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. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. . . . In the same way, everyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.
Luke 14: 26-27; 33
In today’s gospel Jesus offers a parable to make the point that before setting out on the path of discipleship we had better count the cost. Otherwise, our attempt to follow Jesus will fall apart and we’ll be laughable in our lack of fortitude and perseverance.
Jesus begins the teaching today by telling us that our relationship to him must affect every other relationship, including those that are closest to us and which, in large part, give us our place in society. He says we are to “hate” those who both tell us who we are and who, by our relationship to them, constitute our social status. He also says that we are to “hate” the life of status and significance that we have spent our lives creating and promoting.
The truly radical and transformative quality of Jesus’ teaching is in the forefront today. We are to hate every aspect of the false form we have created, that is, what we are, and we are to abandon ourselves to becoming what we are not. Instead of knowing it all, we are to devote our heart, and soul, and mind, and strength in following what John of the Cross describes as “I-don’t-know-what.”
Delight in the world’s good things
at the very most
can only tire the appetite
and spoil the palate;
and so, not for all of sweetness
will I ever lose myself,
but for I-don’t-know-what
which is so gladly found.
At the heart of Jesus’ call to discipleship is a truth that we find very difficult to hear, let alone follow: “One cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24). We cannot serve our own desire for recognition, power, and significance on our terms and continue to follow Jesus.
Last evening, as we awaited the results of the mid-term election in the United States, a friend and I were speaking of the minimal role that the actual gospel teaching and tradition plays in the politics of this ostensibly “Christian” nation. Even more scandalously for us, we spoke of how many parishes in our own church seemed to be mindlessly following the cultural trends which cultivate an increasingly “bourgeois Christianity.” In one parish, there were actually people passing out political brochures on the Sunday before the election promoting candidates who were ostensibly “pro-life” while promoting xenophobic, racist, and self-oriented rather than communally-oriented programs. All of this with something of the smug satisfaction of being “in the right.” There is little talk in our churches of the radical change of heart that would be required to begin to live our own lives based on compassion and sustainability. Yet, the “godly” position seems very clear to large segments of our population: strengthen policies that continue to marginalize the poor in their segregated and hopeless situations while enhancing the increased wealth and consumption of the “faithful.” As we spoke, we realized the truth that our cultural “form tradition” is so much stronger in us than our “faith tradition,” than the real call of Jesus and the gospel.
Søren Kierkegaard says that God relates inversely. That is: “The more the outward externals indicate that God cannot possibly be present here, the closer God is.” And its correlative: “The more the outward externals, the appearances, indicate that God is very near, the farther away God is.” Thus, God is close in the presence of “the very bad people” who constitute the caravan that is with great difficulty passing through Mexico to seek refuge in the United States, or the starving children of Yemen who are the victims of Saudi aggression and American armaments, while God is very far from the official prayers and God talk of the self-interested and self-promoting powerful. Yet, it is impossible to make such a social critique without calling oneself into account. Where in our own lives is God near and far?
Perhaps it is when we are most marginalized from our own cultures and social circles that God is nearest to us. And perhaps it is at the very moment that we are most recognized and acclaimed by the world that we are most distant from God. This morning I am very aware that my judgments and so my actions are largely based on how others react to me. If I feel disrespected or the object of another’s aggression, I experience strong and hateful reactions. If I feel confirmed and exalted in the eyes of others, I feel happy and expansive. I feel grateful to God when the latter occurs, and I feel distant from God when I experience the shameful feelings of being marginalized from those persons and social circles that constitute my “identity.” In other words, I ask myself what is the level of true integrity with which I make my choices and constitute my actions?
One of the ways we avoid this difficult conflict that the gospel today raises is to do nothing while keeping busy. That is, we can do many things, even good things that are helpful to others, while never acting on those few things that would require us to take a stand. For, to take a stand will always bring us into the “inverse” reality of God. That is, when we do what we must and are truly called to do, we shall discover that we are now in conflict with “the world.” For, simply enough, the values of God as revealed in Jesus are not the values of the world. Our continual attempt in life to put together these two things that don’t belong together is the way we distance from God.
As we make our feeble efforts toward reformation and transformation of our own little community, we are discovering that to actually “do something” will result in an alteration, often painful and a bit fearful, of our relationships, of our place within the community. It can result in the kind of conflict between kin that Jesus describes in the gospel. When facing a difficult choice or action, I often realize that I must negotiate within myself with my childish desire to be everyone’s friend, to not upset anyone. In truth, however, the only way to live in a world of bourgeois “niceness” is to stay busy but do nothing. This is why our own lives, as well as the lives of our families and communities, drift rather than live. It is why we become increasingly bored and self-centered because the life and dynamism, the charismatic impulse, becomes secondary to getting along. It is why the most angry, resentful, and power driven persons control the environment in so many situations.
When Jesus says he has finished the work that God has given him to do (John 17: 4), he does not mean that he has worn himself out in busyness. He means that he has, with integrity, done what God has given him his human life to carry out. I am amazed at my own capacity to see things falling apart for someone or in the situation around me and, for fear of the reactions of others, to do nothing about it. In order to do this, I often must deny the reality. As a member of an alcoholic family, I learned well how to live with and allow to continue what, for the good of the individual and the family/community, should not be so allowed. And I know I am not alone. Much of what a community, for example, asks of its hierarchical leadership is to manage crises which the actual situation refuses honestly to confront. When Jesus says we are to hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, he is telling us that we must act with integrity, that is in line with his call, even at the cost of upsetting or alienating another or of being disliked.
Some see Kierkegaard as a father of existentialism. For him, we don’t really exist until we act with integrity, in harmony with the call we have received. In this sense we are a “solitary individual.” In today’s gospel, Jesus describes a psychological and developmental truth. The one we take ourselves to be is largely the product of our familial and social relationships. We are products of our culture. Yet, he teaches, we are far more than that. We are a unique call and mission to call the world, in our unique way, into a deeper consonance with the will of its creator.
Our apparent truth and our inner truth are almost always for us experienced in tension and conflict. I can very much remember as a child my mother’s strong directives to get along and go along. I think some of the differences she perceived in me as well as her immigrant experience made her anxious that I would have a difficult life, not quite assimilating into the values and norms of the culture. She was no doubt right to a degree, for it may have been this, in part, that led me at a very young age to enter religious life. Perhaps I both feared my capacity to “make it” on the culture’s terms, and also recognized a deeper and truer desire not to accommodate myself to those terms. Whatever the motivations at that young age, the challenge into the present remains the same. I can keep myself busy until my days are ended, doing so in a way that continues to accommodate the demands of my culture and society for the appearance of success and fulfillment, or I can struggle to do the small but significant mission from God that I am. If I live out the former, I never truly exist. If I at least spend myself trying to do the latter, I shall have to bear and suffer that which my mother most feared, not being liked and accepted by everyone, and even maybe being “hated” by some who are brother and sister to me.
So, Kierkegaard reminds us that God relates inversely to our sense of recognition. What we take to be “sweetness and light” is not God. In fact, God may be most distant from that false harmony. God, perhaps, is most near when we dare to do what we must, even at the cost of not pleasing and appeasing. If we are too busy being “nice,” we are probably very far from the mission that is our work to do. No matter how hard we try, it is impossible to serve both God and money, or mammon, or the goals of “this world.” To serve the world in the gospel sense is to bring a good news that the ways of the culture, social or religious, will not readily appreciate. We, obviously, are not to hate our families or our friends or our community members. but we are to hate the ways in which our shared “values” might keep us from the call of discipleship.
The law for God’s nearness and remoteness is as follows: The more the outward externals, the appearances, indicate that God cannot possibly be present here, the closer God is. The opposite is also true: The more the outward externals, the appearances, indicate that God is very near, the farther away God is. Consider the first case, and think especially of Christ. Whenever it appeared that this person could not possibly be the God-human, then people even refused to recognize him as a human being. But it was then that God’s actuality was most present. Now consider the law for God’s remoteness (and the history of this is the history of Christendom). It is as follows: Everything that strengthens the appearance of God being present (in the worldly sense) distances God.
Søren Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers-III, 412