PROPER 18, C
What? Hate your family? Don’t I remember something about “Honor your father and mother?”
It seems impossible, but in today’s gospel Jesus lays down these requirements for discipleship:
- Hate your family.
- Hate your life.
- Carry the cross and follow me.
- Give up all your possessions.
Is that all? How do we reconcile this with the two great commandments Jesus gave us: to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves? How are we to love our neighbor and hate our family?
As is so often the case, we can’t arrive at understanding without looking at the context. The reading begins, “Large crowds were traveling with Jesus.” Oh, so it wasn’t just the disciples traveling with him. Crowds of people were following him as he traveled toward Jerusalem. Remember that Jesus had said the crowds were like a flock of sheep without a shepherd.
So he warns them about the cost of discipleship. As in many other instances, Jesus speaks in hyperbole to make a point. He speaks harshly to get their attention. One commentator even wondered if he was just trying to reduce the size of the crowd?
Maybe, but he also speaks the truth. John Pilch, a commentator I often use, says that the word translated here as hate, is more closely related to prefer, or the negative of that. So Jesus is saying that if you prefer your family to me, then you cannot be a disciple. This softens the tone, but does not make the reality any easier. And what do you think Peter’s wife would have to say to this – or any of the other disciples wives, left behind to fend for themselves in a culture where a woman alone is powerless and unable to make a living.
What about the brothers who left their father to fish alone on the Sea of Galilee? What about the things he could not do without help? What happened to him? Talk about Jesus bringing division!!
Do you know about a book called The Message? It is a paraphrase of the Bible in contemporary language by Eugene Peterson. He sums up this passage: “Simply put, if you’re not willing to take what is dearest to you, whether plans or people, and kiss it goodbye, you can’t be my disciple.”
This may be a gentler rendering of the statement, but it still doesn’t make it any easier to do. It does help clarify what Jesus means. If you are to be my disciple you must love me more than anyone or anything else (or to love God more than anything or anyone else). You must love enough and trust enough that you do not fear death. If you run away to save your life, you will loose it. If you have the confidence to risk your life for my sake, you will gain it.
There is life and there is life. The first is merely breathing, while the second is life lived abundantly and richly, one lived in faith and without fear.
To carry the cross and follow Jesus means to live a life of service and sacrifice for others, to see yourself as servant and disciple and to bear suffering in trust and hope, without bitterness.
To give up all your possessions is to free yourself from all desire for “stuff”. As Emilie Towne notes, “we must . . . learn to give up all of our possessions—our need to acquire, our yearning for success, our petty jealousies, our denigrating stereotypes of others, our prejudices and hatreds, and more—and follow the way of Jesus.” (Feasting on the Word) In other words, not just external stuff, but the internal stuff that keeps us apart from God. It also means that your self-esteem and confidence must come from who you are and/or who you serve, rather than from what you have, — not easy in our culture.
Do I think Jesus meant what he said? Absolutely. Do I think we are likely to attain it in our lifetimes? Not likely, or not entirely, but I do think we can go a long way in that direction. To be fair to us, the disciples didn’t do too well in the beginning either. They also scattered in fear when the trouble came, but they did regroup after the resurrection and lived out the lives of disciples, even to death.
Saying all this is easy. Even interpreting the text is easy compared to living it out in our daily lives. I still struggle with all of these injunctions. When a family member says something offensive to you, that seems unchristian or contrary to your understanding of the Gospel, what do you do? Keep quiet to keep the peace? Speak up and bring division? Lecture them? Cut that family member off? The various choices aren’t very pleasant, are they?
What if a member of your family believes it’s OK to cheat people who are different – poor or black or uneducated? Do you let them do it without comment? This actually happened to me. The scheme being proposed was to loan money, which my relative knew the people borrowing would default on, and then repossess the goods. Come to think of it, this was an early version of the mortgage business that helped create our last recession. He did not understand why I didn’t want to be involved, but he didn’t press it after I looked him in the eye and said very calmly, “I just couldn’t do that.”
Part of the problem as I see it is not just about whether to speak up, but how to speak up without putting the other person down. I have found that even though I don’t change someone’s mind, I feel much better speaking up than if I let it go by.
If nothing else, it has helped me realize I can say something other than “Isn’t that fraud?” or “Do you actually go to church every Sunday?” Or any of the other ranting sarcastic things I’d like to say but try not to.
As for living a life of service and sacrifice, how do we walk that line either? How do you serve and sacrifice yourself for others and still stay healthy? How do you do that and not become a doormat? While all others may deserve our help and care, we can’t help everyone. How do we choose? Where do we draw the line?
And what does it mean to give up all our possessions? Jesus did indeed ask his disciples to do this. How else can you live on the road? And Jesus wanted them to depend on the hospitality of strangers, as he did, rather than depending on their extended families. How does this translate for us?
I know that it means we must not be slaves to our possessions. It means that we must not love our possessions more than we love God or our neighbor. I know that having a lot tends to make us forget these priorities, because the more we have the more we have to worry about keeping it.
Does it also mean we must literally give it all away and throw ourselves on the mercy of the county or of strangers to feed and clothe us? That’s so contrary to the way most of us were raised that it’s hard to fathom, but it does require our serious consideration.
As human beings, none of us is perfect, and all of us have to struggle with doing what we know is right. We aren’t going to get it right over night, but becoming a disciple is a process that continues throughout our lives. Jesus holds up to us the ideal, that which we should be striving for, but we are already forgiven for our failure to attain perfection. The important thing is that we go on trying, that we consider the Gospel imperatives and try to incorporate them into our lives as best we can. God loves us whether we succeed or not, but that doesn’t let us off the hook of working toward being the disciples he calls us to be. Every one of us. AMEN