The great Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a series of reflections on the Sermon on the Mount entitled The Cost of Discipleship. In them he maintained that discipleship requires that we make a fundamental decision to follow Jesus and accept the consequences of that decision. The ultimate cost of discipleship was exacted of Bonhoeffer himself when, on April 9, 1945, he was hanged for his resistance to the Nazi regime. While discipleship might force some people to decide between life and death, few of us will be asked to pay that ultimate price. Genuine discipleship does, however, call us to live in a way that, more often than not, requires a certain degree of heroism.
There is an introductory sentence to the three scenes on discipleship today. It reads, ‘now as the time drew near for him to be taken up to heaven, he resolutely took the road for Jerusalem.’ This announces the beginning of a new stage in the life of Jesus. By and large his ministry in Galilee was successful. Many people flocked to hear him, especially the poor, the oppressed and the sick. But now he sets his face towards Jerusalem. ‘Setting his face’ suggests it took some grit on his part to leave happy Galilee and all his past behind. Furthermore, he knows too well what lies ahead, that by means of the cross, he will be taken up to his Father. Discipleship, the art of following Jesus, demands something similar. It means we too must break with the past, with family ties, with anything that holds us back from following Jesus. It’s an all or nothing strategy.
In the first scene we have someone so drawn to Jesus that he takes the initiative himself promising to follow wherever Jesus would go. But Jesus’ response that foxes and birds have places to stay, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head, is met with a deafening silence. He obviously realised that Jesus was asking too much. Nowhere to lay one’s head sounds too much like living on a wing and a prayer, with no security, money or power in the offing. And so he passes up on ‘living on the road’ into an uncertain future.
The same goes for the one who asks leave to bury his father first. This does not necessarily mean that the father is already dead. What he is asking is that he wants to wait until his father dies and then he is free to follow Jesus. In Jewish culture this is a reasonable request, but as far as Jesus is concerned, the Kingdom of God can’t wait. It takes precedence over all family ties.
The third scene harps back to Elisha who was busy ploughing when Elijah threw his cloak over him. In order to be a disciple of the great prophet, Elisha had to leave his parents and family. Though this is a big ask it’s not unusual. In all our lives there comes a time when kids are no longer kids and must leave the nest. For Elisha however, there is no coming back as he destroyed the tools of his former occupation. At a spiritual level Elisha’s leaving home is letting go of the safety of home to venture forward into God’s world and to put one’s trust wholly in God. The only difference between this story and the gospel is that Jesus is even more strict. He doesn’t even allow the young prospective to say goodbye. His following must be instant.
Let’s take a look at the phrase, ‘“Once the hand is laid on the plough, no one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” St. Gregory the Great was well aware of all sorts of distractions that can eat away at our commitment. In his Pastoral Rule he talks of a person who sets out on a long journey. Very quickly this person (he actually calls him a fool) becomes so distracted by the dogs barking at him from each gate that he forgets his destination and only notices the various dogs. Well today most dogs are pretty well locked up or are on leashes, but that doesn’t mean the end of distractions. Cell phones and social media are all good in themselves, but they can also be a major source of distraction leaving our minds very scattered and overburdened. Then there is multi-tasking, hurry sickness and living in the fast lane with little or no time left to enjoy each other’s company and smell the roses. How wise William Henry Davies when he wrote, ‘What is this life if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.’ When time becomes master we are most surely its slave. We end up living far from ourselves and have but little wish to get any nearer to who we really are.
The big issue for these potential disciples is freedom. Each must have wondered, ‘will I ever be free again if I follow Jesus along this uncertain road?’ All the evidence points to the contrary. Look at people like St. Paul, St. Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa or Pope Francis. All of them are ardent followers of Jesus yet all of them are free. Of course we are not talking about freedom to do one’s own thing and building one’s ego. It is freedom to do the right and human thing, to join in the project of building a better world, a world filled with the light of Christ. It is said of this present age that we are not very good on commitment. We too easily press the undo button and begin something else. That’s ok if it’s commitment to the wrong thing. Paul suggests that if you commit yourself to Christ, be willing to take up your cross and follow him down that uncertain road, then you can never be wrong. On the contrary your life will be full of joy and freedom.
Discipleship is a matter not of duty, but of love. The apostles may have struggled on the road to Jerusalem but after Pentecost their hearts were flooded with love and that same love was poured into every action they performed. Their future was very uncertain and unpredictable but that only encouraged them to trust and abandon themselves completely into God’s loving hands. To ask one to ask them at the end of their days about the cost of discipleship might solicit and answer like, ‘what cost? We have been graced with so much!’
Sunday, 26th June 2016