The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book with the title, Cost of Discipleship. In that book, the author stated that discipleship, “is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.” Here is what Christ explains in the gospel of today, namely, that faith can be a sign of contradiction, challenging our choices and loyalty. Faith can demand so much from us if we truly mean to practice it.
Imagine Paul writing to Philemon about Onesimus whom he described as his son in prison. As an old man, Paul is still charmed by the gospel. However, his appeal to Philemon does not seem easy both for him and Philemon. If, as implied in that reading, Onesimus was a runaway slave, asking that he be restored with rights not as a slave but as an equal partner would be something difficult for Philemon. However, Paul appeals to Philemon asking that he voluntarily welcomes Onesimus back as a brother for the sake of the gospel, as one who is beloved for Christ. Paul is dismantling stereotypes and power, thereby creating an impression of equality that is derived from our oneness in Christ. Paul is asking Philemon to carry his cross by accepting Onesimus back against his will but abiding by the will of God. It is believed that this letter moved Philemon to reconsider his options in line with Paul’s appeal.
Why would Christ be asking us in the gospel to hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters if we want to be his disciple? Why would Christ be demanding that we hate our own life if we truly want to follow him? The answer can be found in Bonhoeffer’s statement that discipleship “is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.” Jesus is testing our loyalty and allegiance in this statement whereas he reminds us of the great reward of commitment to God. This takes us back to the first commandment that says, “I am the Lord your God. You shall not have any other god but me.” Yes, God demands total commitment to Him. To hate father, mother, brother, sister, children, and even oneself for the sake of God means to place our loyalty in God, to place God before all things in this world.
The cost of discipleship is shown especially in martyrdom and during Christian persecution. Believers who live in places and times of persecution demonstrate what it means to love God above all else. This cost of discipleship manifests in sacrificing their lives, in their readiness to die for Christ. The example of the woman whose seven sons were massacred in the Book of Maccabees (Ch. 7) is typical of such heroic faith. Those sons showed steadfastness while their mother remained both inspiring and resilient. Each of those men expressed undivided love for God. They would not compromise. And when the king appealed to their mom to talk to her last son to see if he would change his mind, here’s what she said to the son, “Do not be afraid of this executioner, but be worthy of your brothers and accept death, so that in the time of mercy I may receive you again with your brothers” (2 Macc. 7:29). This woman loved her sons but she commended them to the ultimate care of God in eternity. Christ says today, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Lk. 14:27).
Recently, I had a funeral of a forty-one-year-old woman. As we finished the prayers in the funeral home for this lady, the little daughter, 5 years old, requested to see her mom. This came unexpectedly. The casket was still open, so she was taken to see the mom one last time. The dad and the deceased’s sister accompanied this little girl. She had a stack of drawings that she made for her mom. As soon as this girl got in front of the casket, she started bringing out her drawings and began to present them one after the other to the mom. She spoke to her mom as if she was alive and as if she was conversing with her. She would tell her what the drawing and paintings represented and how much the mom loved those drawings. She would name her friend who made any of the drawings in school and ask her to give them to her. At this point, tears were rolling down the eyes of everyone as we watched and listened to this girl. We all knew what was happening, but it was clear that she didn’t quite understand the concept of death. The dad could not bear it anymore. He bent over and said to me, “Why does God decide to place this cross on me at this time.” I didn’t have the answer at that moment, rather I whispered to the girl that her mom had gone up to be with God and the angels in heaven from where she would be looking over for her. That question by the dad is important for this reflection, “Why does God place or allow that we experience the cross as his disciples”? We still go back to Bonhoeffer’s response, “It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.” Carrying the cross is heavy but following Jesus gives us meaning beyond the experience of physical or emotional pains and loss.
To carry our cross, often requires that we renounce our possessions, our earthly pleasures, and comforts for the sake of Christ. That is the cost of discipleship. In some cases, such decisions contradict the mentality of the world. Every one of us by baptism is like the man who plans to build a tower. We must calculate the cost by asking for God’s wisdom and grace. Discipleship is not that cheap; it is quite an expensive endeavor. Each step we take is costly and challenging. We are like kings setting out on a battle. Yes, baptism makes us kings. Kings lead and command forces, but the enemy fights to take over those kingdoms. We battle different forces in this life -physically, spiritually, and emotionally. Unless we make God our priority, the enemy would overpower us. Our chances of success are high in Christ Jesus. For this reason, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). The question for each of us this weekend would be, “What does following Jesus cost you?” Are there times when you are faced with making choices between God and your love, between God and marriage, between God and children, between God and work, between God and pleasure, between God and health, between God and politics, or between God and material possession? What was that time like and how did you get out of it? Always remind yourself of Christ’s promise, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life” (Matt. 19:29).
May God bless us with wisdom and grace to carry our cross and to follow him always.
Readings: 1st- Wis. 9:13-18; 2nd- Phil. 9-10, 12-17; Gospel- Lk. 14:25-33