Our gospel today begins with the phrase, “Great crowds were traveling with Jesus.” They were following because they had found someone who was many things. He was a miracle worker, he was a charismatic presence, and he was a great preacher; he spoke in a way they had never heard before. He set their hearts on fire. And they all wanted to follow him and it was easy to follow him. All was going so well. And so Jesus challenges this group and in a sense he says to them, “Will you follow me to the bitter end, you’re here now, but will you follow me to the bitter end.” As we know only a few were there at the bitter end.
Our Lord then lays out the cost of discipleship. He tells them how to follow. And he gives them the great challenge of detachment. Detachment is the heart of the spiritual life Detachment is loving God first and then loving everything and everyone else for the sake of God, to love God and to love everything else for the sake of God. And when we get this right we have found the narrow path.
Writers of Spirituality will say that detachment is an attitude of the heart. God calls a few people to give away all their possessions. Think of St. Francis of Assisi. He allows the rest of us, however, to keep some of what we own, but not cling to it. Detachment means getting rid of our “selfish clinging” clinging to things or clinging to people.
Spiritual writers will also say that detachment is a response to God’s love for us. For example when we fall in love with someone, everything and everyone else in our life begins to pale in comparison to this beloved. We change our schedules we change our priorities. We spend money and time on this person without feeling like it’s a sacrifice. If, on the other hand, a young man were to always watch football with the guys rather than have dinner with his girlfriend, she would rightly question his feelings for her.
What about us? Would we rather watch football (or go shopping, or spend time with friends, or read, or do whatever). Would we rather do all these things rather than pray and spend time with God? Would we pray even if we didn’t “enjoy” it? What if God allowed us to lose all our loved ones and possessions, as happened to Job in the Old Testament, would we still love Him and follow Him? Would we have inner peace?
Our Lord calls us to put love for Him above everything else. When we can truly do this, then we are detached and on the narrow way. And to describe this spirit of detachment Jesus uses the word “Hate.” He says, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brother and sister, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” This word hate that Jesus uses is not aggression; this word hate is used as a Jewish exaggeration, used to make a point. We “hate” our family members in the measure they become little gods to us. They become little gods to us when their opinions and expectations become our ultimate goal or where pleasing them becomes the ultimate goal. We “hate” them in the measure they become little gods to us. If they have become little gods to us, we don’t “hate” them enough.
When we look at the life of Saint Francis, we can see this spirit of detachment, we see a man who made a break from his family his father especially. He still greatly loved his family but he loved our Lord more. Francis’ father wanted him to enter into the family business. And that was a good thing but Francis had to follow God’s plan instead, putting God’s plan ahead of his own father’s plans. At one point Francis’ father had locked him in the house because he was selling things from the warehouse and then giving the money to the poor. He was selling off his father’s things. Francis escaped and again began selling his father’s inventory. Eventually the father brought legal charges against Francis. The case was brought before the local Bishop, who sided with the father ordering Francis to return all that he had taken. Francis agreed and he made plans to restore everything he’d taken and he even went a step further giving back the clothes he was wearing. So that he was totally naked in the church square. And standing there naked he said to his father, “I have called you father on earth; but now I say, ‘Our Father, who are in Heaven’.” He still loved his earthly father but God was his number one.
The Bishop then gave Francis an old woolen coat to wear. Francis found a piece of chalk so that he could draw a cross on the old coat, he put it on and he began his work. Working with the sign of the cross on his coat Francis began in earnest to carry his cross.
Now when Jesus tells that great crowd of followers that they must, carry their cross they would have been shocked. We today think of the cross in spiritual terms but that crowd would’ve seen the cross as death in utter agony, and humiliation, and nakedness. Our Lord was telling them unless you crucify your ego, your selfish wants, you cannot be my follower. Our Lord was telling them unless you love me first, and first, and first, and then love everything else including your own life for the sake of me, if you don’t do this you cannot be my disciple. This is the foundation of our spiritual life. Something we always work at with God’s grace.
At the beginning of his conversion St. Francis prayed often in the Church of San Damiano and on one occasion he heard a voice coming from the cross saying to him, “Francis go and repair my Church, which you see is falling down.” Every time we carry our cross putting Jesus in first place we, like St. Francis, help to build up the Church. Let us always follow Jesus, even to the Cross.
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley