There was that time when following Jesus became really popular. He told really good stories. He healed people. He gave out free food – bread and fish usually. It was a great gig. And everyone you knew was there. There was a great vibe – it was all about love, and you didn’t get left out if you were poor or sickly or disabled. In fact, you were warmly welcomed, whoever you were. It was building up in a real popular movement. It was the place to be. Sure, he kept moving about to one place or another, but that was part of the fun. It was a journey. We were travelling together. And the crowd kept growing.
And then Jesus went and spoiled it all, warning everyone off. He really put the frighteners on. “If you’re going to follow me,” he said, “you have to understand the consequences!” The upshot was you had to put Jesus first, before family, before loved ones, before everything else. And conflict was inevitable, Jesus said.
I was with my cousin Maryam when we heard him saying this. Maryam was outraged. “How can he say that!” she said. “It’s against the family! How can he say that the family comes second after following him! That’s just not proper. It’s just not right! Everyone knows that family comes first. Always! What right does anyone have to interfere with the priorities of the family, let alone some wandering preacher. I’ve had enough of this!” she said.
And her friend Salome added, “It’s in the Ten Commandments: Honour your father and your mother. And yet Jesus is telling us to hate father and mother. It’s just not on. I had such high hopes, but he’s let me down completely.”
I tried telling them that it wasn’t meant in the way they had taken it. Jesus meant that if you were serious about following him, you couldn’t change your mind when it became inconvenient or clashed with other priorities.
But they wouldn’t listen to me, and so they went off home. And they weren’t the only ones. That was the end of the journey for them. “Come on”, said Maryam. “Aren’t you coming?” And when I thought about it, I remembered Jesus’ voice reading from the Scriptures: Love the Lord your God, walk in his ways … and you shall live … Choose life. So I said no, I was staying for the time being. I wanted that life. I did miss them, Maryam and Salome, but there were still a few people I knew in the crowd.
But it didn’t get any easier. Jesus told a story. I forget the details, but what it came down to was – if you’re going to take on a big project, you have to think it through and be ready for all the implications. He meant that following him, Jesus, couldn’t be a frivolous past-time – you had to understand just how much it would cost. And there would be a cost, though it was nothing to do with money.
Looking back on it now, Jesus told those stories to provoke a reaction. They were harsh, but they pointed to a truth. You had to look to where the stories were pointing.
There was another story too about going to war and weighing up the odds before you set out. You don’t start a battle when it’s clear you’re going to lose.
My friend Joel laughed. “Like we’re going to start a war! Fishermen don’t start wars. What’s he talking about? He’s lost it now, this Jesus.”
Levi didn’t like it either, but he was looking at it in another way. He was so sure Jesus was the promised Messiah. He said “Jesus doesn’t need to worry about starting a war to get rid of the Romans! It’s the right thing to do, the honourable thing. God will be with him. The war will be over in a week, a month at the most. We all know that the Romans have weapons of mass destruction. They have conquered all the world we know. Only God can stop them and put things back to how they should be, running our own affairs, taking back control.”
They didn’t stay long on the journey after that. Joel just decided that Jesus was bonkers, and Levi decided that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah he was looking for. He wanted a Messiah who would make a difference. That’s what he said. And off they both went. I was lonely without them, it has to be said, but that deep longing for life was even stronger. It was like an echo in my head: Love the Lord your God, walk in his ways … and you shall live … Choose life.
The crowd was thinning out somewhat. Jesus didn’t make it easy for people to follow him. At that point on the journey, we didn’t know the full story, what would happen at the end in Jerusalem. I had heard rumours that Jesus had already started telling the disciples that he was going to be handed over to the authorities and would be killed. We didn’t believe it at all then. So when Jesus was telling us that we would have to carry the cross, it was because he knew fine well that would be happening to him. He wasn’t asking anything of us that wasn’t being asked of him. Actually, when you think of it, he was telling us, that if we wanted to follow him, that would mean being like him and doing the things he did. Which was pretty awesome really.
Knowing what I do now, would I have done the same thing back then? It was hard, and no one can say it wasn’t. But I go back to the voice in my head: Love the Lord your God, walk in his ways … and you shall live … Choose life.
I chose life.