What does it mean to be a “disciple”?
During the time of Christ, there were many rabbis, or teachers, who had disciples. Those disciples were students who chose to learn from a particular teacher of the Law, receiving instruction that was embraced as their own rule of conduct. This obviously required commitment, submission and adherence. But the discipleship spoken of by Jesus involved an even greater demand, for the simple reason that Jesus made far greater claims and promises than did other, ordinary rabbis. Not only did he claim to possess divinity and a completely unique relationship with God, whom he addressed as “my Father,” he also proclaimed that he had ushered in the kingdom of God.
The key components of discipleship are found in Luke 9, and today’s reading further explains the central characteristics of those components. The true disciple must first acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (Lk 9:18-22); he must “deny himself and take up his cross daily” and follow Jesus (Lk 9:23-27); he must be humble (Lk 9:46-48); and he must place the kingdom of God — and the King — ahead of all earthly possessions, including relationships (Lk 9:57-62).
Today’s Gospel summarizes much of this in rather shocking fashion. “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life,” said Jesus to the crowds traveling with him to Jerusalem, “he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14: 26-27). In considering these strong words, we must do away with any flawed understandings of true love. Real love is not a matter of emotion or passion, but of sacrifice and self-gift.
Consider how the man and the woman who enter into marriage not only declare their love for one another, but also vow to forsake all others. In a sense, this means to “hate” all others, for the man and wife, having left their mother and father, become joined as one flesh (Mt 19:1-9). Love always wills the good of the other, despite the emotions involved.
The importance of complete commitment is reiterated in the parables given by Jesus. Constructing a tower requires planning and calculation; to begin building on a whim will lead to embarrassment and even ruin. The king who goes into battle without considering his actual resources will very likely be conquered. Discipleship built on emotions will not last; it certainly cannot withstand the harsh reality of the Cross.
Many of the people following Jesus as he journeyed to Jerusalem were likely doing so out of curiosity or momentary impulse. By providing such a stern explanation of what was involved, he was challenging them to ponder seriously the hard fact of the Cross. The journey to Jerusalem was not a vacation or even an adventure, but a march to suffering and death. Everyone on the journey must take up and carry “his own cross” to enter into the eternal kingdom.
The example of St. Paul is instructive, for having once persecuted the Church with frightening zeal, the apostle took the Gospel to the edges of the known world, suffering immensely for the sake of Christ. He recognized that status and power are fleeting, but that the kingdom of God is eternal, for it is life-giving communion with the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.