The Gospel of Luke has a central message: God’s mercy, in the person of Jesus Christ, has been offered to all without exception. God’s gracious gift, however, has one limitation, which is our willingness to respond to God’s mercy. And while God’s mercy evokes a “feel-good” response—endless GIFs of cuddly cats and infants taking their first steps—discipleship, the result of responding to God’s mercy, has a price. On the road to Jerusalem, Jesus asks his disciples to weigh the cost of discipleship and determine whether they are willing to pay the price.
Jesus’ language is sharp about the demands of discipleship: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Is that all then? My family and life? No, one more thing: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Give up a comfortable life? Is that it? As long as you include all of your things: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
While these images are offered as a means to relativize the things of this life, to subordinate family and possessions to Jesus’ call, that call is for your life. It might be your life at the altar as you celebrate Mass, as it was in Rouen, France, for the Rev. Jacques Hamel. It might be your life given to foreign lands, as it was for St. Francis Xavier. It might be your life given to the poorest of the poor, as it was for Mother Theresa. But make no mistake: Jesus calls for our lives.
Jesus offers two parables to explain why the things of this life are secondary to Jesus’ call. Jesus describes building a tower and waging a war, both activities for which a great deal of money, planning and people are needed. He asks, “Which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?” and “What king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?” The focus of these stories is on the disciples. If you follow me, do you have what it takes to complete your mission? This means Jesus’ disciples must be all in. Are we committed to the project of Jesus’ mission?
But Jesus needs to know, too, whether he has the builders and the soldiers committed to completing the tasks to build the kingdom and to defend it. For the kingdom is an exercise in construction but also a battle waged against the forces of evil. For Jesus to complete the kingdom, he needs steadfast disciples; for the battle to be waged successfully, he needs faithful disciples.
What the building and the battle mean in practice for each of us will be something different, something perhaps unexpected even at the sunset of life, from what one has planned; but all of us must remain at the disposal of God’s plan, not our own personal plans.
Paul remains the prime example of a man who felt he was doing all that God required of him in tracking down disciples of Jesus in ancient Syria, when the risen Lord appeared to him. Paul’s life turned in this moment. Instead of being a persecutor of the Messiah’s disciples, Paul became an apostle for the Messiah, bringing Jesus’ word wherever he was called, including to prison cells. It was from prison cells that Paul continued to build the kingdom, even while in chains, by personal witness and by writing letters to the churches dotted throughout the Roman Empire.
Paul’s life, and all that he had, was at the disposal of the kingdom after he heard the call. The cost of discipleship for Paul, for building the kingdom and fighting the forces of evil, was beatings, imprisonment and finally his life. But Paul weighed the price and gladly paid it. Building the kingdom was all that he desired, and the price of discipleship was more rewarding than he could have hoped.