Anyone who prefers father or mother to me is not worthy of me. Anyone who prefers son or daughter to me is not worthy of me.
These words of Jesus sound shocking, extreme, exaggerated, excessive, inhuman. But they’re not. On the contrary. They are for us words of life, and of divine wisdom, and they’re spoken only for our benefit and consolation.
No one who knows anything at all about Catholics could be in any doubt that we believe in families, and promote them, and defend them. Our Christian faith always tends to strengthen, not weaken natural bonds of affection and belonging. All parents are bound to love their children; but Christian parents have added incentive never to give up on them; never to cease forgiving them; never to lose hope for them. Sometimes people devote themselves almost entirely to the care of elderly or sick parents. If they are Christians, they will be sustained in that precisely by their faith. So Jesus doesn’t tell us not to love those whom we love. He only tells us to love himself more. And in doing that, he’s making an implicit claim to divinity, because he’s claiming for himself the love we owe to God alone.
Not to love God above all things whatever is simply irrational. God is goodness itself - ipsa bonitas - the source of all that is good, and of all that is. He is most worthy of our love, because we owe him our very being, and because he has first loved us, with a love that is both infinite and unconditional. If we put anything or anyone before God, or before Jesus, then we will soon find we’re worshipping an idol, and that must ultimately be enslaving, dehumanising, destructive.
Actually there are plenty of examples in daily life which show how our loves must be ordered, or relativised, even in terms of this world. When people get married, they rightly love their new spouse more than their parents. Firemen, and policemen, and soldiers go into danger as part of their duty, and if they selflessly lose their lives in its course, they are regarded as heroes, worthy of everyone’s admiration and honour.
Unfortunately, modern secularism tends to push us all in the opposite direction to that, urging us instead to love self first. Nothing and no one must be allowed to interfere with my autonomy, and with what I want. People are there for my use, and if they start to get in my way, I shall dispense with them. Hence the evils of euthanasia for the unwanted elderly, and abortion for unwanted children: crimes which no Christian could ever contemplate. And everyone who tries it finds out, soon enough, that the promises of secular ideology are empty. A life centred on self, and driven by selfishness doesn’t make you happy. There is something in us all - put there, we say, by God - that makes us unable to find our fulfilment apart from generous and loving self gift. Of course that can go horribly wrong, if it’s directed towards an unworthy object. We are all haunted these days by images of suicide bombers, who willingly sacrifice their lives, in order to kill the innocent. We Christians protest that there is no virtue whatever in that. It’s a perversion or corruption of a naturally good instinct. It cannot in any way be pleasing to God.
But if you give everything to Jesus Christ, holding back nothing, then he manifestly blesses the gift, and superabundantly repays it: heaped up, pressed down and overflowing. Already in this life he gives peace, holiness, purity of heart; friendship with God; communion with the Saints; the gift of divine Sonship, and to crown it all the promise of eternal life in endless joy.
Of course there is also the Cross. But this too is wisdom, and sheer gift. We stand ready to endure any temporal loss or pain or grief whatever, rather than act against God’s love, or deny the truth, or betray Christ, because at stake is the final winning or losing of life itself. And we will not only endure, but even embrace the Cross, with Jesus, and in Jesus; because we know that suffering for his sake always tends to draw us closer to him, and that is the good for us beyond all other goods. And when pain and loss and grief come our way unbidden, as they will eventually do for everyone, in some shape or form, we Christians remain buoyed up, through it all, by the knowledge of Christ’s abiding love, by his example, his companionship, and his promise.
“We must prefer absolutely nothing to Christ”, said St. Cyprian, quoted by St. Benedict, “since he himself preferred nothing whatever to us”. Christo nihil omnino praeponere, quia nec nobis quicquam ille praeposuit.
Jesus fulfilled his own words, preferring nothing whatever to us, when he took up his Cross solely for our sake. He was ready to lose his life, in order that we might find ours. As for children and parents: see how he preferred us to them. For our sake, and for love of his Father, he remained celibate, renouncing any natural children of his own. And already at the age of 12 we glimpse him causing his parents grief, because of his greater and higher love for his Father. Then finally, when he entered of his own free will into his Passion, he did so in full knowledge of the suffering this would entail for his blessed Mother. That surely must have been the hardest thing for Jesus, knowing that the one he loved so much would have to enter so fully into his own terrible agony. Yet we know Our Lady also, out of love, willingly embraced her place there. So it was that, precisely at the Cross, her perfect union with Jesus was both demonstrated and sealed. There, at the Cross, she merited to be named, and to be, the mother of us all.
Sometimes I wonder whether young people so easily abandon the faith these days because no one has ever told them the really challenging sayings of the Gospel, or explained how our life is a great drama, whose outcome, of heaven or of hell, will depend on our actions and choices here and now. Still, Jesus ever continues, through the words of the Gospel, to demand from us everything. Is he worth so much? Those who have met him bear united witness in answer to that question. Once you have met Christ, you can be satisfied with nothing less. Experience shows that his yoke is one of freedom. He demands only in order to give. Yes, he invites us into the desert: but only in function of the Promised Land to come. He invites us to participate in his sufferings, but only for the sake of our endless joy. He invites us to share in his death, but only in order that we may share in his resurrection from the dead, and in his eternal victory in heaven.