Sunday, September 8, 2013

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Wisdom 9:13-18b; Philemon 9-10, 12-17; Luke 14:24-33

As the leaders of our nation continue their deliberations
concerning military intervention in Syria,
we are presented in today’s Gospel with a parable
about counting the costs of our commitments:
“What king marching into battle would not first sit down
and decide whether with ten thousand troops
he can successfully oppose another king
advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops?”
Jesus’s point in telling this parable is not, of course,
about the art of war,
but about what it means to be his disciple.
Yet it reminds us of what we would sometimes forget:
war is a costly business.
It is not something into which one dips one’s toe,
while hoping to avoid paying
the price of human suffering that war exacts.
If you choose to wage war, you must bear the burden
of homes destroyed and lives lost,
of unforeseen repercussions,
and the risk of unleashing even greater evil
than the evil that you wish to restrain.
War is not something one ought to enter into lightly.

In his parable, Jesus uses the cost of war
to prod us think about the cost of being his disciple.
Just as the ruler who contemplates going to war
must consider what it would cost to win the war,
so too one who wants to be a follower of Jesus
must consider the cost of such discipleship.
Jesus puts the cost of discipleship
in the starkest terms possible:
“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.”

Biblical scholars are quick to point out
that the word we here translate as “hating”
refers not so much to an emotion one feels
as to a fundamental choice one makes:
it is a matter of giving preference
to one thing over another.
So Jesus is saying that our relationship
to parents, spouse, children, siblings, and even oneself
must be seen as less important than our relationship to him.
Of course in Jesus’ culture,
when ties of family were so strong,
this is still pretty shocking –
you would prefer this stranger to your family?
“Hating” probably pretty effectively conveys the force
that his words would have had on his hearers:
Jesus is telling them that the cost of being his disciple
is to be willing to put nothing ahead of him,
to prefer nothing to the life of following him,
to be separated from your loved ones
if that is what it takes to be his disciple.
As if to drive the point home, Jesus adds:
“Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me
cannot be my disciple.”
Just as a ruler
must face up to the cost of waging war,
so too the disciple of Jesus
must face up to the cost of following him,
and that cost is nothing less
than sharing in the cross of Jesus himself.

Each one of us has been called to be a disciple of Jesus.
Indeed, that simply is what it means to be a Christian.
Jesus’s call to take up one’s own cross and follow after him
is not addressed only to the apostles
or to the ordained or to the vowed religious.
It is the call of each and every one of us
who dare to claim the name Christian,
who in baptism have been marked with Christ’s cross
and called to walk as children of the light.
We are the one’s who must count the cost of following Jesus
and who must be willing to give up everything for his sake.

Of course, this makes no sense if Jesus is just some guy
who had some good ideas
about ways to make the world a better place
or ways to attain a more happy life.
It only makes sense if being Jesus’ disciple
is something worth more that everything else put together;
it only makes sense if Jesus is the one
in whom all that we have given up
will be restored to us in God’s kingdom;
it only makes sense if Jesus
is who we profess him to be in the creed:
“God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God.”
But if Jesus is who we profess him to be,
then the cost of following him
is balanced by the joy flowing from his saving power.

Even more than war,
the struggle to follow Jesus is a costly business,
demanding absolute commitment.
And in a time of wars and rumors of war
we must ask ourselves anew
whether we truly wish to be his followers.
In a world torn by violence, death, and destruction
we are called to count the cost
of being disciples of the prince of peace.
But in counting that cost, let us never forget
that the one who calls us to follow
is the very source of life itself: Jesus Christ.