A few days after Christmas last year, I was standing in line at the cash register in a local store. In line ahead of me was a child whose hands were filled with packs of batteries. When the cashier scanned the heaps of batteries, the child learned that he had insufficient cash to pay for all of them; he faced a shortfall of approximately $5.00. The boy didn’t want to go home without sufficient batteries to power a toy he had received for Christmas and the cashier didn’t want to void the sale on the cash register. In order to break the impasse, I offered to make up the difference owed.
The boy was happy to get all the batteries he needed, but lamented, “Mister, I can’t repay you.” I told him that he didn’t owe me anything; rather, he needed to be honest, responsible, and trustworthy for the entire span of his life. The cashier remarked, “That’s a very high price.” The cashier was probably right about that.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus warns a crowd of prospective devotees that being his disciples comes at a very high price and that, before making a commitment to discipleship, one should take note of the cost. He says that anyone wishing to be his disciple must abandon family, possessions, and self-determination. He counsels his hearers to be careful to avoid the embarrassment of being like a person who “began to build but did not have the resources to finish.” (Lk. 14:30)
I suggest that this teaching by Jesus is often misunderstood. Very often, the high cost of discipleship is estimated in terms of heroics, that is, making impressive sacrifices for other people to see, engaging in very public piety calculated to be self-effacing, or choosing the appearance of suffering in order to be thought pitiable but gallant. In other situations, the high cost of discipleship is estimated in terms in utopian fantasies such as imagining possession of a special, elite insider’s access to God. Some people, of course, consider the stated high cost of discipleship not to be worth the investment; they opt to retain their bad habits, self-destructive behavior, or selfishness.
All of these above are common assumptions about the faithful practice of religion and all of them suffer from the same flaw: all are measurements of cost based on human values systems. If there is, as Jesus says, a very high cost to discipleship, shouldn’t we expect it to be a cost calculated on the basis of God’s values system? What, then, might be God’s values system?
In Jesus’ birth, God spoke God’s eternal Word completely into a human life. In Jesus’ death, God offered the whole world the complete depth of God’s forgiveness and fidelity. God’s values system is one of complete, unselfish giving to another. God gives completely of God’s self to us and, in return, God expects us to give completely of ourselves to God and our neighbor. This is a very high price, indeed, as it requires us to give up listening to our own counsel and, instead, listen only to God’s Word.
Let me offer an example of what I mean. Each one of us has an inner monologue that plays in our consciousness throughout the day. That inner monologue usually consists of mental activities such as listing the tasks we have to accomplish in a day, narrating the emotional upsets we’ve experienced recently, and reenacting the personal triumphs we’ve enjoyed. Some of those thoughts and events can direct us toward God; other thoughts and events can direct us away from God. The high cost of discipleship equates to making the effort to discern between the good direction and the bad, and to follow only those directions that lead to God. For example, being distracted during Mass by meal-planning leads away from God, plucking up one’s courage to be hospitable to house guests is in the middle ground that could go either way, resolving to forgive hurts and offenses leads inexorably to God.
There is a very high cost associated with following Jesus. It is not a cost paid in intentions or wishes; neither is it paid in the currency of appearance. Further, the expenditure is not an act of consumerism; rather, it requires the total and full gift of ourselves. The currency in which we pay the very high cost of discipleship is the differential between following our own desires and following God’s Word; this is just the sort of cost we should expect to result from God’s valuation of relationships. In the death of Jesus, God offers us the totality of God’s fidelity and forgiveness; not surprisingly, God expects us to give the totality of our lives. As our allegiance and trust are the only resources that we actually possess fully, these are the only appropriate ways to requite God’s gift of self to us.