Today we are reminded afresh by Jesus in the Gospel just what the cost of discipleship truly is. When He tells us that those who love father or mother, son or daughter more than Him are not worthy of Him, He is not telling us not to love our parents or our children. Contrary to what some people may think, the Gospel does not negate the Ten Commandments or the other parts of God’s ancient Law, it truly does fulfill those things. Hence, we can honestly say that Jesus was not saying, for example, that children should simply ignore the wishes of their parents in the name of the Gospel. Jesus was making very clear, however, that if we are going to truly live out the message of the Gospel and we are going to truly live what is rightly called a Gospel life, then it is certain that this Gospel way of living is going to come into conflict with the world and the ways of the world, and for many of us that might include otherwise unwanted unpleasantness or tension or rejection and division between ourselves and family members or friends, even our own parents or siblings.
Did Jesus really say this? This is one of those passages that can leave us a bit baffled and confused. But Jesus does this all the time so we shouldn’t be surprised. So what does Jesus mean? Does He really want to bring the “sword” and division rather than peace?
It’s important when reading this passage that we read it in light of everything else Jesus has ever written. We must read it in light of all His teachings on love and mercy, forgiveness and unity, etc. But with that said, what was Jesus talking about in this passage?
In large part, He was speaking about one of the effects of the Truth. The Truth of the Gospel has the power to deeply unite us to God when we fully accept it as the Word of Truth. But another effect is that it divides us from those who refuse to be united to God in the Truth.
We are not intending this and we ought not do so by our own will or intention, but it must be understood that by immersing ourselves in the Truth, we are also putting ourselves at odds with everyone who may be at odds with God and His Truth.
Our culture today wants to preach what we call “relativism.” This is an idea that what is good and true for me may not be good and true for you but that, in spite of all having different “truths,” we can still all be one happy family. But that’s not the Truth!
The Truth (with a capital “T”) is that God has established what is right and what is wrong. He has set His moral law over all of humanity and this cannot be undone. He has also set forth the truths of our faith and those cannot be undone. And that law is as true for me as it is for you or anyone else.
This passage above offers us the sobering reality that by rejecting all forms of relativism and by holding onto Truth, we also run the risk of division, even with those in our families. This is sad and this hurts. Jesus offers this passage especially to strengthen us when this happens. If division happens as a result of our sin, shame on us. If it happens as a result of the Truth, then we should accept it as a result of the Gospel. Jesus was rejected and we should not be surprised if that happens to us, too.
Reflect, today, upon how fully you are ready and willing to accept the full Truth of the Gospel no matter the consequences. The full Truth will set you free and will also, at times, reveal the division present between you and those who have rejected God. You must pray for unity in Christ, but not be willing to compromise so as to bring about a false unity.
Why would the Gospel cause that kind of conflict? After all, the last three Popes have affirmed to us-each in his own different way-that to live a Gospel life is to live a joyful life. Why, then, would a joyful life be “such a big deal?” Because God’s way of cleansing us and bringing us new life in and through Jesus Christ is more than a mere lifestyle choice. If we are going to truly follow Jesus Christ, what is being asked of each and every disciple of Christ-and hopefully that includes everyone here-is nothing less than a total commitment to Jesus. Most traditional Catholic Biblical commentators are in agreement that when Jesus uses the phrase “he who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it,” He is literally telling the Apostles that those people who would choose to save their own mortal lives rather than sacrificing them for the sake of Christ will lose their soul for eternity, while those willing to see their lives sacrificed for the sake of Christ and the Gospel will gain eternal life.
What Jesus is telling His Apostles here, and what He tells us in this passage, is that he asks nothing less than total commitment from anyone who would be His disciple. He repeats it in more than one place in the Gospels, because in the Gospel of Luke Jesus goes so far as to say that we cannot be His disciple at all if we put our family or our own lives (and by this He means all of our worldly concerns) before Christ (Luke 14:26) Jesus is telling His followers not to be as concerned with the things of this world, with the necessary difficulties of life, as they are with being His disciple.
In our age of rapid communication and modern technology, our lives are supposed to be much easier, but we know that today’s way of living has its own difficulties and its own concerns and traps, as it were, many of which can take our minds, hearts, and souls away from the things which are truly important. Christ’s call to discipleship, and to a life of complete submission to Him still rings just as true and just as real as it did when he said the words of the Gospel two millennia ago.
We hear a great deal of talk in modern American culture, about people having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” We absolutely believe that our God is real and He is personal, but that is not a phrase which appears anywhere in Sacred Scripture. Instead, this is the discussion we get from Jesus, one where He tells us that following Him could cause conflict even with those who are the dearest and closest to us. If you want an example of someone who is truly living out what Jesus has spoken of, try talking to or befriending a convert who is embracing the Catholic faith despite serious and heated opposition from close members of their own family, people they have to deal with every day. Such people want to honor their parents and other close family, but they know that they cannot give those closest to them what they want, which is to abandon their Catholic faith. The fidelity of such people should be an example to us of exactly what Jesus means in the Gospel today.
“Whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Jesus’ message of total commitment to Him is not exactly one we hear often in our modern culture. Far too many people are totally committed to their own advancement, their own enrichment, or their own pleasure. Even among many Catholics, there is often an attitude which says “I have been to Mass this week, I have done what I needed to do,” or “I’ve been to Confession, I can check that off my list.” Perhaps the worst example of this is the mentality that exists in some circles that “after Confirmation, you are ‘done.’” No one should ever be “done” with Jesus Christ.
Living a sacramental life is not merely about “going through the motions” of receiving the Sacraments. If we think that is what it means to live the Gospel through a sacramental life, we have missed the whole reason Christ gave us the Sacraments in the first place. The Church has consistently taught us that the Sacraments are outward and visible signs instituted by Christ to confer Grace upon those who receive them, but the Sacraments are a two-way proposition. When we receive the Sacraments, in order to receive the sanctifying Graces Christ has for us in them, we have to be open to receiving those Graces, and we can be open to sanctifying Grace by being committed to Jesus Christ in the way in which he is asking us according to the Gospel.
The ultimate reward for this kind of complete embrace of Jesus Christ and His message is that we will spend eternity in Heaven sharing in the Divine Life with Him. Living a committed Gospel life may be a daily struggle for many of us, but one way that we can know that we are on the right path is that for all of the difficulties Jesus warned would come our way when we choose the Gospel, and when we choose Christ, He also said “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:30) Jesus wants us to follow Him most of all because we love Him…and if we love Him, living a Gospel life won’t seem very burdensome at all.