Leave it all behind?

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus says that to be a Christian is to be willing to leave everything behind: even family, friends, and material possessions. It matters what kind of tone we imagine Jesus having in speaking these words. (Reading the gospels, no less than reading a letter or an email, requires making assumptions about another’s tone of voice). We know Jesus is loving even when he tells us things that seem counterintuitive. In fact, if in prayer, I hear something that I initially resist, because it does not seem like a good idea to me, but there is lots of consolation from God, I’m even more sure that it is from God and not my own idea alone.

Here, too, we have to imagine that Jesus’s voice is not harsh and demanding, but loving and peaceful, because that is who Jesus is. So what would it mean to hear Jesus say, with great love: be willing to leave behind all that you have, any material possession, any goods, any person in order to follow Jesus?

Jesus gives us some clues in his analogies to not building a building without a budget, lest you end up only with an unfinished foundation, or not going into battle without enough troops and a successful strategy? In other words, Jesus is saying: we have to focus on what will give us enough to do God’s work. And Jesus then says something that at first seems counterintuitive: It’s not family, or spouse, or friends, and definitely not our material goods that give us the “enough” to follow Jesus all the way. Of course, all these things can assist us, insofar as money can assist the poor, or friends can support us through a hard spot in life via conversation or prayer.

But it is God who is working through all things, laboring on our behalf, who makes things happen. It is God that we need to follow in faith and trust. God will provide the “enough” that we need to go forth and follow Jesus—wherever that takes us. Sometimes that really does mean leaving behind a relationship, as when an adult child takes a job or attends school away from home, and we have to have the grace to let go. Sometimes it means staying and letting a person be who they are in relationship, even if how they are is really different than our own way of being in the world. The question is: what leads to the most love, peace, tranquility and harmony? What is God asking us to do?

The first reading from the book of Wisdom follows a similar theme:

“Or who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom
 and sent your holy spirit from on high? And thus were the paths of those on earth made straight” (Wisdom 9:17-18)

Many of us try to solve complex situations through our own power, and to a degree, of course we do need to do so: we really do have budget for building or renovating a house! But when I reflect back on ways that God has transformed complex and difficult situations in my life in the past, then I can recall that it was really God, and not I, whose hand was at work and made it happen. This helps me now when some new relational challenge or difficulty in life arises, or when we see political situations that seem to be unresolvable: I try to remember times in the past when God’s hand was at work, and how surprising and unexpected the way of resolution can sometimes be. “Who can know God’s counsel?” God is always bigger.

When we recall and rest in these experiences, allow God to be a “refuge” for us, as in the Psalm, and we are reminded that God is in the lead and not our own schemes, then it empowers us to go out and to labor for and with God. God is the refuge in the center of our hearts, the place that we can return to for refuge whenever we need to.

This Gospel passage seems to be at the heart of the Suscipe, a prayer by St Ignatius. Nothing is more foundational than God in our lives, and it is a serious mistake to make another human being, or money, or a job into that foundation, because people are fallible, and material things (and sometimes people) come and go. Of course, we should do our best to love and care for our family, friends, and community, but it always has to be with the recognition that this person is not perfect, but still lovable. And so approach any relationship with a degree of lightness, relative to our relationship to God.

God alone is our foundation, but God is a really secure and trustworthy one. Jesus reassures us that even if we have to carry some kind of a cross, the ground beneath our feet is unshakeable.