Today’s gospel sounds very harsh at first hearing and perhaps on further reading. It seems a bit much, if not entirely wrong, that Jesus should expect us to hate our father, our mother, our wife, our children, our brothers, our sisters, even our own life, and all our possessions, in order to follow him. What Jesus is doing is to nudge us towards a glimpse of the fundamental change required in us in order to become sons and daughters of God.
We all probably seek self-improvement: we want to change for the better. Even those who seem content with their lot (‘happy in their own skin’) will realise that part of their contentment is to recognise the need to grow. What the gospel suggests is that we tend to set our goals at a limited distance or in an erroneous direction. We certainly always underestimate the enormity of what change and transformation is possible and required.
There are examples throughout history where we are promised that external structural change to the society in which we live will solve all our problems. Bring on the revolution. And of course, we find that little changes. Some situations may require revolutionary change, but revolutions are unlikely to change much, unless they are accompanied with revolutionary change in the hearts of people.
St Thomas Aquinas was asked by the king of Cyprus to give an account of the best form of government. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his correspondent, Aquinas said that the best form of government was a benevolent monarchy. But during his discourse Aquinas argued that there was no point in violently overthrowing a dictator, because he, or she, would only be replaced by another, possibly worse, dictator. Aquinas’s point, inspired by the gospel, is that change in personnel or structures means nothing unless individual people fundamentally change.
As a Scot living in England I am often asked whether I am pro or against Scottish independence. There always seems to be an assumption that independence will either be a disaster for Scotland or the solution to all its problems. It is not the case that it has to be one or the other. In either scenario, with individuals contributing to a community where freedom and social responsibility are harnessed to foster the common good, then a society can be created that encourages and enables its members to live the good life. So helping people find their way to God. Likewise, neither scenario is a guarantee of disaster, but can become a disaster if the people allow it to.
The people in the gospel are following Jesus but not for the right reasons. They do not know where Jesus is going: his crucifixion and ultimate return to the Father. They are looking for change but did not appreciate that following Jesus entailed the ultimate change of finding their way to God. They were looking for security in this life.
They wanted a change. There were the hungry, who wanted to be fed; the sick, who wanted to be healed; the poor, who wanted to become rich; and the dead, carried by their relatives, who, according to those relatives, wanted to be revived. They followed him enthusiastically, full of hope, and looking for the good things in life.
Jesus turned around; he stopped them and challenged them. He wanted to know if they really knew where he was going. Like the tower builder, did they appreciate the cost of the journey? Like the king, did they appreciate the enormity of the task? There was misunderstanding between Jesus and his followers. They were following him the old way. The people wanted a better position in the old order, to get rich, to get healthy, and to get security.
They wanted an improved old life. Jesus wanted to give them another life. The people wanted change, but they were thinking only of themselves, their families, their lives, and their possessions. Jesus was thinking about the Kingdom of God. Jesus was thinking of humanity as God’s family on its way to a final outcome.
Jesus is asking the people to think in terms of the kingdom of God. He is asking them to give up on the things of this world: corruption and whatever else distracts their attention from God, which can even include family.