How would you react if a sporting hero were to go on TV or facebook and start telling youngsters that they are now emancipated, and no longer need concern themselves with their parents, with what they say and what they do, whether they are alive or dead? Horror, outrage, police enquiries, political debates, civil libertarians and fundamentalists, media! The whole social construct would be mobilized to counteract the preposterous claim. Yet, as we read the Gospel of this weekend, Jesus’ demands are precisely so radical as to sound derogatory of the holiness of family, to the point of denigrating the sacred duty of burying loved ones. Any wonder then that Jesus of Nazareth died the ignominious death of a subversive and dangerous criminal and a fanatical revolutionary.
Of course, there is no greater violence to the Word of God than literal fundamentalism, and Jesus is not trying to lay down laws of social ethics or negate the sanctity of family relationships. Nor is Jesus extolling destitution as some masochistic virtue to be sought after and embraced for its own sake. However, as shocking and as controversial as he sounds, Jesus does not mince words or pull punches. Of those who wish to follow him Jesus demands nothing short of “nowhere to lay one’s head”, no identity, no family ties, no personal past or future!
We live in an age when we ensure everything, from birth to death, from plastic toys to personal reputation. Not that this will spare us death or loss of property, or make such experiences less painful What the insurance industry does however is to feed onto our compulsive drive to feel secure. It is a cruel irony of our social construct that precisely the destitute person who most needs security will not be able to afford or even find it, beyond relying entirely on trust and goodwill. Poor of is the person without securities, whose life depends totally on others for a piece of stale bread, for an hour of honest work, for a word of recognition or a gesture of dignity. Poor is the Lazarus who lives by the precariousness of each day, grateful for the opportunity to satisfy his hunger with what falls from someone else’s table. Poor is the youngster with neither hope nor vision for tomorrow, beyond the generosity and acceptance by someone else today. Poor is the person who is aware of his/her “need” and for whom any and every opportunity for survival is a gift accepted with gratitude. Poor is the person who accepts life as it comes, with outstretched hands – hands which may remain empty but also hands ready that give and share, because those hands “know” the real meaning of need.
In today’s gospel reading we have a Jesus on the move, leaving behind the familiar places and faces of Galilee where he had grown up and exercised his early ministry. He “resolutely took the road to Jerusalem”, we are told. He knows that this journey to the heart of the Jewish faith and culture will inevitably lead to a hostile confrontation with the authorities, and yet he leaves behind the securities of home and family to face contradiction, rejection and death. That journey is much more that a relocation in space. It is the emblem of Jesus’ life-journey into the will of the Father, even if that may mean facing death and giving up life – the journey of the “nowhere man” in total abandonment and complete trust: “nowhere to lay one’s head”, no identity, no family ties, no personal past or future!
Like the disciples we too want to follow Jesus, and like the disciples we need to be reminded that the same conditions that urged Jesus onto the journey to Jerusalem apply to our journey of faith. Like for Jesus, discipleship is nothing if not a matter of abandonment and trust in the Father. The violent images of unburied parents and abandonment of family want to convey a foundational principle of discipleship: to follow Jesus is simply and solely about letting God into our life on God’s own terms and abandoning oneself in full trust to this God leading us through the unexpected and to the unplanned. Put in a different way, Jesus is saying that when we pretend to construe a discipleship according to some personally self-styled model, when we become enslaved by our parameters of correctness to the point of stifling the “breath of the spirit”, when our time and energy are absorbed entirely in structures and rules, when our operative principle is “maintenance” and “ritual purity” at the expense of creativity, when achievement is the measure of our commitment – then we are not fit for the God’s saving presence and for God’s Kingdom. In all those situations we place ourselves in control of the situation, and when this happens there is very little time and space left for God to energize us, and even less for us to energize others.
Jesus’ radical stance is about the Kingdom and it has nothing to do with that unhealthy fundamentalism which wallows in self–deprecation and denies the goodness of creation and of people. Self-denial for its own sake is not good, and the goodness of creation has to be upheld and treasured as visible signs of God’s love. Jesus never denies the good gifts of earth and the human striving for self-fulfilment, and neither must we. What he demanded of his disciples was that they be totally available to the Kingdom. This m eans being totally open to God and to God’s ways, letting go of one’s expectations and plans, accepting life as a free gift from God, and remaining totally at the mercy of those who seek God through us.
Under the gathering clouds of social and political upheaval of pre-war Europe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote
To follow in his (Jesus’) footsteps is something which is void of all content. It gives us no intelligible program for a way of life, no goal or ideal to strive after . . . The disciple simply burns his boats and goes on ahead. . . . dragged out of his relative security into a life of absolute insecurity . . . It is nothing else than bondage to Jesus Christ alone . . . He alone matters1.
As we pray “your will be done”, are we prepared to let go of our life, totally and unconditionally, in order to follow Jesus unheralded, insecure and unknown? Do we truly trust our God whatever the journey ahead may be, simply and solely on one security: God is there journeying resolutely on, ahead of us? John of the Cross expressed it all in two words: nada (nothing) and todo (all). When we have nothing left because we have given it all into God’s hands, then we truly have nothing to fear, because we will have all we need: God himself journeying with us and shaping our life.
1 D. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, (New York: McMillan Publishing Co., 1977), 99