The hard demands of discipleship
(Readings: 2 Kings 4:8-11, 14-16; Romans 6:3-4, 8-11; Matthew 10:37-42)
Introduction to Mass
This Sunday the gospel reading contains more of Jesus’ instructions to the apostles. He tells them about some of the sources of advice and criticism they should be prepared to welcome as part of their vocation as his disciples.
At the beginning of Mass we call to mind the times when we’ve failed to listen to the advice or criticism that would help us make progress in our own discipleship and we ask God for his pardon and strength.
Once again Jesus expands on the more prophetic elements of discipleship, instructing his twelve apostles in a series of blunt and arresting sayings.
If I can take the second part of Jesus’ instruction first: he tells the apostles here that they should welcome any prophet or holy man who happens to appear among them.
In the gospels the circle of Jesus’ closest disciples often stand as a symbol of the Christian community in the future, and I think the lesson here for us is that although we are not all expected to fulfil the special role of the prophet or the holy man, we are expected to welcome those who do. We should welcome what they have to say and what they have to teach us rather than ignoring them or silencing them.
Well, what kind of roles do the holy man and the prophet have? I would see the holy man – or holy woman for that matter – as someone who is preoccupied by God in a more intense way than the majority of average believers. This is someone who feels obliged to withdraw from ordinary society and the normal patterns of life to concentrate more exclusively on prayer and reflection, on searching for God and growing in knowledge of God.
The best examples of people like that have become experts in the spiritual life, prayer, the depths of God himself. They’ve often made great progress in personal holiness, so that other people have been able to turn to them for advice.
So I think when Jesus talks about the need to welcome the holy man he’s saying that there is a minority within the Christian community as a whole which has this special vocation, and which the rest of us can learn from and benefit from.
Then there’s the role of the prophet – another minority vocation within the whole community.
Judging by the examples in the Bible the prophet is an individual who, like the holy man, also feels drawn by God in particularly intense way. But unlike the holy man the prophet feels compelled to emerge from his silence and his prayer to proclaim a message from God - to voice God’s compassion for the poor and suffering or to vent his anger towards cruelty and oppression and hypocritical religion. The Hebrew word for prophet means “one who speaks out”.
Whenever the religious community falls into a complacent attitude and begins to justify its lapses from the demands of God’s law the prophets are the individuals who preach in the language of criticism and rebuke, encouraging the people to engage in self-criticism rather than self-congratulation.
Jesus himself, of course, often preached prophetically and suffered the consequences. But what he’s doing here is advising his followers to welcome prophetic voices and listen to their criticisms, because if they’re genuine they’re people who are raising God’s concerns and recalling the community back to basic principles which have been ignored, watered-down or lost sight of.
If these two vocations are specific vocations within the community at large, the remarks Jesus makes at the start of today’s gospel are meant to apply to every disciple: “Anyone who does not take his cross and follow in my footsteps is not worthy of me.”
Christ carried his cross literally, of course. For Christ’s followers “the Cross” quickly became a symbol for the sufferings, the losses, the sacrifices, the defeats and humiliations that we encounter in our lives in one way or another. We might also include the various personal defects and inadequacies that we struggle against as part of our spiritual life.
But more precisely, I think, when Jesus talks here about the necessity of carrying the cross I think he has in mind the kinds of suffering or painful experiences that come to us as a result of putting our Christian discipleship into practice.
Jesus took it for granted that in a world marked by selfishness and manipulation the selfless person will be exploited or taken advantage of. In a world of lies the truthful person will be painfully isolated. And so on. This was Jesus’ own experience, after all.
Our natural tendency is to believe that goodness and honesty and virtue should be rewarded. We react angrily when our own moral efforts go unrecognised or are even exploited. In many ways we’re inclined to throw off the cross, in other words, not to pick it up.
What Jesus is doing here is he’s trying to prepare his followers for the potential costs of discipleship. He’s trying to educate them to expect a certain amount suffering if they really want to follow in his footsteps. It’s our experience of suffering, more than anything else after all, that proves to be the test of our faith and our earnestness in living out the gospel.
Sometimes people coast along with a fairly conventional type of faith – a faith that they don’t reflect on very much as long as they’re managing more or less to get what they want out of life. But when disaster strikes in some way, it disorientates them. They get angry towards God, or religion or the Church - “what have they ever done for me?”
But what also happens very often is that although people react in that way at the time of their bad experience, as time moves on their anger gets transformed and their experience of suffering ends up deepening their faith.
Then they find that when they read the gospels they’re reading them with new eyes and they understand what Christ is talking about for the first time. Their own painful experiences give them an insight into the nature of a God who allowed himself to suffer for the sake of a sinful and ungrateful humanity. This is a vital part of the dying with Christ and rising to new life that St. Paul talks about in the second reading today.
No doubt there is a lot more that could be said about these sayings of Christ’s which have been collected together in this particular passage of Matthew’s gospel, but hopefully those are some of the lessons at least, that we can draw from what he’s saying here about the implications and the struggles involved in accepting him and following him as Saviour.