Discipleship: The worldly don’t get it. But are we all worldly?
The Sunday before last, the Gospel reading (Luke 14:25-33) was that strange passage about the king who should sue for peace before throwing his ten thousand troops against an opposing force of twenty thousand; and about the builder who should not risk mockery by failing to make sure he has sufficient resources before beginning the construction of a tower. The passage as a whole is about the cost of discipleship, but I have never heard a homily or read a commentary which gives an intelligible account of these two examples. Many may have explained it, but I have not seen or heard the explanation.
First, how do we know that the entire passage is not simply a random collection of sayings compiled by the evangelist rather than a cohesive presentation on a single point? The answer to this is simple. The first three verses tell us Jesus is speaking here to a great multitude, and he quickly states the point he wants to make:
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. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. [26-27]
He follows this with the conjunction for, which indicates a logical relationship between linked thoughts: “For which of you, desiring to build a tower…” (28-30). Then he expressly offers an alternative example: “Or what king, going to encounter another king in war…” (31-32). Finally he wraps it all up by restating in his conclusion the thesis he had stated in his introduction: “So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (33).
In other words, Our Lord intended that the examples of the king going to war and the builder constructing a great tower should reinforce his point. The king who tries to win with too small a force, and the builder who tries to build with too few resources, are exactly like…what? They are like the person who tries to follow Christ without renouncing all that he has. Studying the two examples more closely, we see that the result of this pseudo-discipleship will be (a) defeat (as with the foolhardy king) and (b) mockery (as with the foolhardy builder).
Clearly we are dealing with a cohesive presentation of a single teaching. But how is this comparison to be understood. What does it mean?
Building and winning salvation
After listening to or reading this passage more times than I can count throughout my three score and ten, I am hoping I have broken through at last. I can see one way to interpret the passage which makes it not just a rhetorical whole (which is deliberately established in the wording) but a logical whole (which depends on our ability to grasp the logic). And the logic is simply this:
We cannot gain salvation on our own terms, because none of us has anything remotely like the Divine power that is required. We cannot do it “our way”. We have to do it Christ’s way, which is the way of the cross. Now in the world as a whole, we cannot expect a great deal of understanding, but among those who claim the name Christian or Catholic, is this not the defining problem of our age? Let us look more closely.
In these examples, Our Lord is telling us that anyone who looks at the problem clearly should see the obvious: We cannot take heaven by storm, as no human person has even remotely enough power to conquer God. And we cannot enter heaven by some clever and elaborate human route (this is reminiscent of the Tower of Babel, by the way), because even the most well-funded human effort cannot take us there. Every one of us is a king with two few troops; every one of us is a builder with insufficient resources. If we have any sense at all, we will understand that we cannot do this by our own power. And that is why we must bear our cross and follow Christ.
This interpretation makes heaven unreachable by human power, and most readers will find no trouble in that. But in the military example, the same interpretation tends to cast God as an enemy king. This is not quite right, of course, for while God’s will is eternally fixed and unchangeable, He is never our enemy. All analogies break down at some point, and yet this one is not so very far from the mark. Our Lord is saying: “Look: In just the same way as the king with 10,000 men will not foolishly imagine that he can defeat a king coming against him with 20,000, so too can no human person force God’s hand to win the victory of salvation.”
Where, after all, does prudence lie? It is necessary to come to terms before God arrives at the time of our death. It is better to sue for peace while He is still, in that sense, a long way off.
As Christians grow spiritually, they learn that the more of themselves they surrender to God, the more they become like Him, and that this is mostly a matter of sowing in tears to reap in joy (Ps 126:5-6). The more we let God lead us, the less attached we become to things that retard our progress, and the more confident and deeply happy we become at the prospect of finishing well. In less agricultural terms, the spiritual life—even for those fairly advanced in it—is largely a matter of admitting Divine grace into deeper and deeper recesses of our being so that we can gradually learn to say with St. Paul:
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. [Gal 2:20]
The examples Christ gives us through this passage in St. Luke’s gospel are meant not so that we will believe God is an opponent, but so that we might simply see reality for what it is. The passage, if we whittle it down to just two words, is a reality check. We are made for Divine love and God alone can initiate us into the forgetfulness of self that enables us to receive it. We are fools—utterly defeated like the king and laughingstocks like the builder—if we try to win such happiness through our own strategies, our own resources.
No, the reality is that Christ is the way. That is why He says, in this same passage, that we had better first sit down and calculate the the real, the actual cost (v. 28). For “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.”
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