05 September 2010
Counting the Cost
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – C
Readings: Wis 9:13-18; Ps 90:3-4,5-6,12-13,14-17; Phmn 9b,12-17; Lk 14:25-33
There is a classic story about having faith in God. Many of you may have heard of it, or its various versions, many times.
A man was travelling on a dark unfamiliar road when suddenly he slipped, lost his footing, and found himself falling into a ravine. Luckily, he was able to grasp a protruding tree branch and stopped his fall.
As he was hanging on literally for dear life, he cried out: “God, please help me!” Out of the darkness, a voice came booming: “This is God. Let go of the branch you are holding and you will be saved.” “Are you sure you are God?” “Yes, I am God. Now let go of the branch”, came the reply. And then there was silence.
As the man continued to hang on to the branch, he contemplated the risks of letting go. It took him so long to make a decision, he decided to wait it out. When the first ray of dawn came, he looked down and found out he was hanging only a few inches above the ground.
Surely, there is a lesson here about trusting in God. But something is also amiss: faith is not a blind leap in the dark.
1. Faith is reasonable.
Before we were born, before we were even old enough to understand, God has been already manifesting that He is God: loving, faithful, trustworthy. It’s not like we are being asked to take a leap of faith to the unknown. God and each one of us have a history together.
In the Gospel passage today, Jesus asks aspiring disciples to “sit down and count the cost” of the decision they are about to make. For indeed, discipleship is not like a hobby, and belonging to the community of believers – which is what the Church is about – is not like mere membership in a social club.
Before counting the cost, let’s see first what we have to gain:
We gain a Master who is wise, constant and loving. We have a Good Shepherd who leads us to peace and safety. We have a Father who understands, respects and accepts us. If this may still seem vague, consider the opposite. If it is not God we are following, we are following somebody else.
We are slaves of whatever it is that controls us. If we are not following Christ, we are slaves to sin. Rom 6,16 says: “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?”
We gain fullness of life, which is another way of saying we are saved from a life of meaninglessness, misery, and fear. Now, fullness of life is both a gift and a task. It is the “pearl of great price”, the “treasure buried in the field”. How much are we willing to pay to attain it?
Fullness of life translated universally is nothing less than the Kingdom of God. When God’s will reigns in every heart and home, communities and countries, His grand plan for humanity will be fully revealed and enjoyed.
2. Discipleship demands everything.
If we want to achieve the ultimate dream, we must be willing to pay the ultimate price. If we want to gain everything, we must be willing to give, and give up, everything.
The German Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book The Cost of Discipleship, distinguishes between “cheap grace” and “costly grace”. “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ."
Once again, Jesus uses hyperbolic language which may be hard to accept. Imagine hating your family in order to prove your loyalty. But no, God doesn’t demand that we renounce our family or donate all our properties to the Church or that we offer our firstborns. The Scriptures elsewhere speak about fulfilling our obligations to our families.
Jesus rather demands that we put God above and beyond our possessions, our very life itself, and even those persons closest to us. It means not even treating God as our first priority for He transcends all categories. God is first. Period.
If material wealth is our ultimate value, we make it our master. We design our life according to how much we can grow rich. 1 Tim 6,10 warns us: “For the love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains.”
If our own life is our ultimate value, what if it is taken away from us? Jn 12,25 says: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.”
If our family is our ultimate value, what if our loved ones leave or betray us? How much moral compromise would we make in behalf of our family? Even our family, which is a gift from God, could obstruct us from fully knowing Him.
We started with a story, let’s end with another…
The Cherokee Indians have an interesting rite of passage as their young boys turn into men. When the time for him comes, a Cherokee boy’s father takes him into the forest, blindfolds him and leaves him alone. He is required to sit on a stump the whole night and not remove the blindfold until the rays of the morning sun shine through it. He cannot cry out for help to anyone. Once he survives the night, he is a man.
He cannot tell the other boys of this experience, because each youth must come into manhood on his own. The boy feels the coldness of the night. He is naturally terrified. He can hear all kinds of noises. Wild beasts must surely be all around him. Maybe even some human might do him harm. The wind blows the grass and earth, and shakes his stump, but he sat stoically, never removing the blindfold. It is the only way he can become a man!
Finally, after a horrific night the sun appears and he removes his blindfold. Then he discovers his father sitting on the stump next to him. He had been at watch the entire night, protecting his son from harm.
Accepting the life of Christ necessitates setting aside our old life. This task needs discipline and sacrifice. The journey from the old self to the new is fraught with difficulty and danger, with dark nights of the soul and having nowhere to lay one’s head. But it is worth it. For we will find God not only waiting for us in the end; He has always been with us along the way.