“… anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions, cannot be my disciple.” Lk 14:33
Several years ago, a movie directed by Clint Eastwood featured a very beguiling title:
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
The plot centers on a writer from New York City who tries to understand a group of rather eccentric residents of Savannah, Georgia. One thing in particular baffles the New Yorker: the native Savannah penchant for understatement.
The film is set in the 1980s. Nevertheless a woman refers to the Civil War – a conflict that cost the lives of 650,000 soldiers – as “that recent unpleasantness.” When an intruder interrupts a fancy dinner party firing a pistol at the ceiling and brandishing the jagged edge of a broken whiskey bottle, he is judged by the dinner guests as being merely a “colorful character.” A man sentenced to federal prison for embezzlement is said to have been entrapped by a “little accounting issue.”
For the visiting New Yorker, and for you and me as observers, all of this is a bit mystifying. What we soon discover is that there is a cultural assumption behind every conversation. These people of Savannah are practiced in the art of understatement.
Now, if we could visit first-century Palestine, we might have a similar experience. However, what we would find is that, unlike the citizens of Savannah who were masters of understatement, the rabbis of Jesus’ day excelled in overstatement, in hyperbole – bold exaggeration used for dramatic effect.
And if you are an outsider unfamiliar with these linguistic rules – as most of us are – it can be very disturbing, even offensive.
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
“Hate my father and mother?” “Hate life itself?” “Renounce all my possessions?”
Thankfully, these words of Jesus are not meant to be taken literally. Rather, these “hard sayings” are designed to have a shock value. They’re meant to wake us up and get us to listen.
We know that a loving family is a precious gift. We know that affection for a parent and child, sister and brother is a virtue. We know that life itself is the ultimate treasure.
So, what’s the point? What did Jesus intend to convey by using these words?
That our ultimate loyalty must always be to God.
God comes before our professions and our popularity. Our faithfulness to God overrides even our family, and certainly our possessions.
The bottom line is Jesus is trying to make known the radical character of following Him. The point is not how we relate to members of our family – as important as that is – but how we respond to the call of God in our daily lives.
Despite how extreme these words may seem, Jesus is not trying to dissuade his contemporaries, and us, from following him. Instead, he wants us to seek and find the real adventure in the “deep waters” of life rather than spend our lives splashing about in the shallow end of the pool.
It reminds me of when I was learning how to swim as a child. I can remember doing fine in the shallow end of the pool, but as soon as I crossed into the deeper end, I would start to panic by lifting my head and flailing may arms. The instructor encouraged me by saying: “Don’t be afraid. I’m right here with you. Swimming in the deep end is no different than swimming in the shallow end. Trust me.”
And this is what Jesus is really saying with the hyperbole in today’s Gospel: “Trust me. Follow me into the deep. I will be with you.”
In other words, hold nothing back. Be everything God has called you to be. Don’t approach the end of your life and be filled with regret. Don’t get to a place where you wish that you had used your life better, filled it more fully.
Jesus is exaggerating in today’s Gospel.
But he does it with one purpose in mind: to shock his hearers, to wake us up to the realization that there is a richer possibility to life than we ever imagined.
He’s beckoning each of us to go all the way, not hold back, fill our lives to the brim, experience life in new ways, follow Jesus into the deep.
Following Jesus will cost us. Being a disciple will stretch us. Embracing the way of the cross will mean stepping out of our comfort zones.
But, in the end, ultimately, it will lead us to a life of riches we never dreamed possible: the fullness of mercy and love and joy.
Ted Wolgamot, Psy.D.