Much of my time on my brother-in-law's sheep property was spent feeding grain to the sheep. There was a drought on.
We bumped along in the ute with the feeder hooked up behind, letting her idle in first gear up and down the track feeding out the barley - and hundreds of sheep milling round, pushing and shoving their way to the grain.
Of course I had to make sure not to go too slowly or the sheep would swamp me and it would be difficult to get moving again.
It’s a powerful image and it comes to mind naturally so often in the Gospels when Jesus comes to town. People come from everywhere milling round him, pushing and shoving to get close, all wanting to be fed, or cured, or exorcised by his word. And Jesus had the experience of getting swamped every now and then and he had to take precautions - like preaching from a boat.
In today’s Gospel we read: Great crowds accompanied Jesus on his way ..
This image is slightly different. Now we have Jesus walking from one town to another and people accompanying him. He would have been going at a leisurely pace because there would have been women and children and sick people arriving all the time.
They would have been talking together about all sorts of things and by the looks of what he told them they were probably speaking about what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus.
… and he turned and spoke to them. So they all stop in their tracks. Perhaps they sit down on the ground.
Jesus speaks ... and he has three things to say about being a disciple. This is the first one: If any man comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple.
Do you know what he meant by saying this? Do you think this might be a bit exaggerated? Harsh? How do you respond to this?
To put it simply, Jesus is using what’s called hyperbole to make the point that if we don’t put our following of the Lord above every other thing in our lives, we cannot be his disciples. In other words, we must put our relationship with Jesus, our Lord and Master, our Saviour, before every other human relationship, even the most intimate, and even before our very own lives. We cannot prioritise Jesus. We cannot relativise him.
Putting Jesus first has practical applications for us and very real consequences in our lives. There is a whole cluster of contemporary issues at stake here from contraception, to abortion, to euthanasia, sex outside of marriage, and so on, and even our attendance at Sunday Mass.
The second thing Jesus says is: Anyone who does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
This is getting difficult, isn’t it? We have already put him first in our lives ahead of all our most loved relationships, and now he is asking us to suffer - as he did - to carry our cross.
When you come to think about it, this second command is really only a repetition of the first. If we do put Jesus first in our lives then the cross we are asked to carry will suddenly appear on our shoulders. We won’t have to go looking for a cross. Just being a true disciple of Jesus will throw up daily challenges which will cause us to suffer - just like him.
And it is only because this suffering is for the sake of the kingdom that it is attractive and bearable and that it produces this marvellous peace and joy deep within us.
Next Jesus tells us two stories to prepare us for his last statement about discipleship and if we think about it we will discover that this last one merely repeats the first two. The first story is this: And indeed, which of you here, intending to build a tower, would not first sit down and work out the cost to see if he had enough to complete it? Otherwise, if he laid the foundation and then found himself unable to finish the work, the onlookers would all start making fun of him and saying, 'Here is a man who started to build and was unable to finish.'
The second story is like the first: Or again, what king marching to war against another king would not first sit down and consider whether with ten thousand men he could stand up to the other who advanced against him with twenty thousand? If not, then while the other king was still a long way off, he would send envoys to sue for peace.
The point of connection in these two stories is to work out whether there is enough to complete the task - enough money to build the tower and enough men to win the war.
And now comes Jesus third challenge: So in the same way, none of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions.
At first sight this is puzzling. The two stories speak of having enough to do the job while the instruction of Jesus is that to make sure you have nothing.
Again it's hyperbole (except for those called to take it literally and live a life of evangelical perfection).
Jesus is again telling us to allow nothing, absolutely nothing, to stand in the way of our Christian discipleship. The Kingdom must come first!
Let me finish by telling you a little story of my own. I swear to you it's a true story. It happened when I was staying at the home of one of my many sisters and one of her daughters came home from school. She was about 15 at the time and she was not in a good mood.
'Mum' she said 'you'll never guess what happened during Religious Education today. We had an auction and we were all given $1000 dollars to spend. The teacher was auctioning things like popularity, good looks, sporting ability, fame, wealth, and so on. Down the bottom of the list was heaven.'
'I wanted heaven and so when my turn to bid came I said '$500 for heaven'.
'Well, mum, you know Michelle, the girl who doesn't like me, she doesn't even believe in God, well, she knew I was after heaven and so when her turn came she said, '$1000 for heaven.'
'And she got heaven, Mum, and I didn't!'
My sister and I couldn't help laughing, which didn't help matters, and finally she said, 'Well, what does that show you?'
My niece replied, 'I should have given everything and not tried to bargain.'