In Matthew 10:34, Jesus says
“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 whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Commenting on this, Robert Barron says
“And this is just what we, his followers, must imitate. Taking up the cross means not just being willing to suffer, but being willing to suffer as he did, absorbing violence and hatred through our forgiveness and nonviolence.”
The problem with this interpretation is that Jesus doesn’t seem to be referring to being willing to suffer here. Rather, ‘taking up one’s cross’ seems to be referring to ‘dying to oneself’, as the next line after it suggests.
This line comes at a point where Jesus is preparing his disciples to go out into the world. These are the elite shock-troops who will start the new Kingdom (and they were quite successful – the seeds they planted led, within a few hundred years, to Constantine becoming the first Christian leader of the Roman Empire, and the beginning of Christianity as the official religion thereof – but this was based on a more organic growth of Jesus’ ‘Kingdom’ before that, where the population of Christians was increasing dramatically).
Here, he is preparing them for the push-back they will almost inevitably get as they start to challenge many prevailing ideas of the time.
So the idea of taking up one’s cross is part of dealing with potential persecution, but is it a call to endure suffering? This doesn’t make sense for various reasons.
Jesus didn’t say that being a Christian meant an increase in suffering. Rather, he said it meant an increase in joy and serenity. So this idea is counter to a basic message in Jesus’ teaching.
Some people interpret the taking up of one’s cross as carrying something heavy for a long time, but Jesus said the opposite – his ‘yoke is easy, and his burden is light’.
Similarly, the connotation of carrying a cross in the ancient world wasn’t of carrying something heavy for a long time, but rather of dying.
So, if we are to say that taking up one’s cross means in some sense dying, are we to understand this literally – as a call for martyrdom?
This doesn’t make sense with the text, because Jesus says ‘whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow after him isn’t worthy of Jesus’. Whoever means everyone. Understood literally, he meant everyone should be martyred, but if that’s right, then the apostle John wasn’t worthy of him, because John lived to a ripe old age and wasn’t martyred. So, that can’t be the right interpretation.
So what does it mean to ‘lose one’s life for Jesus’ sake’? I think a more reasonable interpretation is the setting aside of an ego-based life, and instead focusing on helping to create the Kingdom of which Jesus speaks, i.e., doing good things in alignment with God’s will. One must lose one’s old ego-centric life in order to gain this new way of living, and taking up one’s cross is a dramatic way of understanding this process of letting go of the ego-centric self, and instead making God (i.e., the good) the centre, which means aligning one’s will with God’s will.