so many times (Lk 9,22-23.44). Jesus does not just expect of his disciples that they be faithful when the time of suffering comes. He asks them to journey with him carrying their own cross. It is not enough, then, that they do not get scandalized at the cross of Christ, and abandon him. Only those who carry their own cross can be his companions. If they want to follow the master who is to be crucified, they must carry their own cross. Unless they can carry their own cross, they will not be able to follow him all the way to Calvary. Anyone who chooses to follow a master who is going to be crucified, cannot expect to escape unscathed. If we refuse the suffering that goes with the cross, we cannot follow Jesus.
It may seem to us very harsh, but the claim makes sense. The disciple is not greater than the master. The Christian cannot expect to escape better than Christ. The life of the disciple must follow the road trod by the Master. Anyone who finds the cross repulsive and refuses it, or is unwilling to accept it and to bear the weight of it, may be a very fine person but will not be a good disciple. We do not have to carry Christ’s cross, but our own. Maybe we already carry a small image of Christ’s cross, but we do not feel the weight of it. We have to carry our own cross, the one that causes us so much suffering, because it is ours and ours alone. Jesus reduces the whole of his teaching to taking up our cross. Anyone who bears the weight of the cross can be his disciple.
The conditions are so radical that Jesus himself invites those who are thinking of following him, to take their time and to think over it well. He adds two short parables which insist on the need to measure our capability before we take the decision to follow him. Precisely because he wants a conscious decision from his followers, he does not want them to follow him blindly. They need to know if they have the strength to meet his demands. Nobody can say that Jesus did not warn us. We need to take him seriously when he tells us to take our time and think well to see if we really have the means like the builder, and the available forces like the king.
Jesus has set down two stages in the journey of discipleship. The first is the initial “follow me”. The second is “if anyone comes to me, if anyone wants to be my follower”. Personal attraction and curiosity are enough to sustain someone at the first stage. At the second stage, only those remain who are willing to give up everything in order not to lose him. Where do I find myself? Am I still following Jesus because I am fascinated by him and what he says and does? Or do I follow him because I have left everything that I possessed? Can I honestly say that it costs me something to follow him, that I am renouncing something in order to be with him? I will know how precious my following of Jesus is only when I know the price I am paying to follow him.
Good will is not enough, no matter how much of it we have. We must also have the means and resources. Jesus did not want to deceive his followers with false promises, nor did he hide the truth from them. He wanted his disciples to know the consequences before they take the decision, and to be willing to take the risks. Precisely because he is demanding so much of his followers, he wants them to be conscious and free. This shows great sensitivity on his part and we should be grateful for it, accepting his invitation and thinking about it calmly. Jesus does not want disciples who are like a man who starts building a house without being sure if he has enough to finish it. Because he did not check beforehand to see if he had all he needed, he is left with an unfinished house. All he achieved was to make himself a laughing stock in the eyes of the people who knew him.
More serious is the example of the king who went to war without stopping to think that his enemy might be better prepared for battle. He was defeated, not because he did not have sufficient forces, but because he did foresee that the enemy might have just as much or more. He lost his kingdom because he was not prudent and did not make good use of the resources he had. Jesus wants to spare his followers the shame of having to leave their work only half done, and the disaster of losing the decisive battle. For this reason he warns us that following him will not be easy. He wants us to know if we have all that is needed to finish what we begin, when we decide to follow him. Jesus is not happy just because we follow him. He asks us if we are able to follow him, or better still, he wants us to ask ourselves that question.
With his warnings, he makes us realize that he is well aware how extreme his demands are. Before we take them on, he wants us to know if we are able for them. Jesus does not want to see himself surrounded by people with great illusions and little responsibility, all enthusiastic about his promises but unable to accept the conditions. Neither does he want to be followed by people who later will feel they have been deceived, because they committed themselves to him without knowing how much it would cost to follow him. Being a disciple of Jesus is a serious matter and needs to be faced seriously. What he is asking is not small and is not easy. Jesus gives us time to reflect for a while before accepting.
And there really is need to think about it. Before asking us to check if we were able for it, he asked his disciples if there was anyone they loved more than him. None of the people nearest and dearest to us is more important than he is. After he has given us time to reflect on it, he demands of us that we possess nothing apart from him. Giving up all our possessions may seem impossible, but it is the inescapable condition for following Jesus. Just as he does not want to share our hearts with our loved ones, so he does not want us to think of anything else as being good, no matter how good it is, unless we make him our supreme good.
We can understand that he does not want us to take the decision to follow him lightly, because the consequences are far from light. Jesus expects his disciples not to love anyone as much as they love him. He wants to be considered the first in our affections and the greatest of all our possessions. It is a high price just to be a disciple! And this is why we need to take time to think about it a bit more.
Being the companion of Jesus implies giving up the things that are best in this life. Jesus does not want to be shared with other passions, no matter how good or how natural they may be. He is the best, better than the best families, greater than the greatest of possessions. Only those who are capable of renunciation know what they really love. And those who love are able to renounce other things without suffering because they are leaving something good. They know that they are getting something – someone – better. With what level of renunciation do I live my Christian life? Is Christ sufficient reason for me to put in second place everything else that is good in my life?
We cannot deny that the conditions put by Jesus, when he made following him optional, are almost inhuman. But when they get over this surprise, the disciples know that they can count on their Master as their only good and all they need for the journey, if other things and other people count as nothing compared to him. We need to think twice before we say we are ready to follow him at all costs. But there is no doubt that it will be worth all the pain – and the cross – to have Jesus as our companion and guide on our journey in life. Jesus wants those who follow him to love him more than they love their family, and to be more attached to him than to any of the other good things we possess. He does not ask us the hate the people we love, nor to get rid of the good things we have but only – if we can say only – to love nobody more than him and to consider good nothing other than him.