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Sunday, September 8, 2013

The cost of discipleship

Luke 14.25-33

This week, a week in which we observed the secular festival of “Father’s Day”, I find myself in the unenviable position of having to explain one of Jesus’ hardest sayings about discipleship.  Let me quote: 
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. 
 What a thing to have to talk about close to Father's Day!  Still, that is the discipline of the lectionary.  It forces preachers and their congregations to tackle the more difficult aspects of the faith, when, without it, we would probably just stick to the passages which give off the warmest glow.  So, Father’s Day it may have been this week, but we shall attend to this difficult saying nevertheless!

The most important thing to recognise about this passage, first up, is that the families of first century Palestine were quite a different thing to the families most of us grew up with in Australia.  The ancient family was patriarchal, that is, it was led by the eldest male.  That principal male (or ‘patriarch’) owned all the family’s goods, and bore a generational responsibility to honour his ancestor’s memory by striving to make the family more successful and important than it was when he took over the helm.  A heavy responsibility indeed!  But the patriarch received enormous power in order to fulfil that responsibility.  To the members of his own family—his wife or wives, his brothers and sisters, his children, his concubines and slaves—his word was law.  Not only was he responsible for the family, he also owned the family.  Which could be pretty tough for everyone else!  If you were the patriarch’s wife or daughter or slave, and the patriarch was a harsh or abusive man, there was absolutely nothing you could do about it.  There were no laws to protect you, because your husband or father or master was the law.  Because he owned you, he could do with you as he pleased.  Even where the patriarch was a kind man, life could still be very tough.  In that society, you see, there was nothing that was more important than the family’s fortunes.  As a member of the family you were born into, it was your life’s task to promote the greater fortune of your family, to give everything that you have for your family, even if that meant putting aside your own individual vision, gifts, skills or sense of calling.  In first century Palestine, there was really no such thing as an individual calling.  There was only the family’s calling.  The family was all that mattered.

Now, what happens if we re-read the difficult saying of Jesus against this particular social backdrop?  What happens to our understanding of what he was saying?  Well, quite a bit, I suspect!  First, and most importantly, we can perhaps see that Jesus’ many attacks against the family should not be seen as attacks against all kinds of family.  They should be understood, rather, as attempts to make a space within the ancient mind for the possibility that there may be a calling or vocation that is even more important than advancing the fortunes of one’s family.  For the contemporary Australian mind, that possibility is not so very difficult to imagine.  Even where most of us continue to believe that our families are indeed the most important thing, we can nevertheless contemplate the possibility that one or all of our children may go off and do their own thing, that is, something that we, ourselves, may not see as particularly good for the family name or honour.  Many of us would even agree that our children have a right to follow their own lights, even when those lights do not seem particularly bright from where we stand.  But seeing things that way was just about impossible in the ancient world.  Leaving one’s family to its own fortunes, and going off to seek one’s own, would have been literally unimaginable for the folk who listened to Jesus for the first time.

Which is why this saying of Jesus was even more difficult to digest in the ancient world than it is for us today.  Let me read it once more.  But listen, this time, for the scandal it would have caused for Jesus’ first hearers: 
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. 
The ancient world decreed that we were all born to serve the honour of our families.  If there was a meaning to our lives, it was this.  With these words, however, Jesus dropped a veritable bomb into that world.  He suggested not only that there might be something more important than our good family name, but also that this something was so much more important that it was practically impossible to serve both it and one’s family obligations at the same time.  And now you are perhaps wondering what that something might be, that could lure a person away from their most ancient responsibilities?  This and only this:  the following of Jesus. 

Let it be understood that in the ancient world, agreeing to follow Jesus was both enormously costly and infinitely rewarding.  It was costly because the economic and social fortunes of one’s own family were put at the service of a greater ideal, a reality which Jesus referred to as the “kingdom of God”.  In Jesus’ teaching, the kingdom was a divine commonwealth in which no family would enjoy greater wealth or prestige than another.  In the kingdom of God, the fortunes of one’s own family were to be shared with other families, those who were not so fortunate.  To become a disciple of Jesus, therefore, one needed to renounce the desire to advance one’s own status or wealth over against the Joneses, the Smiths or the Wongs.  Indeed, the disciple of Jesus was called to labour for the good of the whole community, even those who would have formerly been seen as one’s competitors.  The family’s possessions were no longer to be seen as belonging to that family alone.  Rather, they were to be given away.  They belonged to God, and were to be surrendered to God as an offering for the building of the commonwealth.

