Wednesday, November 3, 2010

"When Christ bids us come; he bids us come and die." - Dietrich Bonhoffer (Reflections on Luke 14: 25-33)

There is an undeniable force and hardness to the words of Jesus in today’s gospel: “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple”.

Consider the following. The Greek word Scripture uses is μισεῖ - misei, which in English means “hate”; not just “dislike”, not simply “reject”, but “hate”—an exceedingly strong word, especially considering those things towards which he asks his disciples to have such disposition and attitude.

He asks them to “hate” all things familiar: father, mother, wife, children, brothers and sisters - in short, everything we would normally identify with warmth, companionship, familiarity, and comfort.

Lastly, he asks that the same must carry over to their attitude towards ψυχὴν ἑαυτοῦ - psuchen eautou – which the English text translates as “own life”, but is perhaps more accurately rendered "one’s soul", "spirit", or "breath" – in short, that very thing that keeps one alive!

Is “hate” perhaps, too strong a word? Why would Jesus ask his disciples for something that seems too extreme?

Actually, the technique Jesus uses in this particular gospel passage is a kind of rabbinic exaggeration. The Jewish rabbis were known to use such technique and language in order to drive home an important point—as when Jesus says in another part of the gospel that it if an eye causes one to sin, he should “gouge it out”, or if a hand does the same thing, it should be “cut off”.

Perhaps this is why some have tried to soften his words; and it isn’t uncommon for us to hear people say that Jesus didn’t really mean what he says, but only that his disciples should learn “detachment”, especially from things that can be considered “excessive”.

And yet the force of Jesus’ words remains: He asks us to be rid of everything familiar and comforting, even our own life. The theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer who was killed because of his refusal to accept the inhuman policies of the Nazis wrote:
“When Christ bids you come. He bids you ‘Come and die’.”

Make no mistake about it. Following Jesus will turn our world upside down and our life inside out. There’s a power to Jesus words in today’s gospel that we must not overlook, downplay, or soften. For the command of Jesus to “hate one’s very self” contains a force that wipes the slate of our life clean.

And yet, the force of these words, the power of his command is not destructive. The “hatred” of everything comfortable and convenient is not meant to tear us down and leave us with absolutely nothing afterwards. Rather, the force of his command wipes out and demolishes only to replace it with something greater than what was there before.

The grace of God does not destroy nature; it brings it to perfection. And so Christ asks his disciples to empty themselves, not so that they will be left with nothing, but so that he could fill them up with his very life and give them everything. For one who is full cannot take in Christ. Only one who is empty can receive Christ fully. Only when the self is gone can Christ make his dwelling in us and perfect us.

Only when the self is gone will we be able to say with St. Paul: “It is no longer I that live, but Christ that lives in me. I have become nothing to myself so that I might become all things to Christ”. Unless we empty ourselves of our very selves: of the things that we cling to for security, safety, and comfort, unless we slowly allow Christ to strip away from us those things that hinder us from being completely open and ready to receive him in our lives, we will remain full of our selves, and yet empty of Christ.

It is one of the great paradoxes of the Christian life that only by being empty of ourselves can we become ready to be filled with Christ. Only when we have died to ourselves can we truly live in Christ.

"When Christ bids us come; he bids us come and die." He bids us to die to ourselves, that in its stead, he might give us true and everlasting life.

"Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains but a single grain. But if it falls to the ground and dies, it bears much fruit”.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)