Once upon a time there was a wise and holy man who lived in a great kingdom ruled by a powerful king. The wise man had so many followers that the king was suspicious of his power, so he decided to test his loyalty. He sent for the master and asked, “How many disciples do you have?” The wise man answered, “I have one and a half.” The king was angered by this response, for he knew the man had hundreds, if not thousands, of followers, so he had him arrested, and sent word throughout his kingdom that all the disciples should report to the city in one week’s time, otherwise their master would be put to death. The king had a large tent erected on a hill outside the city, and early on the appointed day he had a number of sheep secretly placed inside. The master’s disciples showed up—thousands of people. The king announced, “I have found your master guilty of treason, and I shall have him executed—unless ten of you are willing to give your lives in his place.” After a moment of silence, a brave young man stepped forward and said, “He is my master, and he taught me everything I know. I will give my life so that he might live.” The soldiers took the young man inside the tent and bound and gagged him, but—at the king’s order, they didn’t kill him; instead, they slaughtered three of the sheep, letting the blood run out the tent and down the hill, so that all the people could see it. The king announced, “That was one, but I need nine more.” There was a long silence, until finally a trembling old woman stepped forward and said, “He is my master; I will die for him.” The same thing happened; three sheep were slaughtered secretly instead of the woman—but this time, when the people saw the flowing blood, they panicked and ran away in fear. The king ordered the wise man released, telling him, “You were right; you only have one and a half disciples.” The wise man answered, “Your majesty, do you believe the man is my one follower and the woman is the half?” “Of course,” said the king. “You are wrong,” stated the master. “The old woman is my follower. The young man is arrogant and naive, but he has possibilities; he is the half.” The king, being rather chauvinistic, started to protest, but the wise man explained, “True discipleship is based on love and devotion. When the man stepped forward, he didn’t know he was going to die; he thinks everything is a test, and he has a lot to learn. But when the woman stepped forward, she knew she was going to die—and she stepped forward anyhow. She is my true disciple” (McKenna, Parables: The Arrows of God, p. 123). This story confronts us with a challenging question: which type of disciple are we? Are we part of the large crowd that runs away as soon as there’s a heavy price to pay? Are we like the young man who is arrogant and naive but has some possibilities? Or are we like the old woman who, in spite of fear, is willing to do the right thing? Jesus was willing to do whatever love required, even to the point of giving His life. We cannot be His followers unless we too are willing to take up our cross each day.
Anyone who thinks that Christianity is merely a feel-good experience, and that Jesus has promised to grant His followers worldly success and preserve them from all suffering and disappointment and pain, need only look at the Gospel to discover this is not true. Beautiful and inspiring words of faith mean nothing unless they go hand-in-hand with good deeds—deeds which sometimes involve sacrifice. The apostles understood that Jesus was the Messiah; what they didn’t want to understand, however, was that His messianic mission involved suffering. When Peter tried to talk Our Lord out of accepting His fate, he was severely rebuked; Jesus made it very clear that we must be willing to pay any price, no matter how high, in order to follow Him. As the prophet Isaiah foretold, Our Lord Himself was going to suffer terribly, and as St. James reminds us, beautiful words must be backed up by good deeds if they are mean anything in terms of salvation. Following Jesus as a true commitment will lead us to eternal life. Following Jesus without a true commitment is just a waste of time.
Over fifty years ago a Protestant pastor in Germany named Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Jesus bids us come and follow Him, He bids us come and die. The question is: what do we die for, whom do we die with, and whether or not we come after Jesus into Jerusalem.” Bonhoeffer was true to his brave words, and true to Christ; he died in a Nazi concentration camp because of his opposition to that evil regime. We may not be facing the same possibility of persecution and martyrdom, but we are involved each day in a struggle to remain true to Christ. Being faithful may mean such things as praying for a few minutes at the end of the day, even though we’re so tired we’d like to go right to sleep; getting up for Mass on Sunday morning, even though we’d really enjoy sleeping in; speaking up in defense of a person being gossiped about or criticized, even though it may mean we’ll be the group’s next target; pointing out a mistake in our favor to a sales clerk, even though it costs us money; not responding with a curse or an angry gesture when someone cuts us off in traffic; putting up with an irritating in-law or relative, even though we’d love to give him or her a piece of our mind; voting for candidates who support our moral values, even though we might be better off economically if their opponents were elected; taking responsibility for our own mistakes, even when it would be easy to shift the blame to someone else; being generous in sharing our time or money with someone in need, even when it’s not convenient; and doing our best to answer God’s call, even though what He’s asking of us seems difficult, risky, or frightening. Whether in big things or in little things, we must learn to put Jesus first, trying to live out this choice each day to the best of our ability.
Our Lord promises that if we are willing to live our lives and even lose our lives for the sake of the Gospel, we will save them; if we have the courage to take up our cross one day at a time, we will be given the strength to persevere and to succeed. Poor health, financial worries, family problems, trouble at school or on the job, bothersome people, and all the other disappointments and burdens of life can, if we choose, be offered up as a sacrifice and become an opportunity to grow in Christ’s grace. Jesus has given us an example of wholehearted commitment, and—if we sincerely desire it—He will help us follow in His footsteps.