Luke 14:25-33, 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Would you not follow the one who could walk on water, turn water into wine, and multiply five loaves to feed five thousand?
There they were, the multitudes, following him to Jerusalem. He knew he was going to end up on Calvary. They thought he was going to reclaim Israel’s lost glory. After all, was he not the anointed one of God who could defy demons and even death, the long awaited Messiah who would bring liberation to his people at last?
To dispel their delusion, the Lord unloads a shocker: “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.”
Then he uses two cryptic images, one on the importance of calculating the cost of building something before actually doing so, and another on the necessity of knowing the odds of victory before actually going to battle.
It was as if he were chiding them as he is daring us today: why are you following me? Do you actually know the full cost of following me? Do you know where I am going? Are you following me for your own ends, for what you can get from me? Will you follow me to the very end?
These words sound like the lament of a leader who seeks true allegiance from his followers. Beneath them is the longing of a lover who seeks true love from his beloved.
Do we truly understand the full cost of discipleship? What is the true price of following Christ?
If we just followed the hand that could feed us, if we only gave to those who could repay us, if we just loved the one who would love us back, what cost is that to us?
Knowing the true cost of discipleship is akin to asking the true cost of love. In our full accounting of that cost, we can be blindsided by our infatuation with possession, power or beauty. The person who diligently books all the direct and hidden costs of this journey called love knows all too well that it costs you your life to complete this journey. Ultimately, the true cost of love is the real cost of one’s life.
And the price of your life, or anyone’s life for that matter, however God-forsaken and bargain basement you or others might price it to be, is, well, priceless.
Take Onesimus, the slave of Philemon, in today’s second reading. In his most personal of letters, Paul writes to Philemon about the slave who apparently had wronged his master and run away. In that letter, Paul takes a risk in returning the slave to his master. He appeals to Philemon to treat Onesimus no longer as a slave, but as a brother, as family, “beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord.”
If we remember how our Lord identified himself with the least of society, how he related to those who were considered the dregs of the community, we just might realize again how our life can be no more expensive than theirs who subsist at the margins of our world.
By Christ’s own reckoning, it seems that the cost of following him surpasses that of family, life, possession, and all those that we keep safe within the boundaries of our love. The true cost of love and discipleship exceeds the value of our own life and affections because it includes as well the value of those lives for whom we are dared to make an oblation.
At the edge of Jerusalem, on Calvary, we are asked yet again to make a reappraisal. On the cross of Christ, we realize the full cost of true love and discipleship. There we discover what is exacted at the very end. Our discipleship and love does not cost us our lives alone; it also costs God his very life. On the cross, all the wine and water and bread in the world that could ever be given is given.
In that priceless oblation, we find hope. On the cross, we find strength in seeing we are never alone to rebuild our lives or do battle with demons and even death.
Countless are they who would profess their allegiance and love of Christ. We who dare to carry our cross must know that for the one we follow, there is only water and blood in the end. There is only his body, which is like bread that has been taken and broken and given up for the life of the world.
Would we still follow him to the very end?