"Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:27).
Today's gospel passage begins with a description of Jesus at the height of his popularity. Huge crowds are following him as he moves from town to town preaching and working miracles. Jesus turns and tells the crowds what he has already told his closest disciples -- that their enthusiasm must reckon with the reality that anyone who wants to follow him must go through a profound conversion that will cost them everything, including their lives.
Mention of the cross, as scripture scholar Fr. Roger Karban emphasizes, is not a reference to crucifixion, which has not happened to Jesus yet, but to the Greek letter T (tau), the symbol for life, and which in this context referred to the specific burden and responsibility each individual has for their own life. Anyone who has not come to terms with his or her own life situation and vocation cannot claim to be either a mature human being or a servant of God.
Jesus was saying, in effect, that he was determined to do God's will, which would include his prophetic struggle in Jerusalem and his death. Anyone who wanted to follow him had to do the same, whatever the cost. Jesus tells two little parables to illustrate the challenge of discerning God's will and knowing your real vocation. Someone planning to construct a tower must know the full cost and labor ahead before he begins. A king facing an approaching enemy had better know his own troop strength before he goes out to defend his kingdom. Those who rush to the challenge without knowing the full cost and effort involved will fail.
This is a paradox, for the truth is that few of us really grasp the full cost of what we undertake, whether in choosing a career, in marriage, parenting, or any vocation we attempt. What Jesus asks of his disciples is the whole-hearted desire to follow him and the willingness to undergo continuous conversion and the necessary learning curve that opens us to greater life guided by God's grace.
The disciples all stumbled, failed, but then recovered to complete their vocations. In the end, they all succeeded not by their own efforts but by the grace of God. Their failures taught them mercy, the essence of the Gospel they preached to others. Holiness is a gift to the big-hearted and humble servants who give their best efforts, knowing that only God can complete the mission.
On this feast of St Charles Borromeo, bishop of Milan (1538-1584), we pray especially for Bishop James Johnston, who will take up the tau and the challenge of serving the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri as its chief shepherd.