In the first century, if a person decided to live this way they could be accused of betraying the most important norms and values of the community.  They could be labelled family-haters, family-betrayers.  Jesus was!  There was no worse charge, and the marginalization that one could suffer as a result would have been like dying.  The image of the disciple as one who carries the cross of Christ, enduring the mocking that Christ suffered, is therefore completely apt.  Living like Christ lived inevitably draws the ire of those who feel they must champion and defend the status-quo.  That was why Jesus encouraged people to think very carefully before coming his disciples.  To weigh things up, to count the cost.  For being his disciple was very difficult.  You would certainly be marginalised.  But you could also get yourself killed.

Following Christ was very costly.  Yes.  But it was also very liberating.   Imagine growing up in the first century.  With your mother’s milk you imbibe the 1st commandment, to work for your family’s good fortune.  Imagine the terrible burden of that.  Imagine knowing, deep in your heart and soul, that your only value was that which you could earn for your family’s name.  What if you failed?  What if your family came up against hard times?  What if you were not smart enough to best your most ruthless competitors?  What if the things you were good at were not economically rewarding enough?  What then?  To people who lived daily with all these burdens and anxieties, Jesus offered God’s good news, the good news that you no longer needed to strive under the unbearable weight of your family’s expectations because you were valuable to God even if your family failed.  The good news that you could become a citizen of God’s new commonwealth, a commonwealth in which the good fortune of others would be shared even with those who, in the normal scheme of things, were lowest in the pecking order.  The good news that there would always be someone looking out for you, even when the going got tough.

So you see, this hard saying of Jesus was uttered for the sake of everyone who struggled under the crushing weight of the ancient world’s most universal expectations:  those regarding the fortunes of one’s family.  It was uttered to free people from that weight, so that they might find a more liveable way to be amongst the people of God’s new commonwealth.

“But that was then, and this is now” I hear you say.  “What relevance has all of this to offer our own time and place?  Things are different now.  The weights are not as heavy.”  Well, my friends, I’m not sure that that is true!  We are all of us subject, I think, to a great weight of expectation.  The weight of expectation may not be as focused in the fortunes of our families as much as it used to be, but the weight is there nonetheless.  Young men and women are under enormous pressure to conform to a particular model of beauty and success.  I call it the “Tom and Nicole” model.  To be beautiful is to be dressed in designer labels and to have a gym-sculpted body that is both strong and sexually alluring.  To be successful is be on television or in the movies.  Middle-aged men and women are under pressure as well.  The pressure to succeed financially, that is, to have accumulated a house, a beach house, and enough money to sponsor that supremely self-rewarding lifestyle, by age 65.  Older people are under pressure too, the pressure to assist their children in the realization of their more and more greedy expectations.  How many of you are actually parenting your grandchildren while your children pursue the almighty dollar?

In the midst of all this crushing contemporary pressure, Christ offers some good news to us as well.  And, strangely enough, the good news has not really changed all that much since the first century.  First, Christ says that it is possible to imagine a world in which the pressure to ‘make it’ or ‘succeed’ is irrelevant.  You are loved by God, he says, and therefore you don’t have to impress anyone.  Second, Christ would say that in order to experience that pressure-less world you have to be prepared to put away your idols, to stop living as though the “Tom and Nicole” model really mattered.  But count the cost before you do, Christ would say.  For to put away your idols is also to give away the values of the world in which you live.  Many of your friends, and even your family, may not like it.  They may think you have gone mad or betrayed them.  They may even try to undermine your choice.  Third, Christ would say that in giving your idols away, in dying to the basic values of this world, you will find a peace that passes all understanding.  The pressure will be relieved.  Why?  Because you will be then be free to give yourself away.  No longer will you be like a vacuum-cleaner which sucks everything into itself until it explodes.  Instead, you’ll be like a fan that channels the grace of a cool breeze towards others on a hot summer’s day.  In this, says Christ, is your salvation.  For in this you will find that he is living and breathing his divine life in and through your mortal frame.  I believe him.  Do you? 

This homily was first preached at St Luke's Uniting Church in September 2004.