Those of you who know me know that I am not one to shy away from challenges. However, if not for lectionary based worship (which I wrote about in my Connections article) I would probably not try to tackle this Sunday’s Gospel reading in a sermon. I would handle it in other contexts but not likely in a preaching context. But here it is, so let’s look at it.
Can you see why a preacher might want to avoid a passage like this? I thought about titling this sermon: The wild and crazy Jesus. Some commentators label this passage: Jesus’ demands for discipleship. But I wonder: Are these really the demands or conditions for any would be disciple? Jesus says first, hate your family. Then he says, bear your cross. And third, give up all your possessions. If those are the conditions for discipleship then how many of us are disciples?
Now that we are ankle deep, we might as well jump all the way in: What does Jesus mean when he says: “Whoever does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple?” You might remember from last week that I said Jesus was a provocateur. He intentionally said shocking things to give his hearers pause, to knock them back on their heels, and give them a jolt. Well, this is fairly jolting don’t you think? Obviously, he didn’t mean this literally any more than when he said, “If your eye causes offense, then pluck it out.” He didn’t mean for us to take this literally, but he did mean for us to take this seriously. And if we take this seriously, I think we have to admit that Jesus had a much different take on family life than we do. I think we have to be honest about that.
We often use the expression “like Christ” do we not? We talk about being “like Christ.” But let me say rather emphatically that there are ways that you and I will never be like the human Jesus and probably should not aspire to be. Do you remember the slogan “like Mike” when Michael Jordan was something of a phenomenon. Clearly there are ways you and I will never be like Mike nor should we try to be. There are ways you and I will never be like Jesus and probably shouldn’t try to be.
Jesus was a loyal and faithful Hebrew who most likely never entertained the thought of abandoning his Jewish heritage. He clearly had a deep faith and awareness of God and was moved by a vision of the world centered in God’s good and gracious will. He called this God’s kingdom. He was a prophet and a reformer. He confronted, challenged, and critiqued the injustice and unhealthy beliefs and practices within his religious tradition, which got him in a lot of trouble with the establishment and eventually got him killed.
Jesus shared the passion and vision of God for the world in a way that most of us will not. Let’s just admit that. Most of us will never come near experiencing God’s heart and God’s love and God’s passion for the world the way Jesus did. But we can make progress. We can change. We can allow the vision of Jesus to broaden us and expand our commitments and make us more compassionate and intentional in working for God’s justice/righteousness is society and in being agents of God’s mercy.
Jesus is not calling upon his hearers to literally hate their family members, but he is calling them to reevaluate their close and in many ways closed family connections and relationships, so they can broaden their love and interest over a wider network of people.
Matthew’s version of this saying from Jesus eliminates the word “hate.” In Matthew’s version 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.” Scripture scholars point out that Matthew’s version is most likely a softening of the more original version that is found in Luke. Clearly, other Christians had difficulty with the word “hate” that Jesus uses in Luke and so they got rid of it. Matthew’s version alters the saying to eliminate the word “hate.” Jesus, once again, is intentionally being shocking and radical, but, and this is important, shocking and radical for the purpose of challenging us and moving us to share more of the heart of God.
One of the major differences between the radical, shocking, and jolting sayings of Jesus and some that we have heard from modern day politicians and public figures is that Jesus wants to challenge us to tear down walls and become more inclusive and expansive in our love and commitments, whereas the radical statements we hear from politicians want us to build walls and become more exclusive. The politicians play on our fears and insecurities. Jesus wants us to be secure enough in God’s love that we can be servants of all people.
In Luke 8:19-21 Luke says that on one occasion Jesus’ mother and his brothers showed up to see him but couldn’t access him because of the crowd. When Jesus was notified of their presence he said, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” Now, to us that sounds very insensitive doesn’t it? He appears to ignore his own family and then he says, “Here is my true family, those who do the will of God.” Why is that? I believe Jesus had become so deeply immersed in God’s passion that he really did see the human family as his sisters and brothers. We talk about it, but we don’t feel it and know it the way Jesus did. We put our own families first right? We take care of our personal families before we take care of anyone else? It’s the natural thing to do. It’s common sense. It’s just what we do. We can easily argue it’s what we should do right? Well, Jesus apparently didn’t think or feel that way. And the reason he uses such shocking language is to get us to think about how God looks at and feels about the world, so that perhaps we will begin to share a larger vision and experience a more inclusive love.
And it is quite easy for a greater love to be misconstrued and misinterpreted. If we would respond to our own immediate family the way Jesus did in the story I just referenced, our family and friends would question our decency and maybe even our sanity. But the heart of Jesus beats to the tune of a different drummer. His vision and love was much wider and deeper and more inclusive than ours.
It is important to remember too, that in the context of Jesus’ work and mission he did indeed call some followers to relinquish their family responsibilities and join his little wandering band of rag-tag disciples to share in his work of proclaiming the kingdom of God – that is, God’s vision and will for the world. Remember the account of Jesus calling James and John. In Mark’s account they leave their father in the boat holding the fishing nets as they trot out after Jesus, and their poor father is most likely wondering how he would carry on the family business without his two sons.
Jesus also called some followers to actually relinquish all their possessions. He told the rich young official who wanted to enter more fully into the life of God to sell everything he owned and then join his traveling band of disciples. Jesus certainly didn’t tell everyone to do this, but he did tell some. Luke tells us, though, that there were some wealthy women followers who clearly didn’t relinquish their possessions, because they helped finance Jesus’ mission. In Luke 8:2-3 Luke mentions several women who accompanied Jesus and the Twelve for at least some of his travels and Luke says that these women “provided for them out of their resources.” They didn’t give up their possessions, they helped finance the mission. And there were other times when Jesus healed someone and the one healed wanted to cut ties and follow Jesus and Jesus sent the one he healed back into his or her own community to be a witness to God’s grace in that community among his or her own family and friends.
