In the light of Jesus’ demand in today’s gospel, I cannot be His disciple because I love my mum; you know, she’s the only mum I have! On the other hand, I could have qualified for that sort of discipleship when I was an angry teenager; I hated my father, and I believed I had good reasons for that. But it all changed one evening when I forgave him, and after that my hatred was gradually replaced by compassion for him. So I hopelessly squandered that chance, and it was gone for good… As an only child I cannot hate my siblings; having neither wife nor children, I cannot hate them either. My only chance is to hate my own life; but actually I quite like it. So, I don’t stand a chance, do I? Well, perhaps I do. And perhaps you do too.
Why did Jesus make such an extreme demand? It’s alarmingly similar to the demands of dangerous sects, personality cults or extremist ideologies we hear about in the news every now and again. In fact, Jesus made a point of going well over the top in order to force his audience to listen to him. They must have held their breath out of astonishment and sheer outrage. In a society where the family was a foundational part of life, Jesus’ call to hate close relatives must have stopped them in their tracks. Yet such a reaction was intended merely as a prelude to the message that Jesus wanted to convey. And this message has absolutely nothing to do with hatred of anyone – and especially not of the family.
The key phrase in today’s gospel is ‘to be my [Jesus’] disciple.’ It occurs three times in the passage, each time in a negative way, and each time with regard to a different aspect of life: initially, the loosening of ties to one’s closest relatives; followed by carrying one’s own cross; and ultimately by giving up all one’s possessions. This phrase ‘cannot be my disciple’ assumes that discipleship of Jesus is not achievable by the person who fails to meet those criteria. Surely, if we were to take these extreme criteria literally, then every last one of us would be excluded from Jesus’ company. But – as I said earlier – Jesus uses deliberate overkill in his oratory as a device to rouse his audience from their intellectual drowsiness.
In an episode in the life of St Francis of Assisi, I’ve found an interesting illustration to today’s gospel. Francis was the son of a successful and wealthy silk merchant. For years, Francis enjoyed the lifestyle typical of a wealthy young man – to his father’s contentment – until his attitude gradually changed. To cut a long story short, Francis turned to a life of piety and poverty, and that enraged his father. When threats and beatings didn’t change Francis’ mind, his father dragged him to the court of the bishop of Assisi. In the course of the legal proceedings, Francis denounced his father and renounced his inheritance; he even took off the clothes he’d received from his father and returned them to him then and there. So, Francis did exactly what today’s gospel required: he ‘hated’ his father, he renounced the concept of holding possessions, and in taking up the life of a beggar we could say that he carried his own cross. He did all that, not simply for the sake of fulfilling those criteria, but in order to acquire the internal freedom necessary to allow him to follow the call he’d recognised as his destiny.
The demands made by Jesus in today’s gospel are a call to internal freedom for each and every one of us. It’s a freedom that is essential to enable us to live a life full of love. Being unhealthily bonded to other people, or blinded by wealth and its pursuit, or being overly self-centred on seeking little comforts for oneself – these can be the shackles stopping us from finding and fulfilling our own calls in life.
I really admire my Mum. She’s not getting any younger, yet she’s always been an extremely strong supporter of me, serving God and His people in a distant land a thousand miles away. She’s so good that she didn’t want to worry me with news that she’d been admitted to hospital a couple of weeks ago. Though, when she was having problems with her smartphone, she let me know straight away! You know, there are limits to self-sacrifice.