I am not a disciple of Jesus. I have not given up family, and home, and possessions, for his sake. It is important to admit this from the outset, to set aside the hypocrisy and vanity of claiming that I’m something that I’m not. The handful of people who followed Jesus were better at this than I am, but not at first. They must have heard Jesus’ words with the same dismay that I feel. We are to hate our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, our spouses, and even our lives? Really? Wasn’t it enough that they had already left their homes and livelihoods to follow him? Now they had to give up their relationships and die? They fail in this when Jesus goes to the cross, although some of them do, eventually, live lives of radical renunciation.
I am humbled by my own failure at discipleship, but I think that is the point. Teresa of Avila, the great 16th century Spanish mystic, says that humility is the most important attribute and spiritual gift we can have. She goes even further, and talks about God’s humility. Perfect love, divine love, is humble. It doesn’t insist on having its own way. It casts aside the need to control that causes us to fear. As Christians, we hope to mirror that divine love. But we can’t do it on our own. If we fail to see that, if we believe that we can follow Jesus’ harsh command and still somehow imitate perfect love, we are fooling ourselves.
It is the harshness of the command itself that humbles us. Jesus is setting an impossible standard. He himself doesn’t hate his mother, who stays with him at his death, standing at the foot of the cross. And yet he has been willing to give up everything for love. His humble death teaches us how to love like God loves. Beyond the strengths of our social and political power, beyond the boundaries of our identities, there is a love that encompasses everything, and it is our hope to imitate it. But we will be unsuccessful. Like the king in his parable, we will consider the strength of our forces, find them entirely wanting, and be forced to ask God for terms of peace.
In the end, when faced by the impossibility of perfectly imitating divine love, when brought to see each other as we really are, we will be humbled and, in our humility, come to understand our need for God’s grace. The divine love will keep loving us, no matter what our failures, and we will not be able to control it, or direct it. All we can do is give ourselves to it. In humility, we can worry less about being perfect in the practice of love, and let ourselves be sufficient in the acceptance of love.