by Rev. Paul Scalia
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Written to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
Great crowds were traveling with Jesus, and he turned and addressed them "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. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work the onlookers should laugh at him and say, 'This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.' Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops? But if not, while he is still far away, he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms. In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple."
Scripture’s seeming nonsequiturs – those awkward transitions and apparently out-of-place verses – hold some of Our Lord’s greatest teachings. Their very clumsiness grabs our attention and directs it to deeper truths. We encounter one such example in Jesus’ teaching on the cost of discipleship (cf. Lk 14:25-33). He uses the parables of the man building a tower and of the king going into battle. These men must calculate the cost of their ventures ahead of time, otherwise they will be led to ridicule and defeat. Now, the logical conclusion would be that the Christian ought to calculate likewise whether he possesses what it takes to follow Jesus. But then Our Lord concludes, “In the same way, every one of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” Which seems to indicate the precise opposite: not what one should posses but of what he must dispossess himself in following Christ. The apparent disjunction, once we reflect on it, reveals the deeper truth: namely, that poverty is the necessary resource for discipleship.
First, a word about parables. The images of the tower and the battle describe not only the cost of discipleship but also its purpose: building and battling. Those who follow Christ must be builders. St. Paul described himself as a “master builder” (1Cor 3:10) because by his evangelization the people of God were being built “into a temple sacred to the Lord … a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Eph 2:21-22). So also we must be conscious of building a community and a culture that rises to the glory of God. At the same time, like the workers in Nehemiah’s day, we have to do battle in the midst of building (cf. Neh 4:11). Forces both worldly and other-worldly seek to undo our handiwork and tear down God’s building. If we are not conscious of the battle and vigilant in it, then our edifice in the Spirit will be razed.
Second, a word about renouncing possessions. St. Bede gives the traditional interpretation of Our Lord’s words by distinguishing between leaving and renouncing. Those who vow poverty (typically those in religious life) leave their possessions behind in an absolute and definitive manner. All the faithful, however, must renounce their possessions – that is, “so to hold the things of the world as not to be held in the world by them.” We can speak of this as detachment or simplicity of life – to which all the faithful are called.
How then do these two passages intersect? It would seem that for building and battling we would need more possessions and resources, not fewer. How then does renunciation help? Because we become master builders and mighty warriors not be relying on our own possessions, resources and strength, but by way of poverty – by relying on Him as the builder and on Him as our strength. Our greatest resource is our poverty.
The church is built up not by our cleverness or wealth but by our dependence on the grace and wisdom of Christ. We typically mistake worldly advancement with spiritual growth. We see more buildings, more wealth, and more influence as undeniable signs of growth. But the church is not built up by wealth, prestige, or political power. We grow into the temple of the Spirit by dispossessing ourselves of worldly strength and relying on Him. “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build” (Ps 127:1).
Likewise, as the church militant we cannot rely on the strength of our own arms. When David went out to battle Goliath, he renounced King Saul’s helmet, sword and coat of mail. He preferred his simple shepherd’s staff and sling, and five smooth stones. So also as soldiers of Christ we cannot fit ourselves with the armor and arms of this world. “For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Eph 6:12). Only by dispossessing ourselves of worldly might and trusting in God’s strength can we hope for victory in the battle.
On his death bed St. Dominic told his followers, “Possess poverty.” Indeed, poverty is the essential possession for all Christ’s disciples. Only by renouncing our worldly resources can we then avail ourselves of the supernatural materials for building and the spiritual weapons for battling.
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