Psalm 1 says the same thing with a set of vivid images. Living the law of the Lord is like being a tree planted next to living water. Planted like that, you grow into something that bears fruit. Failure to live the way of the Lord is to be like chaff blowing in the wind. No hope of fruitfulness there!
The teaching of Jesus in the Gospel reading is similar, but more complicated and paradoxical. Like Moses and the psalmist, Jesus calls us to choose fullness of life, but with what challenging imagery! If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:24).
Let’s slow down and listen to this image carefully. Reference to the cross, of course, evokes the Roman death penalty for non-citizens, the kind of execution that Jesus himself would eventually suffer. The word “daily” makes it clear that he is not talking about a once-in-a-lifetime martyrdom. It is a daily opportunity. And notice that Jesus is not saying that his followers must get crucified daily. The metaphor is specifically about carrying the cross. So the reference is to a specific part in the process of Roman execution, the part where the criminal is led through the streets carrying the crosspiece on his shoulders, thus marking him as an enemy of Roman law and order, so that the crowds could insult and spit upon him as he passed by. The point was to shame the criminal and make an example of him, deterring others from committing the same crime.
So the immediate point of Jesus’ image was this: Follow me, and you can expect to be targeted for some rejection and shaming. Identify with me, and some will reject you as they rejected me. Stand for life in the way I’m teaching you to understand life, and those elements of society who support deathly things (like ignoring the needs of the poor, or acting as if might makes right), and some people are sure to reject you. That’s the bad news. But, if you remain faithful to my way nonviolence and of love of enemies, you will gain the fullness of life—now and hereafter. It is in that sense that whoever loses his life for my sake will save it (Luke 9:24b).
Just three chapters before this scene, Jesus put the same thing in the form of a Beatitude: Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you and denounce your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven. For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way (Luke 6:22-23).
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