On Thursday, I had dinner with my family at my sister’s house, and we had chicken and sausage cooked on the grill. My almost 7-year-old nephew proclaimed to all gathered, “I love sausage!” “Raise your hand if you love sausage”. My mother took the occasion to tell him, “We love people, we don’t love things. We can like things.” He pondered this correction a moment and then said, “Raise your hand if you like sausage. Doesn’t everybody like sausage?” My father responded, “Well, your Aunt Jeannette and cousin Erica do not like sausage. They don’t eat meat.” This was the simplest way to explain to a 7-year-old carnivore the reason why some people he knows are vegetarians, but in fact, I’m sure that on some level, my aunt and cousin really do like the taste of sausage, but for health or moral reasons, they have chosen not to eat meat. For a higher purpose or a goal that they are committed to, they freely sacrifice something that they like. That higher goal determines what they do and do not eat. After an American gymnast won the gold medal last Olympics, the TV interviewer asked her, “After all your hard work and training, what are you going to treat yourself to?” The gymnast, all smiles, said, “I’m going to have a bacon double cheeseburger.” It seems crazy to think that a teen-age girl would not permit herself to eat even one cheeseburger in almost a year’s time, but because her goal was so high – to be the best in the world, she readily let go of something she loved in pursuit of that goal. When one has a goal that gives meaning and purpose to life, all the other decisions in life are ordered to that goal. The high goal that one is seeking does not devalue the lesser good but in fact gives it a deeper meaning and value in relation to that goal.
This is the way to understand what Jesus means when he turns to the crowd following him and says, “If any one comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:25-26). Jesus is not saying that we have to literally “hate” or despise our family members to be his disciples, but he is saying instead that following him is the highest value or goal in life. Being his disciple is what gives meaning and purpose to life and our desire for him must reorder everything in life, even the relationships and things that we value most. If we are not “all in” when it comes to following Jesus, we cannot be or call ourselves his disciple. I recently heard an interview with a congressman who was a Navy SEAL. The interviewer asked him, knowing how hard and brutal the training was, “Did you ever doubt that you would make it through the training?” The congressman laughed and said, “If I had any doubts, I would not have made it. The decision to be a SEAL is made before the training begins. If you go in thinking, ‘I’ll give it a try, but if it doesn’t work out, ….’ you will never make it.”
Jesus uses two images in today’s Gospel to help his would-be disciples understand the “cost” of discipleship: someone constructing a tower and a king marching into battle. “Constructing a tower” is an image that refers to our desire for heaven – for eternal life. (Remember the story of the “tower of Babel” from the Old Testament). On our own, we have insufficient resources to reach heaven. We cannot fulfill our desire on our own. The image of the king assessing the battlefield says that the goal of discipleship is not our battle to win, rather, we must concede to the more powerful king – Jesus, in order not to be crushed in the battle. We have to ask for peace and accept his terms for the journey. The judgement we have to make before we call ourselves disciples – before we can begin the road to discipleship – is to be aware of our incapacities to reach our goal – eternal life – and entrust ourselves to Christ. What must be renounced is the idea that I can make it on my own, that I am in control or in possession of my own life.
To be “all in” for the goal of discipleship is to let Jesus come “all in” to our lives. To let him be the “be all and end all” of our lives. The path to eternal life is not something we figure out on our own. The Book of Wisdom reminds us, “For the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans…. 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?” With the best minds in the world with the fastest computers are making very slow progress when it comes to finding a cure for cancer. Climate change is too complicated for anyone to come up with a reasonable solution and predict its long-term effects. All the weather experts don’t do a very good job of predicting the path of a hurricane. So why should we think we can find our own path to heaven? But the path to heaven for those of us on earth has been made straight because God has revealed the path to us through Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit. We come together as a church, the Body of Christ, to listen to God’s word and to receive Jesus – to let him strengthen us and straighten our paths though his word, the sacraments, and the companions he has placed in our life. Take time to pray, to let Jesus into your life, and to let his word challenge you to examine what is the goal of your life. Jesus promises us that if we want to be his disciples, he will give meaning and a deeper value to everything else in our life and we will experience the peace and fulfillment that our hearts desire. We don’t reach salvation by just going along with the crowd. We each have to decide for ourself what is the supreme value or goal in our life and ask that the gracious care of the Lord be ours and prosper the work of our hands. People can do some pretty amazing things by their own efforts when a gold medal or defeating an enemy at war is their goal. Imagine what someone can do when eternal life with Jesus – the highest good – is his or her goal and they let God himself help them get there. It is not too hard to imagine. We have the witness of the saints – countless men and women – who over 2000 years of Church history have taken up their cross and followed Jesus. Get to know the saints. They are men and women like you and me who show that what the Lord asks of us is possible when we let him into our lives.