I can visualize the opening scene of today’s Gospel in my mind’s eye. Jesus striding along with a gathering of people walking, talking, and moving about, and then he just stops and turns. Those closest to Jesus pull up to a stop with him, others continue right past, while at the same time others bump into and trip over those who had stopped before them. The subtle hum of random conversation then slowly comes to a halt, a stillness ripples through the crowd, and then there is silence. The dust begins to settle. Those closest have their eyes locked on his, while those further back are craning their necks, moving left and right to get a better look, others are cupping their ears to catch the sound of Jesus’ voice.
These crowds most likely consisted of some disciples, while the greater majority were those on the periphery gathering because of curiosity, intrigue, and maybe even wonder. Jesus then begins to speak, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife or children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” and then finishes with “In the same way, everyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple” (cf. Lk 14:25-33).
Those who may be hearing these words second hand, as they were further away from the point of direct hearing, may not believe that the message was transmitted to them correctly. These words cut to the quick, just as surely as when Jesus shared about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, and when he told another follower, who wanted to bury his father to let the dead bury their dead. Luke does not say, but I am sure that many of those gathered around him were just as shocked and began to walk away.
The familial bond for ancient peoples was strong. Though the invitation of salvation that Jesus offers is for all to be saved, he is not going to dumb down or sugar coat his message just to get numbers. Jesus presents, time and again, that the way to live a life of fullness and wholeness, to restore that which has been lost, is to put God first in our lives. God must be the primary focus, the primary relationship in our life, nothing else can have priority of place before him. When we do so, all other things will fall into their proper place.
We need to ask ourselves if we want to be an onlooker, just someone looking at Jesus from a distance, or a disciple, willing to be his servant sent forth to share the Gospel and invite others into relationship with him? Are we attached to any possessions, false substitutes, even members of our family, such that we place them before our relationship with God? Idols are anything that we put before God and will distract us from the very flow of his life force that fuels our existence. If we are willing to walk the path of discipleship, we must be willing to surrender our will to God, place him first in our lives, and be open to being transformed by his love.
Jesus is to be the interpretive key that opens our understanding to all else. All that which is material and finite in our lives find meaning in relation to him. Only when we are able to let go of the attachments to the things of this world will we then truly begin to be free, to be other-centered, to be more patient, understanding, and willing to love and be more present to our father and mother, wife or children, brother and sister, and even our very self and our neighbor.
Photo: In the chapel at St Ignatius Cathedral, just prior to my ordination Mass, September 2013. To my left, long-time friend Fr. Ed O’Brien, a true disciple!