Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time: The Cost of Discipleship
Today’s readings are difficult, very difficult. They are difficult because they present the cost of discipleship.
We began with the plight of Jeremiah who was persecuted because he proclaimed the Truth of God. It would have been so much easier for Jeremiah to have kept his prophecy to himself. But as he would protest in chapter 20:
You seduced me, LORD, and I let myself be seduced; you were too strong for me, and you prevailed.
All day long I am an object of laughter;
everyone mocks me.
Whenever I speak, I must cry out,
violence and outrage I proclaim;
The word of the LORD has brought me
reproach and derision all day long.
I say I will not mention him,
I will no longer speak in his name.
But then it is as if fire is burning in my heart,
imprisoned in my bones;
I grow weary holding back, I cannot!
Yes, I hear the whisperings of many:
“Terror on every side!
Denounce! let us denounce him!”
All those who were my friends
are on the watch for any misstep of mine.
“Perhaps he can be tricked; then we will prevail,
and take our revenge on him.”
Horrible things happened to Jeremiah, including his being thrown into the cistern as we heard today. But Jeremiah would not reject the burning of God’s truth within his bones. It was the cost of discipleship.
The readings then present the Letter to the Hebrews. The author tells these second and third generation Christians to keep their eyes fixed on Jesus and persevere in running the race set before them. Jesus embraced the cross, endured the opposition of sinners and was rewarded by his Father. He did this so we can join Him in enduring the wrath of sinners. The reading also scolds these Christians who were complaining that Christianity was too demanding. It reminds them that they have not yet had to shed their blood. Perhaps they would have to. There is no limit to the cost discipleship imposes on us.
And finally we come to that most difficult Gospel. It starts off wonderfully, as the Lord says, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” But then the Lord proclaims what the fire of His Love will bring:
“Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three;
a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father,,,,,” and so forth.
Jesus tells his disciples, and tells us that there will be a cost of discipleship.
This is not what most people, including me, want to hear. We don’t want to hear that choosing Christ will put our lives so at odds with those around us that we will be persecuted, and mocked. We want our religion to be easy. We don’t want to have to pay a price for living our faith.
But we have to.
In his great book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrick Bonhoeffer makes a distinction between what he calls cheap grace and costly grace. He is not using the term grace as we Catholics do, as something coming from God. He is using it as another word for religion. So I’ll insert religion in paraphrasing Bonhoeffer. He says that "cheap religion is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap religion is a religion without discipleship, a religion without the cross, a religion without Jesus Christ." Cheap religion, Bonhoeffer says, is to hear the gospel preached as follows: "Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness." The main defect of such a proclamation is that it contains no demand for discipleship.”
“In contrast to cheap religion, costly religion confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus. It comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him.” He goes on to say, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Because we have chosen Christ, we are mocked for believing in God. The pseudo intellectuals of our day treat us as though we are children and disparage the truths of our faith as children’s tales. Because we have chosen Christ we are reduced by others to being Jesus freaks. This is part of the cost of discipleship.
Because we have chosen Christ we are confronted with difficult decisions that we need to embrace to be whom we claim to be, People of God. For example: Catholics are pro-life and anti-abortion. This position is easy to hold until your seventeen year old daughter becomes pregnant, or your best friend, or you. Then it becomes a matter of loving that baby more than your plans for the future, or the plans of you had for your daughter or your best friend. The Catholic who says, “I will choose love rather than death,” is embracing the cost of discipleship.
Another example: it is easy to fight against substance abuse until you find yourself as one of the few around you who isn’t getting drunk, smoking pot or taking some other drug. It is costly to turn away from bad situations and be scorned by others. “You think you are so much better than us,” the in-crowd scoffs when we turn away from their immorality. This is just another one of the costs of discipleship.
We embrace the cost of discipleship when you in your marriages, and we priests and religious in our vocations remain committed to our vows in difficult times as well as in easy times. There are no perfect marriages because a marriage is the union of two, normal yet imperfect people. The cost of discipleship demands that you accept each other’s limitations and love your spouse even during those days that you don’t particularly like him or her. The cost of discipleship demands that those of us who have made vows to God keep those vows even when, especially when, we feel overwhelmed by the needs of our people as well as our own personal wants.
We embrace the cost of discipleship because we are more concerned with others than ourselves. We are more concerned with their eternal salvation than with anything they can do to us in this life.
In the beginning of today’s Gospel Jesus says, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” The fire of God’s love. That is what we are about. We know we are loved. We know that God wants others to join us in His Love. If we are truly going to be his disciples, then we will happily join the Lord in setting the world on fire with love. And we will do this no matter what personal cost this entails: For the cost of discipleship is temporary, but the Treasure of God’s Love is forever.