Following Christ into Battle

Homily for the Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.

One of my favorite moments in a movie or a TV show is when a leader gives a rousing and inspirational speech. This could be a coach before the start of the game, a head of state in the aftermath of a great conflict, or a king before sending his troops into battle. There’s something about a well-crafted speech, with words designed to challenge and inspire, that makes me want to join in the action. In fact, on the day of my ordination to the priesthood, I watched two of my favorite cinematic speeches, in anticipation of everything that was going to happen that day. This was in addition to praying, of course.

In many ways, it’s possible, and actually helpful, to think of Jesus’ words in our gospel today as a kind of speech that a king might give to his troops before sending them into battle. Our gospel begins by noting that “[g]reat crowds were traveling with Jesus.” Jesus then turns to them, as if to a group of soldiers, and addresses them in these words: “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.”

On the battlefield, a solider faces the real possibility that he might lose everything, at least everything earthly. Father and mother, wife and children, brother and sisters, and even his own life, are all on the line. To inspire a willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice, a military leader has to invoke some higher cause. He has to exhort his men to love something greater than family, friends, and even their own lives. Love of freedom, love of country, love of God—these are all higher causes that a leader might invoke.

What’s remarkable, and what would have shocked the crowds who followed Him, is that Jesus invokes love of Himself as that higher cause. Jesus, of course, doesn’t demand that His disciples literarily hate everything but Him. But He does demand that His disciples love Him more than everything else. Jesus’ words today are from the Gospel of Luke, but the nature of His demand is even clearer in the equivalent passage in the Gospel of Matthew. In this passage Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt. 10:37). These words of Jesus would have been incredibly shocking to His original audience. We might shrug them off, but to faithful Jews of the first century, this kind of love was due to God alone. Jesus, in other words, was making Himself equal to God—and, in fact, claiming that He was God.

A solider might follow his leader into battle because he loves and trusts his leader, but none of the great leaders of history have ever invoked love of themselves as the higher cause for going to war. And yet Jesus, in effect, does just that. He says that He is that higher cause, because He is God, and so worthy of being loved above everything else. This is the rousing and inspiring speech that Jesus gives to His disciples, His soldiers. And it’s given as a test—to see who the true soldiers, the true disciples are. A great crowd is following Jesus. Those who are willing to sacrifice everything out of love for Jesus will continue to follow Him; those who are not willing to make that sacrifice will fall away.

Jesus words are challenging, and although we’ve heard them before, and might be tempted to shrug them off, it’s important that we take them seriously. Jesus doesn’t demand that we literarily hate our family or our own lives in order to be His disciples, but He does demand that we love Him above everything else. This demand would constitute the very height of arrogance for any other human leader to make; but, of course, Jesus isn’t just human, He’s also God. He alone, of any human leader, can make that demand. And even if we don’t take His demand literarily, we have to take it seriously.

The question is, “What does that look like?” “What does it look like today, in twenty-first century America, to put Jesus before everyone and everything else?” The obvious answer, of course, is practicing our Catholic faith, with all that that entails. But I think, more than ever, it means practicing our faith publicly and openly, even when we are opposed, even when it comes at a cost.

A great model for this in our own day and age is St. Thomas More. More lived in England between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. And if you’re familiar with his story, or perhaps have seen the movie A Man for All Seasons, you’ll recall that the king at the time—King Henry VIII—wanted to divorce his wife and marry another. Since this was not permitted by the Church, he had himself declared the head of the Church in England. More, because of his influential position in the political and cultural life of England and Europe more generally, was asked by the king to openly acknowledge, through the public swearing of an oath, that he was the head of the Church in England. More refused to do this.

To defend the sanctity of marriage and the rights of the Catholic Church against a tyrant king who wished to overthrow both, More was willing to sacrifice everything. And he did so almost entirely alone, even against the wishes of his own family, who pleaded that he just give in to the king’s wishes. More loved Christ more than his country, his family, and even his own life. He followed Christ and remained faithful to the Church even when it cost him his head, literarily. And More did this joyfully, not bitterly or begrudgingly. In fact, on the way to his martyrdom, More made five different jokes, the last being a request that the executioner take care not to cut off his beard when he cut off his head.

St. Thomas More is an example of living out the faith publicly and openly, even when we are opposed by everyone, even when it costs us everything. In 1929 the English writer G.K. Chesterton said that “Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death…but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years’ time.” To practice our Catholic faith today, with all that that entails, takes courage—the courage of someone like St. Thomas More. And so, we should pray for that courage: the courage to love Jesus and follow Him no matter the cost.

The crowd that followed Jesus in our gospel two-thousand years ago is long gone. But we are that great crowd today. And Jesus makes the same demand of us as He did to them. Let’s prove ourselves good soldiers and follow Christ into battle. Let’s not be afraid of what we might lose, but courageously follow Him wherever He might lead. Amen.