A couple of weeks ago, the internet connection that serves our livestream of Sunday Liturgy was intermittent, resulting in choppy video of random parts of the Sunday Liturgies. The worship experience of the congregation at home was probably very similar to watching satellite television during a thunderstorm: the sum of the parts fell far short of expectations.
Today’s Gospel reading describes the expectations associated with being a disciple of Jesus. Jesus said, “Anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” (Lk 14:33) Based on the context of this saying, it is apparent that the saying refers not only to material possessions but to one’s relationships, as well. (cf Lk 14:26-27)
It is important to note that the command to “hate” father, mother, sisters, brothers, wife, and children sounds rather harsh to us because it is, in fact, a rather harsh translation of the Scriptural text. Semitic languages like Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke) have very small vocabularies. Because these languages have comparatively few available words, they often ascribe multiple meanings to a single word.
In English, we can say, ‘One must assign an appropriately conditional value to those experiences in life that are transitory.’ Aramaic, on the other hand, can only say, ‘hate what is other than God.’ In the context of Jesus’ teaching about discipleship, the Aramaic word “hate” means to “value less than.” Jesus was saying that we are to value objects and our relationships with people less than we value our relationship with God. People and things are finite; even the best of them can’t bear the weight of perfect trust.
Jesus’ teaching might sound unnecessarily inflexible, but it is merely a sensible observation about life in a finite universe. Jesus did not intend to denigrate the value of God’s creation; rather, he cautioned his disciples that creation is not to be valued above God or above one’s obligations to God. The truly inflexible aspect of Jesus’ teaching is not his instruction to value created things conditionally, but his insistence that his disciples are to renounce all allegiances to anything other than the One, True God.
This notion of ‘renunciation’ is the key to understanding Jesus’ teaching; one can be completely attached to God or to someone/thing else, but one cannot be completely attached to more than one object of love. Jesus’ warning about the cost of discipleship was not meant to discourage people from becoming disciples but, rather to discourage people from becoming half-hearted disciples.
This warning about the cost of discipleship has always made some people uncomfortable. There has always been a subset of the Catholic population which rationalizes the lack of faith of those who participate occasionally or half-heartedly by saying, “At least they show up for Christmas, or Easter, or late for Mass, or when they want something.” Jesus’ teaching about discipleship makes it clear that measuring faith in terms of one’s least effort falls far short of God’s expectations.
God deserves more than the least one can do. Furthermore, if a person wants to be a disciple of Jesus, that individual deserves more than the very least she or he can do because the least one can do will never be a satisfying experience of discipleship. Part-time faith, occasional religious practice, or half-hearted commitment is just as satisfying as watching random, intermittent segments of a movie; you won’t be able to follow the plot and you’ll never know what the story was about.
The least of our efforts are appropriate to activities with the least value. Those things in life that have the greatest value deserve our greatest efforts; anything less than that is thoroughly unsatisfying.
Often, I wonder why so many people who were raised as Catholics fall away from religious practice. If I had to guess about the answer to that question, my guess would be that those people received inadequate or intermittent faith formation when they were young; having received an unsatisfactory formation as disciples, they find the life of faith dissatisfying. If you find yourself in that situation – trying to make sense out of a religion that is as incomplete and incomprehensible as a pixelated movie – there is an easy remedy for your dissatisfaction. God is always dependable and always near at hand; faithful discipleship requires only that we imitate God’s faithfulness. To act toward God in the way that God acts toward us will fill in all the blanks, make sense of Jesus’ teaching, and fulfill all your expectations for peace and consolation.