Many of Jesus' disciples who were listening said, "This saying is hard; who can accept it?" … As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. Jesus then said to the Twelve, "Do you also want to leave?" Simon Peter answered him, "Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God." John 6:60, 66-69
It’s tempting to only tell stories of people coming to Jesus, of fishermen abandoning their nets to follow him, and of tax collectors and corrupt leaders choosing to change their actions and live justly for the sake of Christ. But the truth is that the Gospels share plenty of stories of people who choose NOT to follow Jesus, most often because it is just too difficult. They aren’t allowed to bury their dead. They have to give away their money. It’s just too difficult to believe.
Many evangelical Christians claim they take the Bible literally and then they read John 6 or the Last Supper and they don’t know what to do with it. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. They claim literalism, but choose symbolism only for this text. On the flip side, Catholics do not claim to take every verse in the Bible literally, but John 6 is certainly read with a literal lens, making up the basic theology of the Eucharist.
Whichever Eucharistic theology is held, the majority of Western Christians (Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox) share a common reaction when reading the Gospels. We are quick to dismiss Jesus’ most difficult teachings in the Gospel… the teachings that seem too extreme, the commands that are too difficult to follow. The Gospel of Matthew alone give us enough examples to make us subconsciously start trying to come up with excuses of what he really could have meant. “He didn’t mean it literally!” we say. “I think he was just referring to the heart.” “We live in a different culture now so it doesn’t apply.”
Offer no resistance to one who is evil. (Matthew 5:39)
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 and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whosoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:37-39)
If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me. (Matthew 19:21)
Stop judging, that you may not be judged. (Matthew 7:1)
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth. (Matthew 6:19)
Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn you back on one who wants to borrow. (Matthew 5:42)
These are not particularly easy teachings to follow if we take them literally. And so we choose not to. And over time we’ve created a culture within Christianity that allows us to choose where and when we follow Jesus’ words. We’ve watered down Jesus’ commands to make our lives easier.
David Platt in his book “Radical” writes,
“Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of these eager followers of Jesus in the first century. What if I were the potential disciple being told to drop my nets? What if you were the man whom Jesus told to not even say good-bye to his family? What if we were told to hate our families and give up everything we had in order to follow Jesus?...
We don’t want to believe it. We are afraid of what it might mean for our lives. So we rationalize these passages away. ‘Jesus wouldn’t really tell us not to bury our father or say good-bye to our family. Jesus didn’t literally mean to sell all we have and give it to the poor. What Jesus really meant was…”
And this is where we need to pause. Because we are starting to redefine Christianity. We are giving in to the dangerous temptation to take the Jesus of the Bible and twist him into a version of Jesus we are more comfortable with.
… We are molding Jesus into our image.”
If we look at the Gospels, my gut says that those disciples left because they found his teachings entirely too real and too difficult to follow, so difficult that they were forced to leave. It was too much change. It would require letting go of their comfortable lives. The crosses they would need to carry would be too heavy. They didn’t want to sacrifice anymore. They preferred to go back to their former way of life. The teaching was too hard. Who can accept it?
How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:14)
When I place myself in the disciples’ shoes, I’m not sure what I would do. Would all of these teachings be too difficult for me to follow if Jesus was standing in front of me? Are these teachings too difficult for me to follow now? Am I worthy of being called Jesus’ disciple? What is he asking of me today? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I hope that my response to Jesus’ invitation echoes Peter’s, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”