At various times in our lives, we are faced with the temptation to domesticate Jesus. We might think of Jesus as our friend or brother, someone who is a reliable source of tenderness, strength, and support. This is not wrong; the Incarnation demonstrates God’s irrevocable commitment to be in solidarity with us.
But when we think only of Jesus in terms of relatability or encouragement, we gloss over the costs of discipleship. We settle for what Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer lamented as “cheap grace” that lavishly provides for us without expecting anything from us (for example, it means “preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance,” as he wrote).
This passage from the Gospel of Mark is a stark reminder that Jesus is hard to follow. These lines underscore that the reign of God deserves our primary and preeminent allegiance. For this reason, we must be on guard against idols that consume us or satiate us, desensitizing us to the radical demands of discipleship. Discipleship isn’t just about following Jesus, but imitating him. Living like Jesus means deepening our capacity to love—even while enduring sacrifice or suffering—and that’s only made more difficult by a divided or distracted heart. Sacrifice and suffering aren’t proof of our fidelity, just unavoidable if we are whole-heartedly striving to fully receive and respond to the gift of God’s love.
Of course, this does not mean that we can love God perfectly. Or that we will never fail to love our neighbor as they deserve. We all misuse the gift of free will, missing the mark for right-relationship with God, others, ourselves, and all creation. But today’s gospel is a reminder that even though discipleship can be daunting, we are called to be examples to one another. At their best, communities of faith help us believe in ourselves so we can do hard things. Together.
As you consider your relationship with Jesus today, where do you detect a distraction or temptation to domesticate the demands of discipleship? Where can you turn for reassurance to become ever more free to love?
Marcus Mescher is associate professor of Christian ethics at Xavier University in Cincinnati, OH. He is a four-time Jesuit school graduate (Marquette University High School, Marquette University, Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, and Boston College). His book, The Ethics of Encounter, exploring how to build the “culture of encounter” championed by Pope Francis in an American context, was published by Orbis Books in 2020.