Let me see if I’ve got this straight…
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
Yup, that’s right; that’s what Jesus said (!): but quite honestly, to our ears, the words sound more like an invitation to a cult than it does a teaching of the Lord! Moreover, it seems to contradict so much of everything else that Jesus teaches in the gospels: about the sacred quality of the marriage relationship and family, about the importance of keeping the commandments; specifically, in this case, the fifth commandment to honor one’s father and mother. And while we’re on the subject; what about love? Isn’t Jesus always saying that we must love one another? This certainly doesn’t jibe with what we hear Jesus saying now, this clear admonition to hate parents, spouse, children and even life itself for the sake of discipleship – not exactly the stuff we church folk want to hear on a “Homecoming Sunday!”
But there it is, right smack dab in the middle of Luke’s gospel; words of Jesus that that quite frankly, come off as pretty offensive to our modern sensibilities. So the question becomes, how do we deal with this? Does following Christ mean hating everything and everyone else?
Well, to start with, we need to properly understand what Jesus was actually saying when he used the word hate. In Biblical parlance, you see, the word hate was most often used in a relative context; that is, to hate something means that you love it less than something else. So, then, most generally hate was not referring to wild-eyed fury or deep-seeded loathing; rather it was about the level of importance, loyalty and commitment one thing holds against another. So Jesus’ words here aren’t meant to be heard as a command to deny love or faithfulness toward our families or others; but it is meant to be heard as a firm expectation of undivided loyalty. In other words, to follow Jesus demands our complete commitment in terms of our time, attention, our money and yes, our relationships. To carry the cross and to follow Christ as his disciple, that is to come first. Always first: before home, before family, before possessions, before security, before convenience, before propriety… sometimes even before life itself…
…which doesn’t make this passage any easier to deal with at all!
Indeed, one the most difficult truths of our Christian faith is that there is a clear and considerable cost of discipleship. And as Jesus spoke so bluntly to the crowds seeking to follow him along the way, so he says to us 21st century Christians: if you’re going to follow me, then you’d best count the cost first.
After all, Jesus says, if you’re building a house, don’t you first calculate what it’s all going to cost, to make sure you’ve got enough to finish the job? Wouldn’t a general be considered foolish to send troops to battle when the opposing army is twice the size of his own? It’s simply common sense that potential costs have to be weighed long before any enterprise begins; and so it is, says Jesus, with discipleship. It is fraught with its own set of perils; it has a way of radically shifting one’s direction and priorities in life; and very often, it will put you at odds with those very people you love – and this is to say nothing of standing in utter conflict with the conventional wisdom of the world!
This business of following Jesus and becoming his disciple all sounds very good and noble and commendable; but what Jesus wants us to know is that in the day to day reality of the thing, it’s hard! And it costs.
I remember years ago at a church I served, one of our members made a fairly public remark at a church event about a personal tragedy that just befallen one of our local politicians. Now she had intended, I guess, for what she was saying to be both insightful and funny; but instead her words were callous, hurtful and utterly tasteless. It was offensive; so offensive in fact, that instinctively, as her pastor, in that moment I spoke up. And I remember telling her, not unkindly, that what she had said wasn’t funny, that this was a person’s life we were talking about, that not only was this person – a member of our community – suffering in the midst of this tragedy, but so were the members of his family and friends, many of whom attended our church; and that as Christians, we needed to find some compassion and keep our conversation on a higher level.
Now friends, I am telling you this now not because of what I did or how I responded to that situation, but rather to confess to you how incredibly embarrassed I felt immediately afterward for having done the right thing by speaking up! Folks, let me assure you, if you want to full on stop a lively conversation in its tracks and suck the fun out of a room, this is how to do it!
But I’ll tell you two things about that incident. First, there were many who’d overheard this conversation who came up to me in the days afterward and shared that they’d wished they’d said what I had in response to that tasteless remark. And second, the experience actually kind of haunted me, because I was reminded of so many other instances when I could have said something when it mattered; when perhaps in faith I should have said something to make a good and positive difference …but for fear of risking acceptance, friendship, propriety, conflict or countless other lesser things, I sat by and said nothing, having somehow determined that the cost of being faithful in such a situation was too great for me to bear.
What is it that the Rev. Martin Luther King said? “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” It took a small little episode like that to make me see that what we say and do, or don’t say and do, is in fact a personal act of faithful integrity – and it is rarely easy. But then again, as Jesus reminds us here and throughout the gospels, it’s not supposed to be easy.
Beloved, our faith is meant to transform every segment of our lives and living; it is intended to be the governor of our behavior and the determining factor in setting our priorities as persons and as a people; it is to be the singular power which pulls the needle of our moral compass in a clear and unambiguous direction. So, yes; faith ought to affect how we raise our children; it ought to determine what we teach them about life, and about virtue and honesty – that’s one reason we do Sunday School! And faith should be the vision by which we view others, and the first and last lesson in how we care both for one another and for the world around us; with compassion, tolerance, forgiveness and love in all things.
These are the very basic tenets of the Christian life; and yet there are still so many of us who fail to live up to that standard of discipleship (!) – but not, I suspect, because we don’t believe it or aspire to it, but rather because ultimately, the cost of it is too high! Truth be told, too many of us would prefer a faith that’s easy-going, middle of the road and moderately priced; decidedly not the kind of faith that Jesus demands!
In his famous book The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis quotes Screwtape, a “senior demon” advising his apprentice nephew in the most effective ways of tempting young Christians away from their faith, as saying that, in fact, one of the easiest temptations comes in leading new believers into thinking that “religion is all very well up to a point.” After all, he writes, “a moderated religion is as good for us demons as no religion at all – and more amusing.”
It’s true because at its core, following Jesus Christ is an extreme act; far from being a warm and fuzzy release from all of life’s demands, following Jesus requires us to devote all, to give wholly, to look at all the joys and benefits of our lives and still be able to answer Christ when he calls us to “love me more than these.” It’s about willingly bearing the cross, knowing full well the cost of doing so.
Of course, the great paradox of all this is that along with this great and seemingly unaffordable cost of discipleship comes an inexpressible joy; the assurance that those who would turn their lives over to Jesus will receive it back again …tenfold and transformed, our days enhanced to the fullest measure of what God intends both for us and for the world. And the good news is that despite our continuing tendencies to fall short on our own good intentions in that regard, such joy still comes to us by God’s grace; for while we cannot ever hope to bear the full cost of that joy, there has been one whose whole desire and purpose was to pay that price himself, and did so hanging on a cross. Isn’t it ironic; that only by love given at the greatest cost can we ever understand love’s true value?
Well, the same one who has loved us in just this way now calls us to carry the cross, and to follow him into every avenue of life’s mystery, wonder and pain; walking with him on a journey where we discover that our true purpose, and our greatest joy, comes in living unto God’s own kingdom, on earth as it is heaven.
My prayer today is that each one of us, beloved, might choose to pick up that cross, accepting its cost, so that we may also know its joy.
Thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry