Jesus is headed to Jerusalem and knows that the Crucifixion lies before him. The crowd believes he will head a new empire and looks forward to his arrival. Jesus makes clear that while following him is free, it is not without a cost. Those who follow him are not on their way to the worldly power and glory that many of them envision. They are bound for God’s justice, grace, mercy, love, and eternal life where the needs and suffering of this world are ended,, but the road between from here to there includes division, suffering, and death upon a cross.
In Jesus’s day, not unlike our world today, there were many religions whose practitioners and specialists crossed paths. It was not uncommon for wealthy and powerful people to hire specialists from “exotic” religious traditions to assist them with making decisions, divining the future, or simply for entertainment as they explain the practices of their homelands and people. Canada’s prime minister Mackenzie King regularly paid mediums to attend his home and conduct seances for advice and entertainment, remember.
There were many religious groups associated with different professional classes. The cult of Mithras was popular among Roman soldiers, for example. Many of these groups were what we today called closed practices. Their rituals and beliefs were only shared with people who had joined the group and who had undergone certain rituals of initiation. In many cases, these rituals came with material costs as well. This remains true in our world today; there are religious traditions that demand monetary payment to access certain rituals and certain “levels” of membership.
To say that to follow Jesus is free but carries a cost is an important distinction in both first century southwest Asia and in our world today.
We have heard, in our Gospel readings recently, Jesus speak about the division that he will bring to the world. This is one of the costs of following Jesus. God’s request of us is that we love with all of our hearts, minds, bodies, and strength. If people close to us believe that we are pouring our whole selves into the wrong path, it may strain and fracture those relationships.
In today’s passage, Jesus says that to follow him means we must hate our fathers and mothers. Read literally, this seems a bit cold and arbitrary. There are several ways to approach this, but I think the simplest and most likely is that Jesus is comparing our love of God to our love of family in extremes to make a point. Our love of God must be so great that the love we have for our parents will seem like hate in comparison. Similar to saying “There were, like, a million people at the concert!” There may have been hundreds, even thousands, but we understand the point the speaker is making. There may be division in families because some choose to follow Jesus and others do not. This is a real concern and one Jesus warns about, and this line reinforces that cost as well, but it is not a commandment to hate one’s parents without any sort of cause or reasoning.
Humans change over time. I am not the same person that I was ten or twenty years ago. Sometimes we change and grow in directions that pull us apart from relationships that we value. When those relationships are with people that we loved very much, that strain and pull as we change can be difficult and painful. This can be true in the case of religion, but we have all heard of families in the last five years whose relationships have been strained by political differences and the realities of the pandemic.
Our loyalties to one another and to human institutions can clash. Our relationship with God, however, remains steady. God keeps God’s promises and is with us always, in every time, place, and circumstance. This is why God calls us to devote our whole selves to this relationship: It is a safe place to put our whole selves because God will neither abandon nor hurt us. Jesus, in calling people to take up their crosses and follow him—to become his disciples—is calling those people who are willing to devote their whole selves to follow him truly, and calling on those who are hanging about to reconsider where they really want to be.
It is entirely possible to follow Jesus without being a disciple. In the scenario laid out in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem where he knows he will face death. There are those people who have become his disciples—Mary Magdalene, Andrew, Peter, James, and so on—who may not know the details, but are aware that this road is going to be a difficult and dangerous one. But there are also people who are following the crowd like modern day concert groupies.
These folks see opportunities in what Jesus is doing other than an opportunity to know God. They are like those who follow military camps without being soldiers or those who attend lectures without really being students. Some of them are following Jesus because they want him to be a political figure, a firebrand who will serve their own purposes. Some are attracted to Jesus as an individual, intoxicated by his personality and charisma and want to offer him their personal allegiance as their own, very special leader. Some are ready to cultivate Jesus’s company because they see a profit to be had; you know that there were souvenirs made and sold at the sites of Jesus’s miracles. Very few of the people following Jesus are doing so because they see him as the one who will open the gates of heaven and bring forth God’s justice for all people into the world.
Jesus is speaking to the crowd and telling them that now is the time to make their commitments. To follow him with all their hearts, minds, bodies, and strength and all of the cost that comes with it. To leave behind the lives they have known and to walk a road that will be unpopular, hard, uncomfortable, dangerous, and, for at least some, deadly. If this is not what they’re up for, they should reconsider their affiliation with this particular crowd and, perhaps, find another road.
Jesus is still speaking to us the same way today. Calling us to love God with our whole beings and to love our neighbours in the way that we love God. Walking this way of Jesus is free, but not without costs. God knows this is not an easy request and reminds each person considering this road to consider the cost, knowing that it may cause division, strain relationships, make us choose between what we like and what we must do, what is comfortable and what is godly. This Christian life is no easy thing when we throw our whole selves into it.
The good news amidst all of this talk of cost and pain and division is that God never demands we do it alone. God demands our all, but does not leave us to walk the road alone. God goes before us to show the way, walks beside us to cheer and strengthen and comfort us, and behind us in case we should stumble and fall along the way. It is a difficult and costly journey, but we walk the road with God every step of the way.
We walk with God and with one another in God. Thanks be to God.
Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán