Discipleship is a challenging idea. In this modern age, when we can quickly find all sorts of stories about discipleship online, it’s easy to be awed or disturbed by the requirements made of disciples by gurus in every age and faith tradition. The fasting, the unquestioning obedience, the hours or days or months of sitting in silence and focusing on a single lesson—it can all seem pretty forbidding.
Being a disciple of Jesus had its own challenges, though they were rather different from the guru model. As I intend to explore in one of my upcoming online retreats on Jesus through the eyes of others, Jesus asked some pretty tough things of the people who wanted to be his disciples.
However, Jesus didn’t focus on the fasting-and-silence routine. He was more interested in getting people to put God first in their everyday lives. Rather than telling the rich young man that he had to sit in silence in a cave somewhere, he told him to give away all his possessions. He told another potential follower that he would, in essence, become homeless if he joined Jesus’ band of followers. He told someone else, who requested time to bury a parent, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” These are harsh sayings—and there are more.
So why did Jesus make discipleship so conditional? It’s almost as if Jesus intentionally made it really difficult to be his disciple. It’s as if he didn’t want his band of followers to grow any larger. But I don’t think that’s the issue. I think Jesus did want people to follow—but not to follow him. Unlike many of the stories we can read on the Internet, Jesus didn’t want to be a guru. He wanted people to focus on God, not on himself.
This is why, over and over, when Jesus healed people and they wanted to follow him, he said no. He told them to go home instead and tell the story of their healing. For Jesus, discipleship meant telling others what God has done for you. He even created a new definition of family: those who do the will of God. When his disciples tried to stop someone casting out demons in his name, Jesus told them not to stop him, saying, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
Unlike the teachings of many gurus, Jesus’ message was not restricted or restrictive. He didn’t create a small, exclusive club. He welcomed into his family everyone who was willing to put God first. He cast the discipleship net very wide. But he also made it clear that being a true disciple is not easy—because it’s not about following a human teacher at all. It’s about putting God first.
As Jesus said very clearly to the woman who sought to put his mother Mary (and thereby himself) up on a pedestal, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.”
I look forward to exploring these stories in more depth and welcome your thoughts about which discipleship stories to include. I also wonder if I would have been able to accept it if Jesus told me, “No, you can’t follow me around Galilee. Go home and tell people what God has done for you.”
What about you?