The Cost of Discipleship

Twenty-Second Sunday Scripture Readings

If we were to suggest a theme for today’s readings, it would have to be, “Be careful what you pray for—you might just get it.” To be perfectly clear, it’s true that God answers prayer but, at the same time, God doesn’t play tricks. In prayer, it’s never a case of “bait-and-switch,” and yet, the answer to prayer that we receive is seldom what we expected it to be. We say that God writes straight with crooked lines, but we fail to realize that the crookedness—the unexpectedness—of God’s response is due to our own narrow and limited understanding, rather than from any deviousness on the part of God. It’s our own expectations that lead us into disappointment or get us into trouble. That’s why we say that expectations are premeditated resentments.

As an example, look at poor Jeremiah the Prophet in today’s first reading. The man had certain expectations, based on his prophetic call. Here is how he describes it.

The word of the Lord came to me:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
    before you were born I dedicated you,
    a prophet to the nations I appointed you.
“Ah, Lord God!” I said,
    “I do not know how to speak. I am too young!”
But the Lord answered me,
Do not say, “I am too young.”
    To whomever I send you, you shall go;
    whatever I command you, you shall speak.
Do not be afraid of them,
    for I am with you to deliver you—oracle of the Lord.

Then the Lord extended his hand and touched my mouth, saying to me,

See, I place my words in your mouth!
    Today I appoint you
    over nations and over kingdoms,
To uproot and to tear down,
    to destroy and to demolish,
    to build and to plant.

Can’t you just imagine young Jeremiah, full of energy and enthusiasm, receiving that message from God? “Who, me? You want me to be your prophet to the people of Israel? You’re making me your mouthpiece? You’re going to use my words to speak to everyone…even our leaders?” Can you see what heady thoughts must have filled Jeremiah’s mind as he realized he was embarking on a mission from God? Was it God’s fault that Jeremiah only considered the honor and the glory that was being bestowed upon him, and gave no thought to the cost? If it’s true that God duped him, it was only because Jeremiah allowed his own pride to turn his head. He never asked the critical questions; so, indeed, he let himself be duped. He didn’t look back to the fate of the prophets before him or consider that God’s message through him might be received with bitterness and anger from a stubborn people fixed in their ways. Jeremiah discovered that there is a cost to surrendering to God’s will—a price that must be paid.

Today’s gospel reading spells all of this out in some detail. In the passage immediately before this—the passage that we read in last week’s liturgy—Jesus asks his disciples who they believe him to be. Speaking for the group, Simon Peter blurts out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus commends Peter for his faith and for acknowledging the nature of Jesus’s mission. “Blessed are you, Simon, son of John, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” But was that entirely accurate? Did Peter really understand what he was claiming, or was he, like Jeremiah before him, “duped” by God? How amazing it must have been for the disciples to learn that they were in the presence of the longed-for anointed one who would restore the people of God to glory! Yet, like Jeremiah, not one of them stopped to ask the cost. When Jesus told them that the cost of Messiahship would be suffering, death, and resurrection, they were scandalized.

It was far easier for them to accept that Jesus was the Messiah, than to accept that the Messiah would suffer, die, and rise again. It was, for them, an abhorrent thought. That’s why Peter was so adamantly against it. How could they accept that there was a downside to the coming of the Savior? If the savior of Israel was to be put to death—the ultimate failure—then who would save Israel? It’s about the same thing Jeremiah would have said if God had shown him the suffering and rejection that he’d have to face if he accepted God’s offer of a prophetic mission. Jesus makes that abundantly clear to Peter. “Get out of my sight,” he tells him. And he calls Peter a satan—the prosecuting attorney, arguing the case for a Messiah without the cost.

“You are thinking as human beings do,” Jesus tells him. What does that mean? How do we human beings think? Our way of approaching things is to say, “I want what I want when I want it…and for free.” Peter understood—perhaps without even realizing it—that if the cost of Messiahship was suffering and death, what possible chance did he have of escaping it? Only a few moments before, Jesus had told him that his Church would be built on the foundation of Peter’s faith. The fate of the Messiah would necessarily also be the fate of his Church—the assembly of believers. The author of the letter to the Hebrews understood this clearly when he calls Jesus our “pioneer” [12:2], the one who blazes the trail—a trail that all believers must follow.

Like Jeremiah and Peter, we, too, want the payoff without paying the price for it. Yet, Jesus is perfectly clear about the cost of discipleship. That cost is limitless. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself.” Think about it: the most fundamental and basic of our human instincts is that of self-preservation. Jesus says that the cost of discipleship is giving that up—denying that instinct. Some have thought that meant forsaking self-care, but that’s not at all the case. Self-care is actually a prerequisite to discipleship. Neglecting or injuring ourselves makes us unfit to be productive members of human society, let alone disciples. No. What Jesus is telling his disciples—and us—is that the cost of discipleship involves giving up the insane notion that we are in charge of our own destinies, that the buck stops with us, and that we are the final arbiters of all questions. Instead, we’re called to acknowledge that we didn’t create ourselves and we cannot save ourselves. We are incapable of adding even a minute more to our lives.

The only response to Christ’s call to discipleship and the realization of our powerlessness is surrender. We surrender to the power of a loving God who calls us, like the Messiah, our pioneer before us, to undergo suffering and death—literally or figuratively—in order to rise again. Despite the cost to him, Jeremiah was not called by God to be abandoned by him. God didn’t allow Jesus to undergo his suffering and death to forsake him. Is our summons from God to discipleship any less than theirs? If God did not abandon them, what makes us think God will abandon us who’ve been called to follow in their footsteps? To surrender our wills to the will of God is to live in ultimate trust of God as Jesus did. That is our strength and that is our hope.

We needn’t wait for the coming of the Son of Man with the angels, for they’re already here. Our reward for denying our self-centered, self-interested egos and living lives of acceptance, surrender, and gratitude is to experience a life of serenity and peace beyond our wildest imaginings. For us, the rewards of discipleship far exceed the costs. And is there a punishment for refusing to pay the price of surrender and continuing to act as our own Higher Powers? It’s too great to calculate. It’s hell, but not hell as we imagine it. Hell isn’t a place. Hell is gaining the whole world and losing ourselves in the process.

Readings & Homily Video

Get articles from H. Les Brown delivered to your email inbox.