We hosted Jean Vanier and a companion from L’Arche at our school a few years ago. It was a privilege. There were huge crowds and standing room only, as people flocked to listen to this giant of a man share his saintly wisdom. All were enthralled with the way he spoke about the Gospel and how he and his community tried to live it out. Anticipating an enthusiastic response, at the end of his remarks, Vanier looked very seriously at the crowd and advised any who were thinking they would like to take up the kind of ministry he had founded to be very sure that they could sustain a commitment for the long haul. He described in sober terms the difficulties and the sacrifices necessary to create inclusive, peaceful communities, where persons with and without physical and mental disabilities could live together in loving union.
A similar scene confronts us in today’s Gospel. Great crowds who were being healed and fed by Jesus were following him as he traveled. He addresses them in very sober terms about what it takes to stay with him for the whole way. He speaks about calculating the cost, not to dissuade any potential disciples, but rather to be sure that they are aware of what commitment to him de-mands, lest they be caught unaware. He names three of the greatest stumbling blocks: attachment to family, to possessions and to life itself. None of these in themselves is wrong, but for disciples these at-tachments cannot take priority over attachment to Jesus.
The saying about hating one’s own family members is jolting to our ears, as it was to Jesus’ first followers. In Jesus’ time, people did not conceive of themselves as individuals but derived their identity and their social standing from their family, clan, village and religious group. It would be unimaginable to cut oneself off from family; this would be tantamount to losing life itself.
Looking at other passages in the Gospel of Luke, we see that Jesus himself does not renounce his family. Unlike Mark (3:30-34), Luke (8:21) leaves open the possibility that Jesus’ blood kin can also be disciples. In fact, Luke portrays Jesus’ mother as one who faithfully hears the word of God and obeys; and in the story of Pentecost (Acts 1:14), Luke notes that Jesus’ mother and siblings are among the disciples in the upper room. What Jesus asks, however, is that a disciple be willing to embrace as kin others who are not related by blood. Disciples must act as brother and sister toward those who are different, whether by physical ability or any other status marker. For some disciples, this new family will cause tension and even rupture in one’s biological family. A disciple needs to be forewarned of this difficulty and be prepared to confront it. We see a concrete example in the second reading, in which Paul implores Philemon, the slave owner, to accept the slave Onesimus, as a brother and an equal.
There is a curious twist in the Gospel, as the parables Jesus tells would seem to advise building up one’s resources in order to accomplish one’s ends. The final verse takes us in exactly the opposite direction—calculating the cost of discipleship leads one to total divestment. In addition, we might note that although Luke envisions only male disciples in 14:26, elsewhere he clearly depicts women disciples (e.g., Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and the Galilean women in Lk 8:1-3; 23:44-56; 24:1-12; Tabitha in Acts 9:36; Lydia in Acts 16; Prisca in Acts 18) whose attachment to Jesus superseded love of family, possessions and life itself.