Discipleship: No Excuses
Recently I had an interesting exchange with a reader who was concerned that I was too hard on the many Catholics who have simply been too spiritually lazy to take seriously the Second Vatican Council’s call to renewal in their personal lives (see Afterword: The Mythology and the Reality of Vatican II). This correspondent thought such laziness was inevitably the Catholic norm, and insisted that the real blame lies with their pastors—priests and bishops who have distorted or ignored the Council. Of course, it is not just the Council we’re talking about, but the authentic call to renewal which lies at the heart of every Christian life.
I have no wish, of course, to exonerate culture-bound shepherds, whose failure to exercise a proper responsibility for their flocks will indeed by judged harshly. As Luke’s Gospel explains, “to whom much is given, from him much will be expected” (Lk 12:48). But it is also necessary to insist on other parts of the same Gospel which stress the responsibility each person bears to seek God, learn His will, and follow it. It is true that everyone is judged according to what he has been given, but as the parable of the talents shows, satisfactory excuses are few and far between.
Our Lord said as much elsewhere in St. Luke’s Gospel, when He reflected on discipleship. “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (14:26). And “whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (14:27). And again “So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (14:33).
Jesus gave two examples to illustrate what He meant. In the first, He compares a failure in discipleship to a man who starts building a tower without sufficient resources to finish it (14:28-30). In the second, He compares such a failure to a king who neglects to sue promptly for peace if he sees he is about to be assailed by an enemy more powerful than himself (14:31-32). The second example is perhaps the easier to grasp. The wise king, realizing he cannot resist the opposing force, sends an embassy and asks terms “while the other is a great way off.” In other words, the wise king is willing to capitulate promptly, to give up whatever is asked. In the same way, any wise person, seeing the vast difference between God and himself, must be willing to capitulate—to give up anything and everything—to save his life.
The case is similar with the one building the tower, who will be a laughingstock if he cannot finish. Does Our Lord mean that we should not build if we wisely foresee that we lack sufficient resources to complete the tower? This can hardly be the point. Rather, what is required to build a true tower to God is simply all that we have—just as in the case of the king. Only if we are willing to give everything can we be His disciples. Holding back makes us God’s object lessons—His laughingstocks.
I grant that this self-abnegation does not often occur promptly, nor does it generally happen all at once. Certainly Our Lord tells the merciful and moving story of the prodigal son in the very next chapter. Nonetheless, He has already made it clear earlier in the same chapter that discipleship is a serious business, with serious consequences attending its failure. We find Him at a banquet where the guests are vying for the higher places, and so He gives a lesson in humility (again, the emphasis is on self-emptying), and on the blessings self-effacement brings to those who immediately seek out a lower place. So one of the guests exclaims, “Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!” (14: 12-15)
We might expect Our Lord to approve this insight, but He does not. Instead (“but”) Jesus replies with the parable of the householder whose ostensible friends refused to come to his banquet. In anger the householder turns to the poor, the maimed, the blind, and the lame; he sends his servants even into the highways and hedges to draw in guests to fill his house. “For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet” (14:16-24). These are Our Lord’s words just before St. Luke takes up the requirements of true discipleship.
They are also reminiscent of one of His more famous sayings: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 7:21). Indeed, in another place in Luke’s own account, Jesus Christ demands in apparent exasperation: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (6:46). But, you see, what He tells us is that we must sacrifice everything to be His disciples.
So, yes, our God is a merciful God. He alone reads the heart aright, and we must not presume to judge the spiritual state of anyone’s heart. But neither may anyone rely on excuses. Excuses won’t get the tower built or save the life of the king and his people. In exactly the same way—unless we wish to be laughingstocks or worse, and myself first of all—we must not count on excuses in the spiritual life.
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Posted by: koinonia -
Oct. 29, 2010 10:38 AM ET USA
It is ironic that the current times require attention to spiritual health. The myriad distractions and incessant pursuit of people, places and things result in unparalleled spiritual agitation. A marked decline in the baseline of moral acceptance has disposed a generation to an increased appetite for the sensual. Thus, the climate is most unfavorable for widespread spiritual dynamism. I doubt that many spiritually anemic persons worry enough to make excuses. At least I do .