The Word Embodied
What is within our grasp, we find with difficulty.
Long ago—it seems as if in another world—I took part in a televised debate over military expenditures and nuclear bombs. The woman I faced was such a good debater that the producer of the program called me three times beforehand to make sure I knew what I was getting into. He seemed amazed that I was still willing to go through with it.
She drew blood. Her most wounding thrust was scripture-based. “Jesus himself,” she said, “told us, ‘If a king is about to march on another king to do battle, will he not sit down first and consider whether, with ten thousand men, he can withstand an enemy coming at him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, he will send a delegation while the enemy is at a distance, asking for terms of peace.’”
I remembered the story from Luke’s Gospel, but before 1 could think of the context, my opponent came at me with the coup de grâce. “It’s easy for you to lay down arms and to be a pacifist. You don’t have a wife and children to take care of. If you did, you’d thank God for the bomb.”
What a sweet paradox it all was. The military analogy from Luke is actually about the vigilance we need for discipleship, especially in letting go of the earthly things that we cling to as our property.
That is why Jesus concludes the story with, “in the same way, none of you can be my disciple if you do not renounce all your possessions.” It has nothing to do with the evangelical approval of armies. It has everything to do with the dangers in clinging to things and people as our possessions. Jesus’ recommendation of vigilance against possessiveness comes in one of the harshest passages found in the New Testament, a saying about family life. “If any of you comes to me without turning your back on father and mother, spouse and children, brothers and sisters, indeed your very self, you cannot be my follower.” We must, rather, take up our cross and follow him in discipleship.
Clearly he is speaking here of renouncing our loved ones as possessions or as barriers to the redeeming cross. We can never possess another. (This is why Paul, in his Letter to Philemon, undercuts slavery by insisting that Onesimus is not a slave, but a loved brother.) What is more, we can never be another’s god. Nor can another human serve as ours. No one can save us but Christ. I cannot speak from direct experience of having spouse or children, but I suspect that there is a great and paradoxical truth in what Jesus says. If we treat our children as if they are either our possessions or our gods, it will not only be impossible to follow Christ; it will be impossible to love them. We will strangle them by clinging to them as if they were our property or crush them with the impossible burden of saving us and making us happy.
“For the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans. … Scarce do we guess the things on earth, and what is within our grasp, we find with difficulty.”
I may have lost the debate. But I found something else.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University