“You who have been present at this bloody tragedy, learn that all torments seem as nothing to one who has an everlasting crown before his eyes. Your gods are not gods; renounce their worship. He alone for whom I suffer and die is the true God. To die for Him is to live.” – Last words of St. Arcadius, fourth-century martyr.
Luke 9:51-62: Now as the time drew near for him to be taken up to heaven, he resolutely took the road for Jerusalem and sent messengers ahead of him. These set out, and they went into a Samaritan village to make preparations for him, but the people would not receive him because he was making for Jerusalem. Seeing this, the disciples James and John said, ‘Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to burn them up?’ But he turned and rebuked them, and they went off to another village. As they travelled along they met a man on the road who said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ Jesus answered, ‘Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ Another to whom he said, ‘Follow me’, replied, ‘Let me go and bury my father first.’ But he answered, ‘Leave the dead to bury their dead; your duty is to go and spread the news of the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, sir, but first let me go and say good-bye to my people at home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Once the hand is laid on the plough, no one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
Christ the Lord Two of Jesus’ closest disciples (James and John) still hadn’t understood their leader. Even as Jesus “resolutely took” the road to Jerusalem, where he would allow himself to be rejected, humiliated, tortured, and executed, they were eager to defend his Lordship by violence and force. On the one hand, they were right: Jesus was the Lord, and he deserved to be welcomed and treated with the highest respect. Therefore, in rejecting him, the Samaritan village deserved censure. But on the other hand, Christ had repeatedly explained that he was on his way to Jerusalem precisely to accept the people’s rejection. Christ reveals God’s mercy precisely by not giving his enemies what they deserve, but by patiently bearing with them. Christ’s Lordship is real, but it differs from what we tend to expect: for Christ, and thus for the Christian, success means fulfilling God’s will, even if that requires suffering, humiliation, rejection, and total failure in the eyes of the world.
Christ the Teacher These three encounters with these would-be disciples teach us three tough lessons about what it means to follow Christ.
First, we have to give up our security. Christ is trustworthy, but when we follow him, we have to do so one step and one day at a time – he refuses to give us a full outline in advance. Even foxes and birds have the security of their instincts and natural habitats, but Christians are on an unpredictable adventure.
Second, we have to take risks. The words of the Lord to this young man seem harsh, but in the idiom of the time, they probably weren’t. The man’s father was probably not dead at all. Rather, the young man simply said that he wanted to follow the Lord, to leave behind the spiritually dead environment he lived in, but he would do so once his father had grown old and died. He felt the tug of Christ calling him, but he also felt the pull of his comfortable life, of the relationships, hopes, and projects that he had long been attached to. Christ warns him that he needs to heed God’s voice without delay – as risky as it may be.
Finally, we can expect difficulties. Plowing fields by hand was no easy task, and to do it well, to plow a straight and deep furrow, required dedication, perseverance, and just plain hard work. Following Christ is no different. Once we get into it, we discover how demanding it really is, and we are tempted to look back at the ease and comfort of a self-centered life (conveniently forgetting, of course, about the hardships that go along with that too). But if we go back, we lose. Only Christ’s Kingdom lasts forever, only God can fill the deepest longings of our hearts – the hard work that fidelity to God’s will requires pays for itself with eternal returns.
Christ the Friend Christ invites these potential disciples to follow him, just as he invites us to follow him. This is no insignificant detail. If he invites us, it is because he wants us to be with him; he is interested in us, in bringing us into his Kingdom. What we do, whether we follow him or not, matters to him. God really cares about each one of us. As the Catechism (#30) puts it, “[God] never ceases to call every man to seek him, so as to find life and happiness.” If we understood how much we matter to him, it would solve an awful lot of our problems.
Jesus: Would you approve of a doctor who ignored his patient’s illness? Would you hire a coach who never pushed his players to excel? Then why do you resist when I ask you to leave things behind in order to follow me? Unless you make room in your heart for my grace by emptying it of selfishness, how can you be my follower? Remember, whenever I ask something of you, I am the doctor of your soul, the coach of your pursuit of happiness and holiness.
Christ in My Life Why am I so afraid of failure and rejection? You chose exactly those realities as your path of glory. You only cared about fulfilling the Father’s will, so why do I care so much about what others think of me, about performing better than my neighbor? Lord, free my heart from vanity and arrogance and insecurity. Free me to love and give myself as totally and gladly as you did…
I really do want to be your disciple. You know my limits and my circumstances, and you know my possibilities – much better than I do. So teach me to trust in you and your will more than in my own judgment. Teach me to find the balance between sensibility (I know you don’t want me to abandon common sense, since you invented it) and courage…
Since you are God, you think unceasingly of those you love. And since you love me, you must think of me unceasingly. Lord, help me to believe that! Help me to live knowing that you are always surrounding me with your wise, merciful, and loving providence. Inspire me with your love, so I will be generous and courageous in spreading the treasures of your truth and grace…
About Fr. John Bartunek, LC
Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, “Inside the Passion”–the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: “The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer”. His most recent books are “Spring Meditations”, “Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength”, and “Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions”. Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.