There’s a comedian named Jim Gaffigan who likes to make jokes about family life, specifically his own. He once said this about teenagers: “Teenagers are great, aren’t they? They’re always saying things to their parents like, ‘I hate you! You’re gross! …When’s dinner?”
How many of us have said things like that to our parents? (Of course, my parents have said they would never have dared to say anything like that to their parents.) So when Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother” and so on, is this what he’s talking about? Of course, he includes others as well, like one’s wife and children, brothers and sisters, even one’s own life! I thought we weren’t supposed to hate anyone. Aren’t we supposed to love everyone?
The answer to that question is: no, we are not supposed to hate anyone, and we are supposed to try to love everyone. When Jesus says we must hate father and mother, brother and sister, and so on, in order to be his disciple, he is of course not speaking literally. Remember, Scripture has to be read and understood in context to the whole; it can be dangerous to take individual verses of Scripture out of context. Jesus is using a figure of speech called hyperbole to make a point. At times he exaggerates in an extreme way because he is really trying to emphasize an important point.
So what is the point he’s trying to make here? It’s safe to say that he does want us to be his disciples. And it’s safe to say that he doesn’t want us to hate anyone, least of all those who are closest to us. The point Jesus seeks to make here is that nothing should be put above our relationship with God. Nothing should take priority over following Jesus. Anything that does should be shunned, removed from our life, altered, changed. Why is that? Because our relationship with God, being a disciple of Jesus Christ, is the most important thing there is. And that’s because our relationship with God is connected to our eternal salvation.
In this Gospel, Jesus is talking about the cost of discipleship. This is not the prosperity Gospel that perhaps you’ve heard of, that says if we follow Jesus we are going to receive an abundance of material riches and all our problems will be solved and life will be easy. That’s not what Jesus promises us. Rather, Jesus is telling us that sometimes following Him is going to be hard. Sometimes it’s going to make life difficult for us. Sometimes it will mean having to say no to things that we really enjoy. Sometimes it will mean even losing friendships or jobs or status or material wealth.
So what are some of the things that can and do get in the way of our relationship with Jesus? First, anything that clearly leads us into sin. That means the obvious stuff like drugs and pornography. But it could also be certain people who are bad influences in our lives, who literally lead us into temptation, getting us to do things we otherwise wouldn’t do, who don’t build us up but rather tear us down. It could be certain jobs that ask us to do things that require compromising our morals, what we believe. It could be anything in life that makes us so busy that we don’t have enough time to pray, that we skip Mass because we have “other commitments”, and so on. The list is long.
When these things get in the way of our relationship with God, then it’s time to get rid of them. And that’s when the cost of discipleship can seem high. Giving up an unhealthy relationship can be really hard to do. Giving up a job can be even more difficult, because you depend on it to pay the bills. Sometimes settling for a lower standard of living can be tough, especially if we’ve gotten used to living a certain way. Yes, it’s true, sometimes being a disciple of Jesus can be really tough.
We see the highest cost of discipleship from the lives of the martyrs, who gave up their lives for their faith in Christ. Sometimes the martyrs of the early Church were asked to do the simplest things: just say that you believe Caesar is a god. Just offer up a little incense to the Roman gods. St. Thomas More was the chancellor of King Henry VIII of England. Henry VIII divorced his wife and wanted Rome to grant him an annulment so that he could remarry, and he wanted Thomas More to back him up. Thomas refused to do so. He was thrown into prison; he was on death row. His own daughter Margaret came to visit him in prison and pleaded with him, “Just tell the king what he wants to hear, and in your heart you can still believe what you want.” But Thomas refused, knowing that if he supported King Henry over Rome, he would give a bad example to many and could lead others to renounce their faith. And in the end he was martyred for refusing to support the king of England. Yes, sometimes the cost of discipleship is very high indeed.
So why is it sometimes necessary to renounce these things, especially things that might be so important to us, or things that seem relatively harmless? It’s because whatever we give up for the sake of Jesus Christ cannot compare to the love of God. The love of God, and eternal life with God, is infinitely greater than everything else. It is the most precious gift. It’s not always easy to see this or really grasp this however. Our day-to-day lives often can get in the way of that. Our first reading from the book of Wisdom alludes to this: “the corruptible body burdens the soul and the earthen shelter weights down the mind that has many concerns. And scarce do we guess the things on earth, and what is within our grasp we find with difficulty; but when things are in heaven, who can search them out?”
Our second reading today is from St. Paul’s letter to Philemon. This is a very short book of the Bible, so short that there are no chapters. And this is the only time that we hear a reading at Mass from this book. St. Paul writes to Philemon that he is sending back to him the slave Onesimus, who Philemon had apparently sent to Paul to serve him while he was in prison. Paul urges Philemon to free Onesimus from slavery, because he is a brother to him in Christ. Paul urges him to renounce this earthly possession for the sake of a greater good. Sometimes we have to give up certain things for the sake of a greater good.
And so it is in our relationship with the Lord. But remember, whatever we give up, we do so for the sake of a greater good. We feel some pain, some discomfort, in the short term, knowing that there will be infinite gain in the long term. Our relationship with Jesus Christ is worth whatever we are called to give up. Let us seek to love God, with our thoughts, our words, our deeds, with the very whole of our lives. The love of God is worth it.