Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran theologian, wrote a series of reflections on the Sermon on the Mount entitled The Cost of Discipleship, in which he maintained that discipleship requires us to make a fundamental decision to follow Jesus and to accept the conseuences of that decision. His own religious convictions led him to stand up to the tyranny of Nazi Germany and to participate in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The plot was uncovered, Bonhoeffer was apprehended, and the ultimate “cost” of discipleship was exacted of him. He was hanged by the Nazis on April 9, 1945.
While discipleship might force some people to decide between life or death, few of us will be asked to pay that ultimate price. But we will be expected to live in a certain way.
The readings for today demonstrate this cost of discipleship. Elijah left his parents; people who followed Jesus were told that they too would have to leave family responsibilities behind. In a society based on kinship ties, family or tribal responsibilities are most important. Only for a grave reason did one set them aside. Thus the biblical writers are explaining that commitment to the service of God supersedes all other valid commitments.
Not every call to follow Jesus requires leaving one’s family. For many people it is precisely within the family that discipleship expresses itself. The point is total commitment. Parents are certainly required to commit themselves wholeheartedly to their children, and adult children often find themselves in similar situations with their aging parents. It may be true that some occupations, by their very nature, demand more than do others. Still, regardless of our call in life, discipleship requires unselfish commitment.
Paul provides us with some direction for living out our discipleship. He exhorts the early Christians: “Stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” Elijah and the individual in today’s Gospel were directed to put discipleship above even the most cherished values of their cultures; discipleship directs us to do the same. There certainly are values or social customs that tend to yoke us in a kind of slavery. Political and social pressures, for example, can corrupt genuine love of country and lead to disdain for others; advertising often perpetuates avaricious consumerism and self-indulgence. And who has not at times felt enslaved by technology? How should a disciple act in such situations?
Paul’s second directive needs no interpretation. Love does not mean “never having to say you’re sorry.” It means that we stop “biting and devouring one another.” It means that we make peace in our families, at our workplaces, in our country and in our world. It means that we live lives that “are guided by the Spirit.” This is not always easy. The very popular slogan “What would Jesus do?” invites us to look anew at “the cost of discipleship” in today’s world.