Marketers are more clever at getting us to open and read junk mail. Worthless advertising used to be easy to identify and even easier to throw away. Now, however, envelopes are stamped with the words “urgent”, “open immediately”, or “time sensitive information.” They come disguised as government correspondence or as airline tickets. Or we are told that we must respond immediately to claim a prize that is waiting for us. More often than we would like to admit, we are tricked into opening the mail just in case it really is important. And, more often than not, we find out that it was exactly what we thought it was - junk.
However, there is a reason that marketers continue to send out such worthless mailings. Every year, millions of people are tricked into believing their false claims. They end up signing up for loans with low introductory rates or buying into time shares. Only later do they learn that their low rate of 3% will balloon up to 25% or that they can only use their new time share once every other year. They find out very quickly that the offer was too good to be true and now they are paying for it.
What mistake do these millions of people make every year? They fail to read the fine print. On the back of all these offers, in the smallest print possible, are all the restrictions, exclusions and limitations. The fine print spells out in no uncertain terms what the free prizes and introductory offers are really going to cost us. Until we read the fine print, we do not know what we are getting ourselves into.
By contrast, there is no fine print in the Bible. When we read the gospels Jesus tells us right upfront what the cost of following him will be. He does not sugar coat his message or wait until the end to tell us that what he is calling us to do is difficult. He lays it right on the table. The gospel does not come in pretty wrapping tied up in a bow. None of us can say that we did not know that living our faith would be so demanding. Jesus makes the sacrifices required of us very clear. We are reminded of it every time we look upon the cross.
If Jesus has seemed more pointed, more demanding or even more severe over the past few Sundays, we must remember that we have reached the section of Luke's gospel in which Jesus has "set his face toward Jerusalem." Jerusalem and Jesus' death there cast a shadow over all his words and actions. He is well aware of what will happen at the end of this road, and he wants his disciples to be aware of it as well. Like the man building the tower or the king who set out to face his enemy, they must be aware of and prepared for the cost of following him.
Jesus understood - and we must understand - that even though his cross was something he would have to shoulder alone, even to the point of feeling abandoned by God, his disciples would themselves have to have some share in that suffering if they were to grab hold of the salvation it offered. And the first step on that journey is dropping everything else and everyone else.
Jesus' words in this weekend's gospel, “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,” are so strong that they can leave us stunned. There seems to be no practical way of applying them to our lives. Jesus cannot mean that we must turn our back on our father and mother whom we are commanded by God to honor. Even worse, it would be a scandal to abandon our spouses and children!
But, if we were to look honestly at our lives in the light of Jesus' words, there is a truth we must recognize.
Our family may not always be around. Our parents will eventually die. We had a life before knowing our spouse, and it may happen that we will eventually lose our wife or husband. And our children will eventually grow up and move away.
No matter how many people we live with and no matter how many people are around us, we are ultimately alone.
The only friendship we can never lose is the one we have with Jesus. Though it seems the least tangible of our relationships, it is the most real. Any other relationship only has meaning if it deepens our friendship with him.
Jesus is challenging us to understand the cost of following him. We were created by God to follow Jesus to Jerusalem, to take up our cross and join our suffering to his so that we may also rejoice in his victory over sin and death. That is the meaning of our lives. And everything else and everyone else has value in as much as they help us on that journey.
Once we grasp this, we do not become less attentive fathers, less loving mothers, dead beat husbands or distracted wives. When we order our relationships along the lines of Jesus' call to follow him, those relationships actually take on deeper meaning. When I see my marriage as a gift, I no longer take my spouse for granted. When I see my children as a mission, I no longer try to live vicariously through them. And instead of blaming my parents for all the dysfunction in my life, I am grateful that they did their best to give me life and to protect me.
Jesus makes it very clear to us what the cost of following him is. Each of us will live Jesus' words in a different way. But the road will lead to the same place - to the cross and to Jerusalem, the city of God and the place of our salvation.
Why do we continue to follow although the way is so difficult? Because Jesus walks with us. He promises to be with us always to help us carry our cross. And he tells us that he has already won the victory and that he is waiting to share it with us. We need only to trust him and to walk faithfully the path he has marked out for us.