In today’s gospel we have heard some of Jesus most shocking and uncompromising teaching:
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. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
We are naturally shocked at the idea of hating father and mother, wife and children. It’s important I think to recognise that exaggeration is a part of Jesus’ rhetorical style: He wants to shock His listeners out of their complacency, and that includes us.
We have to understand this passage in the wider context of the bible: no-one who reads Jesus’ teaching elsewhere about the sanctity of our duty to care for our parents, no-one who pays attention to the way in which Jesus uses the love of a father for a child as an image of the love of God for God’s people, no-one who pays attention to the way in which Jesus’ speaks of a husband and wife becoming one flesh, no-one who attends to the whole of Jesus’ teaching in the gospels will interpret these words in a literal way.
Jesus is rather using a shocking rhetorical style to bring home the importance of what is on offer in Him. Following Jesus is not just another lifestyle choice. Following Jesus is something radically different than deciding to listen to this or that religious teacher or philosopher. There were plenty of them about in Jesus’ day as in our own. It’s not a question of which party or which school of thought to follow. It’s something far more important, it’s something far more fundamental and profound than that.
We often talk about the futility of seeking happiness in material possessions. Jesus’ call to material renunciation is hard, but I think most of us can probably grasp the point. We all know that we need the material necessities of life; but anyone who has ever had any money knows how easy it is to get sucked into an attitude of ingratitude, to get into wasteful habits that don’t bring any real joy, to get into competitive relationships with neighbours, family and friends. We will probably all know people who are wealthy but who also manage to be quite miserable with it.
And it’s also easy to see how having more means having more to worry about, having more to lose, and the greater one’s material possessions, the greater the effort one has to exert to maintain and keep them, with CCTV cameras and burglar alarms and insurance policies and wealth managers and all the rest. Few things generate anxiety in the way that money does, whether you have it, or whether you don’t.
But what is perhaps harder to recognise is that even human relationships cannot bear the weight of our search for meaning, fulfilment and happiness. That is of course why so many of the turn sour, why so many of them fail. When we fall in love we may think that we have found the person who is the answer to our prayers, the person who can bring us lasting happiness and joy. But of course the truth is they are just another flawed and confused person much the same as we are. A beloved child of God, certainly, made in the Divine Image, but nevertheless flawed and imperfect, wonderful as they are.
Few things generate anxiety more than human relationships. We feel uncertain, we feel insecure, we seek attention and affirmation, we seek to control and to dominate, we become angry, we become distressed or confused when others do not respond in the ways we expect them to, we become fearful and worried, we feel guilty. As wonderful as human relationships can be, the reality is that they are messy and complex and imperfect: to ask our beloved to bear the full burden of our hopes, fears, dreams and longings is too much. It is not fair, it is not reasonable.
The same thing is true of our children. How often we seek to live through our children. How often we pin our hopes and dreams on them, how often we expect them to achieve the things we have failed to achieve, how often we expect them to make good our own shattered possibilities, our disappointments with ourselves.
I am not sure that anything generates anxiety more than children. We worry about them endlessly. We give them everything we can and yet it always seems to be the wrong thing. We agonise over their schooling, their friendships, their hobbies, their dreams and ambitions. We worry for their future, we fear sometimes for their safety. We feel guilty a good deal of the time. As wonderful as our children are, the reality is that our relationships with them are usually messy and complex and imperfect: to ask them to bear the full burden of our hopes, fears, dreams and longings is too much. It is not fair, it is not reasonable. Our children cannot bear the burden of our hopes, our fears, and dreams and our deepest longings, any more than our friends or our spouses or our bank accounts.
When we cling to material possessions or husbands or wives or children, when we pin all our hopes and dreams on them, when we seek to satisfy our deepest longings in finite things and people, yes we will find a certain amount of excitement and pleasure, yes we will have moments of happiness, but on the other hand we will have worry, insecurity, tension, anxiety, fear and unhappiness, and more often than not we will end up damaging the very things and people we profess to love.
The answer, as Jesus tells us with shocking clarity in today’s gospel, the answer is not to cling to material possessions, nor to seek ultimate happiness in romantic relationships or friendship or children, the answer is rather to seek ultimate happiness in Jesus and to cling to Him. If we can do this, everything else will ultimately fall into place; not only will we enjoy Him eternally, but we will also be relieved of our anxieties about brothers and sisters and husbands and wives and children and land and houses.
If we are fortunate enough to have them, we will be able to enjoy them without spoiling them with our frustrated desires and longings and fears. And if we don’t have them we will little by little learn to worry less about that as well.
St Augustine puts it beautifully:
Almighty God, in Whom we live and move and have our being, Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee.
The human heart is made to long for God; that longing misplaced is the most destructive force in the world. When that deep longing for God is turned towards fellow creatures, the result is anxiety and disappointment and very often hurt, harm and even destruction. Neither the material world nor our brothers and sisters, our friends and lovers, nor even our children, can bear the full weight of our longings and desires and hopes.
But when we turn our hearts to God, revealed to us in Jesus Christ, when we begin to see that it is only there that our longings can be truly satisfied, then we can find a truer, better, and gentler love for the good things and wonderful people that God has given us in this life.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.