If anyone come toward me and does not hate father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters—even one’s own life, that person cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear one’s own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.
Luke 14: 26-7
There is little question that the words of Jesus in today’s gospel are among the hardest of his teachings to hear. The claim of his call to us is total and absolute; nothing or no one can precede it. Such a renunciation is a profound exercise in faith, the faith that the demands of discipleship will always, even when we can’t recognize it, be an act of love toward the other.
In today’s reading from Romans 13: 8, Paul writes: “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” At first glance the two teachings we receive today may appear somewhat contradictory. In fact, however, they are not because the love and service of God must always be an act of love to our neighbor. Jesus tells us we must be ready to renounce love of those close to us, and even our own life, in favor of love of him because of the complex nature of love for us.
Perhaps, a key to understanding this is found in the peculiarly Lucan formulation of the teaching: “Whoever does not bear one’s own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. Only in Luke do we hear Jesus call on his disciples to “bear one’s own cross.” This is the life task above all others: to bear the life and the burden of one’s own cross, of one’s own life call. Yes, of course, we need each other and each other’ help along the way. No one else, however, can bear our cross for us. Is it possible that, to varying degrees, what we call and take to be love in some circumstances lies in the illusory hope that someone else will take away our burden to bear our own cross? And might that illusion not be the love that Jesus commands us to forego if we are to be His disciple?
As children, we live in total dependence on mother and father or their surrogates. We could not live or survive without their taking care of us, of being responsible for us. To be a disciple, however, requires of us that we recognize and accept responsibility for our own life, a responsibility that allows us even to give our life away, to devote it to an absolute love that we come to value, to love, even more than our own welfare.
Recently a religious sect in New York state was in the news because the members of that secretive church had killed one young man and severely injured another by assaulting them in the name of enforcing their “repentance.” Apparently, they were committing the sin of threatening to leave the church. This episode was a reminder of the dangers inherent when human beings attempt to hand over to a church or to any group of others responsibility for the bearing of their own cross, for their own lives. When, as was necessary when we were vulnerable and dependent children, we attempt to deny our own responsibility for our own cross and life call by handing them over to others, we betray the summons to discipleship. When we love any one, any group, any thing, including “the Church,” more than we love the Lord, then we have lost our way, and we ought not to be surprised when those relationships cease to be grounded in love, when violence and abuse rather than love become the dominant forces in the relationship.
For us, as human persons, love remains a complex and illusive experience. It is easy for us to confuse our need for another with our love for him or her. Our preferences and affinities for one person over another are often based on the pre-transcendent rather than the spiritual dimensions of our personality. Today, Jesus calls on us to count the cost of discipleship, a cost that is no less than everything. However, there is also a promise hidden in the call. It is the promise that if, before all, we bear our own cross and follow Him, we shall not fail to love those whom we have been given.
The first [precaution] is that you should have an equal love for and an equal forgetfulness of all persons, whether relatives or not, and withdraw your heart from relatives as much as from others, and in some ways even more for fear that flesh and blood might be quickened by the natural love that is ever alive among kin, and must always be mortified for the sake of spiritual perfection.
Regard all as strangers, and you will fulfill your duty toward them better than by giving them the affection you owe God. Do not love one person more than another, for you will err; the person who loves God more is the one more worthy of love, and you do not know who this is. But forgetting everyone alike, as is necessary for holy recollection, you will free yourself from this error of loving one person more or less than another.
St. John of the Cross, The Precautions, 5-6.