“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” (Mt 10: 37) Now, what is more shocking in that statement? That the man Jesus, a mere carpenter from a backwater town, demanded that we love Him more than even our closest relatives? Or that Jesus, the eternally begotten Son of God, implies that we can be worthy of Him?
Both are shocking and are meant to be. The first so jars our natural way of thinking, however, that we might not sufficiently appreciate the second. And it is the second that provides the key to the passage.
To be worthy of Him seems an absurdity. Strictly speaking, we cannot be worthy of God. Only God is worthy of God. And yet, unlike some of His other statements, our Lord does not mean this as hyperbole or a figure of speech. We should not pluck out our eyes, cut off our hands, or hate our mothers and fathers. (cf. Mt 5:29-30; Lk 14:26) But we should be – or should be made – worthy of Christ.
This is the simple and astounding truth about God’s grace. By grace He gives us a participation in His own life, making us “partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Pt 1:4) We describe grace as deifying. Its power and purpose are not simply to make us better people but to divinize us, to give us the capacity to love as God loves and – as shocking as it might sound – to be worthy of Him. Indeed, this is the purpose and scandal of the Incarnation: “The Son of God became man so that we might become God.” (St. Athanasius)
As such, we find prayers for worthiness throughout our faith. Saint Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “To this end, we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling.” (2 Thess 1:11) The Rosary concludes with the petition that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. The collect [opening prayer] for the feast of the Sacred Heart similarly asks that we. . . .may be made worthy to receive an overflowing measure of grace.
This is not mere poetry or metaphor, but the appeal for what God Himself desires. His grace has given us a share in His life; we ask for the further grace to live in a manner worthy of it. Either His grace has this power, or we’re praying for an absurdity.
If we think about the faith in natural terms – as merely a help to living a fulfilling life in this world – then our Lord’s words in today’s Gospel are not just misguided but truly offensive. But when we appreciate the gift of grace – that He raises us to participate in His life – then His words emerge as entirely reasonable. They are not extreme commands, but the logical consequence of grace.
To live according to grace requires a radical reordering of our loves: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” If we want to love as God loves (which grace capacitates us to do), then we must love Him first – above and even at times against our most important natural loves.
All other loves must yield to the divine. If we place human affection or loyalty ahead of – or even equal to – the grace of Christ, then we have lost the supernatural outlook. We have begun to regard Him from a human point of view. (cf. 2 Cor 5:16)
Even more, the life of grace requires the renunciation of our very selves: “[W]hoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” It comes down to this: Do we draw strength from ourselves or from His grace? Do we find our worth in ourselves or in His grace? Taking up the Cross and losing our lives means transferring our strength and worth from ourselves to Him.
The life of grace also requires receptivity. Indeed, this is the purpose of Christian self-denial. Renunciation and self-denial do not exist for their own sake. We practice them to create space for God, to free the soul’s passageways for the flowing of His grace. We empty ourselves of pride and self-sufficiency so that we have room to receive Him. His grace comes to us freely, but its efficacy depends on our willingness to receive and respond.
Consequently, after speaking of renouncing our Lord speaks of receiving: “Whoever receives you receives me.” To receive means to accept a gift not according to our own criteria and requirements but as it is given. “Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.” Having our own requirements or expectations of God’s grace sets up an obstacle to its work within us. We receive Him on His terms, or not at all.
The Apostle’s prayer is not vain: “That our God may make you worthy of his calling.” By His grace, God has made us worthy of Him, partakers of His own divine nature. This is a great gift. Its accompanying task is to recognize the gift – “Christian, recognize your dignity!” (St. Leo) – and “to lead a life worthy of the calling.” (Eph 4:1)
*Image: The Christian Soul Accepts the Cross by an unknown artist, c. 1630 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]