In the course of this week’s Gospel, the Lord Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms the demands and the cost of real Christian discipleship. Christ tells us that our life with Him must come first, before all else, or it is not worthy of the kingdom of God. The Lord tells us this seemingly extreme truth by confronting three different potential obstacles to wholehearted discipleship, namely, desire for an earthly home, attachment to sorrows, and attachment to other people.
First, Christ answers the man who, rather presumptuously, says that he will follow wherever the Lord goes. Before anything else, we would note that this is similar to Peter’s presumption, who says on Holy Thursday night that he will follow Jesus to death, but who denies Him before morning. This man is claiming something truly great, something he cannot understand, something impossible to accomplish without God’s help. Yet Christ does not turn this man away entirely—we know that all Christians are called to follow Christ wherever He goes, and if they remain faithful, they will follow Him even in His resurrection and ascension. The Lord simply makes clear to the man that following Him means giving up on having an earthly home. The foxes and birds that Christ mentions represent worldly people who spend their time dealing cleverly with the world in their affairs, and flying from activity to activity. These people have a home on Earth, but they have no home together with Christ. The man who wishes to follow Jesus, and in fact, all of us, must make a definitive choice: to seek a home among the things of the world and rest there, or seek a home in Christ and be content with not fitting in well in the outside world.
The second would-be follower of Jesus seems to have a good excuse when the Lord calls him, that is, he wishes to bury his deceased father. As good and compassionate as that act might seem, Jesus is apparently not impressed, responding with the famous “let the dead bury their dead.” What are we to learn from this? Again, Christ is telling us that nothing can come before our relationship with Him, but He is illuminating for us a more subtle obstacle to love of God. He is reminding us that attachment to our sorrows and sufferings must not come between us and God. Sometimes it happens that we can make the pain we’ve experienced or caused in our lives the center of our relationship with God. Our prayer can become focused on the past, on what other have done, on tragedies we have experienced, or on our own sins. While it is good for us to face these things together with God, Jesus reminds us, that we have to hand them over and let them go at a certain point. Our spiritual life is about meeting the living God, seeing Him clearly in all His love and glory, not primarily about healing our wounds. Healing might be a necessary first step towards the Lord, a pre-requisite for spiritual growth, but if we hold on to what is painful, we risk missing the actual point of Christian faith.
Finally, Christ answers the man who wishes to follow, but not until spending more time with his family. Again, the Lord is clear that nothing, not even that which is good, can come before God. In another place, Christ says “those who love father and mother more than me are not worthy of me.” This can be a difficult teaching to hear, since so often our prayers and petitions center on our friends and families, those whom we love, and we so often turn to God so that we can heal or strengthen those ties of love and friendship here on earth. So many of the activities we look for in our parishes focus on strengthening our marriages, families, and friendships. Indeed, god created the family a well as our capacity for friendship as reflections of His own goodness in the world. Yet Christ says that if any of these things come before Him in our hearts, we are not ready for heaven. Again, as before, Christianity is about union with God, and we are not permitted to mistake the good consequences of Christian faith for its purpose.
In the end, Christ tells us all these things not as a cruel or restrictive correction, but as an admonition of love. We were, each of us made for God, made to be fulfilled by God, and nothing on this earth, home, success, healing, friends, or family, can actually satisfy our hearts. Yet, if we follow the warning of Jesus and choose God before all else, then we will find that we have a better home in Him than any worldly person could ever possess, we find healing we could never have imagined or expected, and our relationships come alive with a love that is divine, not merely human. This requires of us humility, trust, and courage, of course, but leads to the foretaste of heaven’s peace on earth, and the glory of its fulfillment in eternity.