Few words in the Scriptures are more disconcerting than the alarming phrases read in this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage: 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.”
The notion of hating one’s parents, one’s spouse and offspring, one’s siblings, is oddly in contrast with the mandate for charity, compassion and concern that permeates the Gospel message. Elsewhere Jesus has made other peculiar statements about familial relationships that seem to contrast greatly with the consideration and kindness expected from the celebrated healer and miracle worker. Jesus advised one young man who had just lost his father, “Let the dead bury their dead.” And to another hopeful disciple who respectfully thought to bid his family farewell, Jesus uttered firm advice reminiscent of the prophet Elisha, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
In case anyone should miss Jesus’ demand for complete commitment to the Gospel, St. Luke places more familiar and forceful words on the lips of the Savior: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Jesus himself could offer no greater sign of commitment than the sacrifice of his own life and limb on the Cross at Calvary. Jesus was obedient unto death, “even death on a cross,” St. Paul would later emphasize. And God the Father would accept Christ’s death on the Cross as the chief manifestation of his total dedication, total commitment, and total allegiance. Because of the Cross, “God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend.. and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Clearly the Cross and Christ’s carrying of the Cross has remained a pre-eminent Christian symbol through the centuries. There is no more emblematic evidence of Christianity than the Cross. Church steeples, Christian graveyards, precious jewelry, bedroom walls, and liturgical vestments all display the Cross as a tribute to Christ and his mission. Certainly the Cross is a marvelous religious symbol of commitment to those who look back at it after Christ’s epic passion and death. But would Jesus’ words have made sense to his eager audience who still viewed him not as the suffering servant of Golgatha but as the miracle worker and kindly healer of Cana, Capernaum, and Jericho? Although Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke all place this reference to the cross on the lips of Jesus during his public life (St. Luke actually twice), these words would not seem to be as powerful before the crucifixion as after the crucifixion.
Yet perhaps “bearing one’s cross” was already a common figure of speech within the ancient world which certainly witnessed thousands of crucifixions yearly. Still, a criminal shouldering his cross as a legitimate if severe punishment for his offenses and doing so without complaint would probably have been rare in Roman society. Jesus’ willing embrace of the Cross in atonement for crimes that were not his own is certainly unique. The Christian Cross is thus a supreme symbol of obedience toward God and charity toward neighbor.
Consequently Jesus insists that his followers bear their own personal crosses - their challenges, their defeats, their liabilities, willfully assuming the trials of this life out of obedience to the Father and serenely offering the trials of this life in atonement for sin.
And just in case Jesus’ audience and the Gospel’s later readers should miss his point of total commitment even at the cost of family and of life, Jesus concludes, “In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” There can be no half-way measures in the service of God and his Christ.
The disciple must be ready to abandon family, to forsake personal treasures, to forego comfort, and to yield even life itself should the service of God and neighbor demand it. The Gospel knows no compromise, no matter how legitimate a need, no matter how established a practice. The Gospel knows only total commitment.