Great crowds were traveling with Jesus,
and he turned and addressed them,
“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.
Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me
cannot be my disciple.
Which of you wishing to construct a tower
does not first sit down and calculate the cost
to see if there is enough for its completion?
Otherwise, after laying the foundation
and finding himself unable to finish the work
the onlookers should laugh at him and say,
‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.’
Or 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?
But if not, while he is still far away,
he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms.
In the same way,
anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions
cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:25-33)
In the late 1980’s, a volunteer approached a leader of the Sanctuary Movement in the United States serving refugees from Central America, and she asked to join in the work of the movement. The leader said to her, “Before you say whether you really wish to join us, let me pose some questions: Are you ready to have your telephone tapped by the government? Are you prepared to have your neighbors shun you? Are you strong enough to have your children ridiculed and harassed at school? Are you ready to be arrested and tried, with full media coverage? If you are not prepared for these things, you may not be ready to join the movement. When push comes to shove, if you fear these things, you will not be ready to do what must be done for the refugees.”
This story, recounted by David Rhoads, reflects the same warning as Jesus’ message to his disciples in today’s gospel. Try to imagine the context. Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem. Crowds of people seek him out, hoping to hear him or at least catch a glimpse of him. Throngs of people begin to travel with him, from one town to another. But it’s very easy to be one other body in a very large crowd; it’s easy to be an anonymous traveler, floating along with the tide. The same is not true of discipleship. It is possible to travel with Jesus but to not really follow him. And that is the tendency Jesus is warning against today. “I don’t want mere traveling companions,” he says, “crowds who are looking to be entertained and amused, people willing to sink into a faceless mass. I am looking for disciples, people who are willing to step apart from the crowd, people who are willing to go against the tide, not along with it. I am looking for people who love me, who are not merely intrigued by me.” Disciples don’t merely travel, they don’t keep Jesus at arm’s length. Disciples allow their encounter with Jesus to change everything. And that is why discipleship is costly. Just as a builder makes sure he has enough resources to finish his tower before he begins building, just as a king marching into battle takes account of his troops to see if he can conquer, so Jesus asks us to consider the cost of discipleship.
It’s a well-timed challenge, as we begin a new school year. Another summer is past, a new season is nearly upon us. Are we prepared to put Jesus first, at the heart and center of everything we say and do? Or are we content to observe him from the crowd, to keep him within our purview, but to not really follow him? Are we willing to take the practice of our Catholic faith from a mere observance of duties to a life-changing force that can charge everything with a renewed sense of God’s presence? Are we honest about our need for God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Confession and are we preparing ourselves properly to receive Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, or do we take these sacred gifts for granted? Our answers to these and many other questions make the difference between the casual traveler and the committed disciple.
Recall that Jesus is journeying, not just to another town or village, but to Jerusalem, where he will be put to death. It makes sense, then, that the crowds begin to thin out the closer her gets to his destiny. May we be responsive enough to God’s grace to remain close to Jesus and to stay on his path, no matter how narrow or rocky it may be.