“What we hear from Jesus in Luke today, I believe, are words addressed to impetuous volunteers. In essence, Jesus says, ‘Think about what you are doing and decide whether or not you are willing to stay with me all the way. It is going to cost you something, so calculate that cost and choose to come with me or turn back.’”—Robin White
Wing + Prayer
By The Reverend Robin White
LAKE HARTWELL South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—October 2019—In the first part of Luke, Chapter 14, Jesus has been having an intimate conversation with those gathered around the table at the home of a Pharisee. Our text for today, however, begins with the reentry of Jesus and his disciples into a public arena as Luke reports Jesus’ turning to the large crowds that have been following him. It seems significant to Luke here that Jesus switches gears from facing a small unenthusiastic audience at the Pharisee’s table, to challenging the blind exuberance of the crowds. The throngs of people following Jesus are clearly captivated by this charismatic, young rabbi, and they clamor around him with intense devotion. However, ardent though they are, these followers can’t see what lies before them and their teacher, just ahead.
Do they realize the true nature of this journey to Jerusalem? Jesus certainly grasps its greater significance, but do those who follow with blinkered zeal see this funeral procession for what it is?
What we hear from Jesus in Luke today, I believe, are words addressed to impetuous volunteers. In essence, Jesus says, “Think about what you are doing and decide whether or not you are willing to stay with me all the way. It is going to cost you something, so calculate that cost and choose to come with me or turn back.”
The call to carry a cross or not is linked back to Chapter 9, where Jesus asserts that only those who are willing to shoulder their cross “daily” will be true followers. In the passage from Chapter 14, this level of commitment is linked to the difficult rhetoric about hating one’s family and one’s life: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes even life itself, is not able to be my disciple.”
These words seem to be in direct conflict with the values most of us hold dear. So, how are we to interpret this problematic pronouncement?
For this audience, for you and for me, to hate is a pretty straightforward verb. For Luke and his readers, however, the verb meant to “turn away from, or detach oneself from; to abandon, or renounce.” This understanding is quite different from our own animosity-laden interpretation of the word. Renunciation, in Luke, involves no emotional loathing. Were that the case, Verse 26 alone would invalidate all the calls to love, nurture, and serve found throughout the scriptures. In the same way, the summons to hate one’s own life is not a call to self-loathing or judgment, but, rather, a requirement to detach and turn away from all the many daily loyalties that can take precedence over our following in the way of the Divine.
I am in no way attempting to “domesticate” or “sanitize” what Jesus says. These words from Luke are like dynamite and I believe Jesus means to light the fuse. If we are going to be disciples, we must be willing to let go of the past. We must be willing to detach from the comfort and security of the places and the persons we have been, and strip ourselves for the journey down the road of learning and growth with Jesus as teacher and God as God. We must be ready to leave behind all that which constricts growth, obscures vision, and invites death rather than life, be that family, possessions, traditions, occupations, or societal norms. Jesus calls for us to dethrone all of those household gods, notwithstanding the shocking upheaval for all concerned.
This radical reordering is not change for the sake of change but, rather, an alteration that has direction, and intention—which is to free ourselves from the burdens that keep us from traveling light down the Divine path.
I love the scene in Bill Bryson’s book, A Walk in the Woods, where he discovers that his partner, “Katz,” has radically lightened his pack on their first day of hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Bryson writes: “It was hard to get the full story out of him in a coherent flow because he was so furious, but I gathered he had thrown many items from his pack over the cliff in a temper. None of the things that had been dangling from the outside was there any longer. ‘What did you get rid of?’ I asked, trying not to betray too much alarm.
“‘Heavy stuff. The pepperoni, the rice, the brown sugar, the Spam, I don’t know what all. Lots.’ He acted as if he had been deeply betrayed by the trail.
The next morning Bryson wakes up to find Katz making coffee.
“Is there a reason why you are filtering coffee with toilet paper?” Bryson asks.
“I, oh . . . I threw out the filter papers.”
“They couldn’t have weighed two ounces,” Bryson responds.
“I know, but they were great for throwing. Fluttering all over. I threw out the brown sugar, too, so there won’t be any for the oatmeal.”
“Actually, there won’t be any oatmeal for the oatmeal, I left it in New Hampshire.”
“What about some of that cheese?” Bryson asks.
Katz shakes his head, “Flung.”
“Hey, I’m happy with a cup of coffee and a couple of Little Debbies,” Katz replies.
Bryson grimaces. “I left the Little Debbies.”
Katz’s face expands, “You left the Little Debbies?” He breathes hard, this is really grave—a serious challenge apart from anything else . . .”
Leaving things behind . . . sometimes necessary but often painful . . . inconvenient at the very least.
Jesus says, “Put down your possessions and take up your cross.” We generally think of “taking up the cross” as something revolutionaries do as they prepare to die for a cause. It is something Jesus does and something he calls his followers to do as well. Jesus’ appeal is not to fanaticism—where baby after baby goes out with the bathwater—but, rather, a radical paradigm shift, where one prepares to stand up, be counted, and face the consequences.
In the two parables embedded in this passage we find, again, the bedrock lesson of the gospel. On the spiritual trail, followers are asked to think carefully about what they are doing, using the common sense of a builder and the prudence of a king preparing for battle. The point of both stories is that people need to be thoughtful about what they are signing on for. Luke draws this all together with Jesus’ words, “So then any of you who does not take leave of all your possessions cannot be my disciple.”
When we are possessed by our possessions, our knees buckle beneath the weight and we are hobbled. So once more, Jesus says, “Let go . . . turn away from the things that hamper your journey with me.”
Several years ago, I was at a dinner party where when a man learned that I was a minister, he began to decry the grave state of “his” Episcopal church. With grief and anger, he explained to me how a new priest had arrived and how now there were all these new people who were taking over. He had been member of the congregation for over 35 years and he didn’t know any of these new people! They were strangers and it just wasn’t right . . . the church no longer felt like his church!”
I recognized his tremendous grief and pain over the seeming loss of some things of great value to him. The change was too much for him to bear. He wasn’t willing to let go of the old and embrace the new. The cost for him was too great.
Think about your own comfort level as you envision your sanctuary suddenly infused with new faces: people you don’t recognize, people you don’t know . . . young people, people from different religious traditions, previously unchurched people, people with new and different ideas, people who want to change the style of worship, the kind of music you sing, the way the gathering place is arranged, the way the building itself is used, the way your resources and time are allotted.
Are we willing to let go? Are you willing to let go?
Chapter 14 ends with the words, “Salt is good, but if it has lost its taste, how can it be restored?” Even with care and mindfulness, commitments will be severely tested. Think of the enthusiasm for Jesus that suddenly turns to “I don’t know him” when a disciple faces the reality of the cross.
Under stress, both overt and subtle, salt does not become pepper, but, rather, it gradually loses its savor. In the same way, our commitment to the Divine calling cannot be defined by possessiveness or attachment. Hence, it will become like salt without savor: “It is fit neither for soil nor the manure pile.”
My friends, my new friends, this message is neither gentle nor reassuring.
There is, however, one other thing in this text that I want to emphasize lest we be disheartened about our commitment. The passage begins with the refrain, “whoever does not . . . is not able be my disciple.” This refrain appears in Verses 26, 27 and 33. The biblical or Koine Greek word for “able” is Dynamai. In the negative, it generally carries with it the meaning of “not being able” to do something —referring to something that is impossible for one to do.
In the beginning of Luke’s gospel, Zechariah is “unable” to speak. He may want to speak, but he cannot. Luke also uses this phrase to refer to something a person is able to do but chooses not to do, for example, the man who cannot get up and give his neighbor some bread and the man who has just gotten married and cannot come to the feast to which he has been invited. In both cases, it is possible for them to do the task, but they just don’t want to do it.
So, which is it in our text? Is it impossible for us to meet the demands of discipleship even if we want to, or is it that we simply choose not to, because of the cost? Luke tells us, near the beginning of his gospel, that “nothing is impossible with God.” Therefore, an old couple and a young girl will give birth. Later on, Jesus makes a seemingly impossible demand on a wealthy ruler who asks, “Who can be saved?” Jesus answers, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God!”
What if it is impossible for us, as mortals, to give up everything and carry the cross? What if we cannot completely let go of the things that divert us from the paths that lead to the Divine? Does this mean it is impossible for us to be followers of Jesus? Perhaps, as mortals, it is impossible for us, and, yet, God makes possible the impossible.
“Let anyone with ears to hear, listen.”