Jesus sometimes makes statements which sound harsh to our ears. For example: “If anyone 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.” How can he tell us to hate our relatives and our own lives, when he tells us repeatedly throughout the Gospels that our most fundamental call is to love? “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you” (Jn 15:12). In today’s Gospel, Jesus is stressing his point, as the rabbis of the time sometimes did, by speaking in exaggerated language (using a figure of speech known as hyperbole); and the point is that following him must take priority over everything else.
Jesus immediately follows this strong statement with another one: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” The Cross – with all its contradiction, mystery and power – is at the center of Jesus’ mission, and is therefore an essential part of our life as disciples. All week we will be reflecting on the Cross, culminating in Saturday’s great feast, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (Sept. 14).
We must remember that the people of his time would not have heard the word “cross” as we do today. Today, a cross is a symbol of Christianity. Many people wear crosses as jewelry, and we see crosses in many places such as churches and cemeteries. But in Jesus’ day, a cross was a horrific instrument used by the Romans to execute their enemies. It was reserved for the most serious crimes. The only ones who “picked up crosses” and carried them were those condemned to death.
Jesus, however, was not guilty of any crime at all, not even the slightest sin. He came to be executed, not for his own crimes, but for the sins of all of humanity. All the teaching and healing which he did during his ministry was leading up to this one central event: his freely chosen sacrifice of his own life on the Cross to redeem the world.
In today’s Gospel, then, Jesus is teaching us who he is and why he is giving his life. And he is revealing to us what it means – and what it will cost – to follow him. He wants us to “sit down and calculate the cost” of the “project” of being his disciple. A disciple is one who learns from the master how to do what the master does. A master painter teaches his disciples to paint. A master singer teaches her disciples to sing. Our Lord is the Master of reconciling the world to his Father by giving his life in sacrificial love, and this is what he teaches his disciples to do. He says that if this is not what we are trying to do, then we are not his disciples. Jesus surely loved his life, and he loved his relatives, particularly his own mother. But above all he was focused on loving the Father and doing the Father’s will. He was ready to give up everything, even his own life, in order to carry out his mission.
Knowing Jesus gives us insight into the very mind and heart of God – which, as today’s first reading shows, humanity has often struggled to understand. How can we know what God is like, or what his intentions are, left to ourselves? “Scarce do we guess the things on earth… but when things are in heaven, who can search them out?” However, we are not left to ourselves. We have been given wisdom by the Holy Spirit who has been sent to us from on high! We have been taught by the very Son of God himself what God is like and what he intends. He loves us with selfless love. He intends to bring us into a joyful, eternal union with himself, and he is willing to give everything he has to make that happen. He is a God of mercy!
St. Paul was well-schooled in God’s way of selfless, sacrificial love; he is a good example for us of a disciple of Jesus. In today’s second reading, Paul writes to his friend Philemon. Though he is in prison for proclaiming the Gospel, Paul is not concerned with his own comfort or advantage. Rather, he is sending his beloved helper Onesimus back to Philemon, Onesimus’ former master. Paul does not want to force anyone’s generosity. He sacrifices himself for the sake of his two friends and urges Philemon to freely welcome Onesimus back not as a slave but as a brother.
The Lord invites us to find the wisdom and experience the joy of living with this kind of love. Truly we have only a very short span of days upon the earth. What are we doing with our days? Are we simply loitering amid the “great crowd” that travels with Jesus? Or are we his committed disciples? Will we take up our cross and follow him, offering ourselves in love to reconcile the world to God? These are serious questions to ponder, but as Pope Francis tells us in the Spiritual Reflection, it brings us great joy when we say “yes” to the Lord’s invitation to be his disciple.
Do I put my relationship with Jesus above all things? Do I see the crosses in my daily life as gifts of love from God? Can I embrace the selfless and sacrificial love God has called me to?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 15, no. 7. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.