"How not to be a follower of Jesus" would be an appropriate title, I think, for the gospel we just heard. If you’ll recall, we were introduced to three characters. The first promised that he would follow Jesus wherever he goes. Yet Jesus replies to this boast with a warning. Unlike the foxes and birds, Jesus said, he had nowhere to lay his head. In other words, our Lord was telling this person that following him might be a bit more difficult than he imagined, and that he might wish to think twice before signing on the bottom line. In a sense, Jesus was asking: "Are you sure you want to follow me? Do you really know what you’re getting into?"
The second character we meet agrees to follow Jesus, but only after he has buried his father. Now we have to understand that this person’s father was not dead. His father was living, and he wanted to stay nearby. In effect, this person was saying: "I’d like to follow you, Jesus, but only when it’s more convenient. It’s just not the right time; I have other things I want to do first." Jesus’ response that the dead should bury their own dead was his way of saying that following him is more important than anything else we might do.
To the third potential follower, Jesus said, "He who puts his hand to the plow and looks back to what was left behind is not fit for the kingdom of God." Translation? Jesus wants us to follow him, not with clenched teeth because of what we had to give up, but with a smile on our face.
The witness of these three individuals serves to remind us that if we truly want to be disciples of Christ, we need to be prepared to make changes in our life, and make them right away. In other words, authentic discipleship is not an afterthought or a part time activity, but should instead be our top priority that absolutely defines who we are and what we do. Today’s first reading spoke of how Elisha, by slaughtering his oxen and burning his farm tools, gave up his entire livelihood in order to follow God’s call to be a prophet. We may or may not be called upon to make a complete career change. Nevertheless, each one of us is called to make significant changes if we wish to follow in the footsteps of our Lord. Discipleship isn’t always easy, and it isn’t always convenient, but it always involves change: changes in the way we think, and changes in the way we act. The Bible and our tradition refer to this change as "conversion" or "repentance." And there’s no better time to start than the present. Jesus challenges us to "seize the moment," and begin the process today.
Now, we may wish to protest this and say: "But I thought that God loves me unconditionally! I thought that God accepts me just the way I am!" And in a sense, that’s absolutely right: God does love us unconditionally; he does take us just the way we are. God isn’t like a health insurance company, because he’s happy to accept us with all our "pre-existing conditions." God is, however, something like a doctor, because he wants to heal us of all our wounds. And that requires our cooperation; that necessitates change.
You’ve probably heard the popular saying, "Change is good!" And sometimes we’re genuinely open to changes in our life- especially when we feel that we’re at the end of our rope. More often than not, however, we resist change. There are two reasons for this.
First, we can get defensive about the suggestion that we need to change at all. "I don’t have a problem," we say, "It’s everyone else who has the problem! There’s nothin’ wrong with me!" Or, if we concede that we do have a problem, we refuse to take responsibility for it. We make excuses and point the finger of blame at society, our circumstances, our parents, the devil. Maybe we even try to rationalize bad behavior by thinking that because our life is so darned hard we deserve to indulge in a little vice. After all, we tell ourselves, it’s the only fun we have all week!
Second, we resist change because it involves energy, effort, and risk, and we can end up paralyzed by laziness or petrified with fear. We make excuses like "You can’t teach an old dog new tricks" or "That’s just the way I am." Sometimes we become so accustomed- and even comfortable- with our bad habits and our bad situations that we worry about what our life will be like if we do change. I recall reading about a man who had kicked an addiction to chewing tobacco. He had hated the fact that his habit was controlling his life and ruining his health. Yet on the day he finally quit, he experienced a deep feeling of regret. His self-destructing addiction had been such a big and defining part of his life that quitting felt like saying farewell to an old friend.
When we face the pain and uncertainty of making a big change, following Jesus can seem like anything but "good news." As pastor Rick Warren has written, "The truth will set you free, but first it may make you miserable!" Or as the famous Cardinal Newman preached: "The gospel must be a burden before it comforts and brings us peace."
Nevertheless, the bottom line is that change is a non-negotiable essential for Christian living. As the old saying puts it: "There is no standing still in the Christian life. You’re either moving forward or sliding back." And we know that God doesn’t want us to backslide; he calls us to change for the better, growing in holiness, being made into saints. To again quote Cardinal Newman: "To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often."