In his scripture commentary, William Barclay cites the story of a great scholar who was asked if a young man was his student. The scholar’s response was, “He may have attended my lectures, but he is not my student.”
Barclay refers to this anecdote as illustrative of “one of the supreme handicaps of the church.” We have the numbers in membership, but most are “distant followers” of Christ. Few choose to enter the core of their relationship with Christ and simply stay on the periphery.
Demands of discipleship
Our Gospel for this Sunday highlights two important demands of discipleship, of being a follower of Christ. One is the detachment from material and worldly matters, and two is a realistic understanding and acceptance of the task or mission.
When we talk about detachment, our initial images are often related to that of Francis of Assisi. Born into a wealthy family, he renounced all worldly possessions and pursuits. While living a life of actual poverty in imitation of Christ remains the ideal, poverty is not an end in itself.
Detachment, like freedom, is not simply a detachment from material things, but a detachment to follow Christ. The ability to detach comes from freedom—starting with freedom and detachment from, it deepens to a freedom and detachment for.
Paul dramatically proclaims this gift of detachment for, “More than that, I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3: 8)
It is not enough to be free and detached but we must do it for Christ, that we may know, love and follow him more.
We see this in many of the great saints of the church—Paul, Augustine and Ignatius of Loyola, for example—who pursued dreams and ideals, passions and beliefs, but in the end fell short of attaining the sense of fulfillment and meaning found only in Christ. As Augustine put it, “My heart is restless until it rests in you alone.”
Knowledge of the task
The second demand of discipleship is a realistic knowledge of the task or mission, coupled with a realistic knowledge of self vis-a-vis the mission. This, much more than we think, is an equally great if not greater challenge.
This is challenging because we have a tendency to wing it. We do not do our homework.
Like detachment, we must look at the deeper values underlying this virtue of a realistic knowledge of self and of the task.
In Ignatian spirituality and Jesuit education, a realistic knowledge of self is an awareness of one’s blessedness that leads to gratitude, and also an awareness of one’s shortcomings and sinfulness that leads to humility and a sense of gratitude.
This realistic knowledge of self comes from a freedom that “requires a genuine knowledge, love and acceptance of self, joined to a determination to be freed from excessive attachment: to wealth, health, power or anything else, even life itself.”
In my early years as a teacher, there was a basic discipline I inculcated in my students. We started the school year with our goal and vision for the year: everyone goes up the stage and graduates, 100 percent passing rate.
Then we laid out the terrain of the work needed. I would sit down individually with all the students of my class and assess. What were they good at? What were their waterloos? Were there any personal concerns that might get in the way of achieving the goal?
We did team building to understand and help class dynamics. We tried to understand each teacher, his/her expectations and quirks. It was a combined appreciative inquiry and SWOT analysis process.
All this was to attain a realistic knowledge of self, vis-à-vis the task at hand. This gave my students, all of us, the whole class, the confidence that we could achieve our goal. It enabled us, in the words of Ignatius, to give our self totally to the work.
This, I believe, is pretty much what Christ lays out as the second demand of discipleship in this Sunday’s Gospel. We not just give ourself totally to the work, but we also give ourself back with gratitude and the desire to offer everything with love.
All this is premised on the freedom to give back and to commit to Christ. There was one study that showed that great human achievements were done by men and women who were trained and formed in an environment of love rather than fear, a caring environment that helps them see and grab the opportunities to excel.
This environment helps men/women attain the freedom needed to commit and to do their best, to meet the demands of discipleship. This environment makes it possible for people to be loved into excellence, and become disciples of Christ who will love him more and serve him more by following him more nearly—no longer distant followers who stay on the periphery.