We (me and you) are not going to cut family ties and we are not likely to relinquish all our possessions. That’s pretty much a mainstay don’t you think? That’s not happening. Jesus himself was single and unencumbered. Most of us have obligations and responsibilities to family, and our calling is not to sever ties and relinquish responsibilities but rather, to fulfill them faithfully.
You see, sisters and brothers, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It’s not either/or. The question is: Am I becoming more? That’s the issue. Am I growing and becoming more inclusive than I am now? Am I developing a greater interest and concern and commitment beyond my own family or group? Am I open to seeing from a wider angle with a broader lens? Can I break away enough from my little story long enough to engage in a larger story or at least to see that my little story is part of something much greater and larger? I am pretty sure that our little group that went to Zambia are seeing life right now from a wider angle and a broader lens.
The radical gospel of Jesus is about inclusion and love for all and being servants of all, and that can be very difficult to hold on to and tricky to navigate given the challenging situations and circumstances of our lives. We have an example of this in Paul’s letter to Philemon.
Philemon is one of the seven undisputed letters attributed to Paul. No scholar questions Paul’s authorship. Apparently Philemon was a wealthy Roman landowner who owned slaves and under Paul’s ministry was converted to Christianity. Onesimus was a slave that had fled the household of Philemon, who somehow connects with Paul and also becomes a Christian. Onesimus obviously shared his story with Paul, and now Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter.
We know from Paul’s letter to the Galatians what his social vision for God’s new creation, God’s kingdom, involved. He proclaimed that when one clothes oneself with Christ, that is, when one becomes a follower of Christ and comes to share God’s vision for the world then everything changes. We adopt a new vision. And what is God’s vision according to Paul? It’s this: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” That’s in Galatians 3:28 in a context where Paul mentions baptism, and many interpreters think this new social vision was proclaimed as part of the baptismal ceremony. All social and gender divisions that promote inequality are eradicated in God’s new creation. Let the walls come down. How about that for a campaign slogan: Let the walls come down! And instead of chanting USA, USA! maybe we could chant: God’s new world! God’s new world! Let the walls come down! We can see how different God’s agenda is from popular and cultural agendas that are usually fear motivated and born out of the culture’s angst, the culture’s anxiety and insecurity.
So Philemon the slave owner is now a Christian and Onesimus the slave is now a Christian, and Paul is sending him back to Philemon. He tells Philemon to forgive Onesimus, and though Paul doesn’t come right out and say this, he uses some tack here, but he does some serious arm twisting to convince Philemon that the Christian thing to do is release Onesimus and grant him his freedom. Implementing God’s social vision of oneness and equality in a culture structured on the basis of inequality in a patriarchal, oppressive society can be really challenging and tricky to navigate.
I love what Paul says to Philemon when he says in verse 8 and 9: “For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love . . .” I could command you to release Onesimus, Philemon, as your spiritual father, but I will appeal to you on the basis of love. Love, sweet love. That’s what we all need and that’s what God gives and that’s what God’s kingdom, God’s new creation is all about. And Love, Love with a capital L because that is really the essence of God – God is love says the writer of 1 John - Love will always meet us where we are to lure us and entice us to be more and better and larger in love and grace than we are now.
Coming back to Luke 14 and these radical sayings of Jesus one commentator that I draw from quite a bit says this: “A complete change of priorities is required of all would be disciples of Jesus. No part time disciples are needed. No partial commitments are accepted.” Well, I am going to take exception to that comment by an otherwise very reliable commentator. I will grant that for some particular callings that maybe true, but I don’t think that’s how God relates to us. God relates to us in love and I believe God meets us where we are. It’s not all or nothing. God never leaves us or gives up on us and I believe God is constantly trying to move us, lure us, draw us into a deeper sense of what God’s family is, and a wider involvement in God’s will to bring peace and justice to this earth.
So, I am learning to not be too critical of others or myself. The late Fred Craddock tells of a neighbor he used to live by who would often ask him about some movie. She would say, “I’ve noticed such-and-such movie is on right now. Have you seen it? And sometimes Fred would say, “Yes, how about you?” And she would come back. “Oh, I don’t think Christians should go to the movies.” Some people live to get these kind of jabs in don’t they? They toss out the bait so they can get a critical word in. I am learning, sisters and brothers, not to jab so much, and not just at others, but also at myself.
I know that there are some ways I will never be like Jesus, and to be frank sisters and brother, I’m not sure I should aspire to be. So I am not going to beat myself up over my failures to be like Jesus, and I’m certainly not going to beat you up over it either. I’m not your judge and you are not mine. But we are all one in Christ, and we must learn how to accept and love one another with the love of God.
I will leave you (and me) with this question: What is it that I can do (maybe it’s a prayer that I can pray or some practice I can engage in or service I can render) that might help me to be more in tune with, more aligned with the deeper, wider, expansive, unconditional love of God that was so beautifully and definitively embodied in the life and teachings of Jesus?
Our good God, you know and we know there are ways we will never be like Jesus, but that shouldn’t cause us to throw in the towel. For there are many ways we can and need to grow, to become more – more compassionate, more inclusive, more gracious, more generous, more giving – and not just to our family and friends, but to those outside those circles as well. Help us to share more of your heart and love and to realize that no one has an inside track – we are all your children and we are all loved with an eternal love.