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Is Talk of Discipleship Elitist? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Michael Fones   
Wednesday, 27 January 2010 09:54
From time to time the accusation is made by other Catholics, including – actually especially - those involved in ministry, that to speak of intentional discipleship is “elitist.” They have perceived that the phrase implies that some Christians are not just different, but somehow further along or more spiritually mature or more committed than others. These same people would likely agree that “faith is a journey,” and that how I live in relation to God (whether I think of myself as being in relation with God or not) varies from season to season in my life. However, to make the claim that some are different from others, especially if that can be construed as “better,” is one of the worst crimes in our egalitarian society.

This is a real misunderstanding of the nature of discipleship. You see, the invitation to be united to Jesus in a daily walk, to accept him as Lord of every aspect of one’s life, to “decrease so he may increase,” is offered to every person. You will not find a hint of elitism behind the offer whatsoever. The grace of God to enter into this relationship is offered to everyone through the proclamation of the Gospel, whether rich or poor, educated or not, healthy or ill, a notorious sinner or a more subtle sinner. I suppose where that proclamation is honest, complete, and supported by the power of the Holy Spirit that offer is clearer and more compelling, but not necessarily easier to accept.

In fact, the message and invitation seem to be more easily accepted by the more desperate and the simple. Jesus faced this issue during his ministry.

While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" He heard this and said, "Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' I did not come to call the righteous but sinners." (Mt 9:10-13)

I have met people who have been profoundly changed through God’s grace, and who are striving to allow Jesus to be the foundation of their lives. Often they are ordinary people: not too well-to-do, not necessarily highly educated. Sometimes they impressed me with how gracefully they dealt with what others would see as many obstacles to happiness. Jesus apparently experienced this, too.

[Jesus] rejoiced (in) the holy Spirit and said, "I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him." (Luke 10:21-22)

The “things” that remain hidden to the wise and learned, apparently, are what the 72 disciples reported happening during their mission. They were told to offer peace to the homes they visited, to eat and drink what was offered, to accept no payment, to cure the sick in the household, and to proclaim, “the kingdom of God is at hand for you.” …The seventy (-two) returned rejoicing, and said, "Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name." (Lk 10:5-9, 17)

“These things” – inexplicable cures, the casting out of demons, and even the idea of a kingdom of God somehow different from, yet growing within secular society are all attributes of Christianity that are hard for the sophisticated and intellectually gifted to accept. They are realities that are beyond the notice of the powerful and content – those who seem to have life “under control”. Yet for the disciple, they are not only possibilities, but in some cases, part of the experience of being delivered by God’s grace from a life focused on one’s self.

The claim that discipleship is “elitist” seems to come from those who are, in some ways, part of our cultural elite; at least they have the benefit of lots of education. Sort of like the Pharisees, who were the top of the religious heap in their day, complaining about the ease with which Jesus made sinners and tax collectors his disciples. Only in their case, they thought he wasn’t elite enough.

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