PROPER 18, C
Spoiler alert: part of today’s sermon I have preached before, and part is based on comments by Karoline Lewis on the website Working Preacher.org.
In today’s gospel Jesus lays down the basic requirements for discipleship:
- Hate your family.
- Hate your life.
- Carry the cross and follow me.
- Give up all your possessions.
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.
I think he looked out over the crowd, reflecting on what awaited him in Jerusalem (he had said that no prophet could be killed except in Jerusalem), and he knew that most of that crowd would scatter at the first sign of trouble. So he warns them about the realities of discipleship. As in many other instances, Jesus speaks in hyperbole to make a point. He speaks harshly to get their attention.
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.
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.
Here again there is life and there is life. The first is mere life, 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. To give up all your possessions is to free yourself from all desire for “stuff”, all dependence on stuff. 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.
The usual sermon title for this week is “The Cost of Discipleship.” Cost is what you give up, what you sacrifice. What if we changed this usual approach to “The Choice of Discipleship?” Choice is something we can do – or not. Choice is making a commitment. Committing to discipleship is choosing a life that helps bring the kingdom into reality, so that others can see and experience it.
Jesus makes it clear that such a commitment is not easy, but we can choose it and struggle to become a good disciple. When we think of discipleship as something we have chosen, rather than as something thrust upon us, I think it changes the way we view the problems and joys of following Jesus. The problems become challenges. What changes do I have to make to put God above everyone else? What does it mean to carry the cross? How many possessions do I have to get rid of? The joys of meeting these challenges are many, but the greatest is attaining the ability to live life full on without fear.
The other advantage of thinking of this in terms of choice has to do with how we interpret the meaning of the cross. “Take up your cross and follow me” sounds like you’ll have to bear a heavy load. Do you have to die for the cross? Is it all about Jesus dying for our sins and now we have to carry our sins around for all to see, or is it something else?
Maybe the cross we are called to carry represents the choice of life, of life lived abundantly, not only in the next life, but also in this life! And certainly of a life lived without fear.
Consider for a moment what fear does to us. Isn’t it fear that causes us to hate the stranger? Isn’t it fear that makes us refuse to talk to those who have hurt us? Isn’t it fear that makes us lock things up and hold on tight to all we have rather than being willing to share?
Consider what we heard in the lesson from Deuteronomy: “Moses said. . .I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life, so that your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days. . .”
As human beings, none of us is perfect, and all of us have to struggle with doing what we know is right. 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. If we choose to be disciples, this will be an ongoing process. God loves us whether we succeed or not, but that doesn’t let us off the hook of trying to be the disciples he calls us to be. Let us, everyone of us, choose life! L’chaim! AMEN