Many years ago, I was visiting my sister, my brother-in-law and my niece. They were staying at a condo owned by my brother-in-law’s father, my niece’s grandfather. My niece had convinced her grandfather to leave his dog with them for the week. Being a doting grandfather, he couldn’t refuse the request.
The dog had short legs, long ears and a long tale. It also had a very strange behavior. The dog seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time lounging under the kitchen dinette table. The chairs at the dinette had wheels. I couldn’t understand why the dog was so insistent to put itself in danger. When we were seated at the table, the wheels on the chairs seemed to come dangerously close to running over the dog, crushing its ears or pulling its tail.
I asked my brother-in-law about the dog’s risk-taking behavior, and he answered, “That’s the drop zone.” The dog hung out under the dinette table in the hope that food would drop to the floor. Evidently, it was worth the risk in order to snag a few tasty morsels from the table. My brother-in-law’s explanation of the dog’s odd behavior made perfect sense to me.
There are many situations in life that make sense only in light of an adequate explanation. In today’s Gospel reading Jesus spoke to a large crowd of people who were traveling with him. (Luke 14:25) He tried to give them an adequate explanation of how religion works. He said, “If any one 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.” (Luke 14:26)
Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, had a small vocabulary, and relied on context to convey meaning. “Hate” in this context meant to value less. English has a very large vocabulary. In English, we have a choice of a wide range of words that convey many gradations of nuance. Jesus had to rely on context to convey the meaning of valuing human relationships less than the value of a relationship with God. If Jesus spoke Standard English, he might have said, “You cannot be my disciple if you do not prefer discipleship above all the other priorities in your life.”
Our faith relationship with God is unlike our other relationships in that faith is mediated. Our conversations with family and friends occur face-to-face, but our conversations with God occur through the mediation of the Scriptures, the Sacraments, fellow believers and the church community. Despite this significant difference, our relationship with God works according to the same rules that govern all our relationships. Specifically, a relationship that is occasional, random or periodic isn’t love.
Religion isn’t at all effective as an extra-curricular, a hobby or a part-time amateur pursuit. Occasional prayer, random church attendance, or periodic concern for the poor accomplishes nothing of lasting value. If you play golf once or twice a year, or even once a month, and you complain that you don’t understand why your handicap isn’t improving, you are the only one who doesn’t understand. In the same way, religion, faith, morality and church attendance will never make sense unless they’re done on an habitual basis.
Jesus expressed this insight by saying, “In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:33) It’s not necessary for all believers to take these words as literally as did Francis of Assisi. In fact, I would prefer that you didn’t. Francis renounced his family, his inheritance, even the expensive clothing he was wearing. He walked away from his family with nothing, not even his clothes. I don’t want to have to pick up your discarded apparel if you walk out of church today to serve God in mendicant poverty.
I would, however, like you to walk out of church today with a clear understanding of what is required in order to call yourself a Catholic. To have faith in Jesus and love for God requires that you do so every moment of every day, throughout your entire lifetime. That won’t happen as the result of occasional pious thoughts. It will happen only as the result of daily prayer with the Scriptures, on-going involvement in charitable work, giving public witness to your faith and active participation in the life of the parish – including, but not limited to, weekly attendance at Sunday Mass. Lacking this, your priorities will be confused and conflicted.
If, then, your life doesn’t seem to be going in the right direction, if your love relationships are strained or disordered, if you struggle to make sense out of life, there is an easily identifiable cause for these maladies: you don’t have your priorities ordered appropriately. While it’s not necessary for everyone literally to renounce all their possessions, it is necessary that all who wish call themselves believers renounce at least one thing: lukewarm religion.
No person can be a disciple of Jesus without renouncing all that stands in the way of faith.