One of the lectionary texts for this week was Luke 14:25-33. My pastor, Ross Whiteaker, gave a great sermon on it this afternoon, which really got me to thinking about what was going on in this text.
The difficult part of this text is the part where Jesus tells his followers to “hate” their family. This is really very problematic if you look at it without any context. However, I believe that – if you look at it in the context of the rest of this passage – it begins to make a lot more sense.
In addition, I think there is a great lesson in here about how we relate to Jesus and to our possessions.
What follows are some of my hastily thrown-together thoughts on the text.
Now large crowds were traveling with him…
Here is our first clue as to what is going on. No longer is it simply Jesus and his small, surly-looking crew roaming about from town-to-town. There are a lot of other people that are suddenly following.
…and he turned and said to them,
And he is talking to them; the come-lately folks who are trying to tag along as if they are one of the disciples from the beaten-down region of Gallilee.
Then, we get to the tough part – the part about hating your family and carrying your cross – which we will come back to in a moment. In the meantime, I am curious: who are the people in these “crowd” that are following Jesus? I think the stories that Jesus tells give us a clue.
The first story is about the embarrassment that comes from failing to finish an elaborate construction project:
For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’
And the story is addressed to “which of you” – meaning the people in the crowds. Which tells me that we are hearing a story addressed to people who have money to build towers to protect land, which they also (presumably) own. They are furthermore people who are sensitive to the mockery that might come from their neighboring landowners, if they aren’t able to complete the project.
The second story involves warfare. Again, we will come back to it again later. But for now, suffice it to say that it involves a type of military assessment that is more likely to be relevant to someone in the middle or upper class than someone who has done nothing but farm for his/her entire life.
In short, these are the sorts of stories which suggest that people of means are beginning to follow Jesus. One can only imagine what this looks like, what with them tagging along – trying to carry along their possessions – attempting to work their way into the inner circle of misfits that are around Jesus.
Which brings us back to Jesus’ warning:
“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. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
There are two parts to this warning. Lets look at the second part first.
To “carry a cross” had one and only one meaning to this crowd: it meant to be paraded through the streets of the city as a rebel and traitor to the State, toward a painful and certain execution. It involved turning against those authorities, rather than living in collaboration with them.
The call to the wealthy wanna-bes to “hate” their family carries a similar ring. The affluent families of these individuals, eager to maintain their estates and position in society, would inevitably pressure any person following Jesus’ “revolution” to abandon their cause. To follow Jesus’ movement against the establishment of that day was to turn away from those familial relationships, effectively as if one “hated” one’s family.
The call to these affluent newcomers to “take up their cross” and “hate” their family, then, is a call to give up positions of power and privilege and join in solidarity with Jesus and his marginalized followers.
Jesus is, in effect, telling these people who are peeking in on the edges that they have no idea how far over their heads they are getting. They may think there is a way to have what they now possess and to also come along with Jesus, but Jesus does not make it easy for them.
This notion is reenforced by the last statement that Jesus makes in this text:
So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
What are we to say about those rich folks, then? Is there no hope? This is where I think the story of the two kings is so interesting:
Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.
Not only does this story emphasize the fact that God’s “forces” are overwhelmingly larger than those human forces. It also raises an interesting concept: the idea that there is an alternative way to deal with the situation – one that embraces the notion that one is incapable of paying the cost, and which in turn surrenders and relies on the grace of the opposing King.
This story reminds me so much of the story of the camel which, like the rich man, cannot get through the eye of the needle. How can this happen? All seems lost at the conclusion of the story, until Jesus suggests that “with God, all things are possible” – even, it seems, for that wealthy person to make it into God’s kingdom.
This, then, is the same paradox that I think we face in our culture: tied to our possessions as we are, we are unlikely to ever learn the secrets of voluntary poverty that are known by some of the mystics. However, if we are willing to acknowledge that the cost is too great – that we cannot do this thing – we then open up a space in which God can work, even through our imperfection and weakness.
Since we are unwilling (and perhaps even, in some sense, unable) to pay the cost of confronting the King, we have no choice, instead, but to surrender. And in that surrender, grace can do its work.
What a fantastic parable.