Luke 14:25-35: Jesus Didn’t Really Mean That . . . Did He?
Before I could start working on today’s sermon, I had to post a piece of pottery to sell on eBay. I was actually in kind of a tight spot because of a conversation that Chris and I had last Sunday evening on the porch of our hotel room at Oak Island. We were talking about our almsgiving habits and how they have evolved over the past few years: from turning our heads as beggars approach, to handing out food, to handing out McDonalds gift cards, to handing out cash. As we were talking, I had a brainwave—“When we get home, let’s start selling off our stuff on eBay and giving that money to the poor! We can start with our Seagrove pottery.” When I got home Monday night and began preparing for this week’s worship service, my first step was to look up the lectionary texts for today:
None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
[Pointing up to the sky]
Oh, ha! ha! ha! That’s a good one, God! So now I guess I really have to do it!
Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel lesson are some of the hardest to swallow: hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself . . . carry the cross and follow me . . . give up all your possessions. I find myself questioning each of them and asking myself if Jesus really meant these things—they’re so extreme! Hate father and mother? Why “hate”? That’s such a strong word! Carry the cross? The cross and not some metaphorical cross custom made just for me? All your possessions and not just some? Not just the ones sitting around collecting dust, like . . . oh, I don’t know . . . pieces of decorative pottery?
I found myself responding to these teachings in several ways:
I want to compare the sayings in this Gospel to the others and choose the one I like best. The way Matthew puts is: “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Well, OK, then. If it is simply a matter of degree, of loving Christ more than mother or father or son or daughter, then I can certainly strive for that. If it is a matter of taking up my own particular cross, I can strive for that too. What choice do I have, right? And if I fail in all of these strivings, I can even live with not being worthy of Christ. I think I would find myself in good company among all the others who are not worthy of Christ.
Or I want to turn to the commentaries so that they can tell me that Jesus is not really saying what it sounds like he’s saying. And I hate commentaries! They quash creativity and strangle the words more than they let them ring out. But when it comes to these teachings, I want some ameliorating circumstances to put them into perspective and to soften their blow. Biblical commentator R. Alan Culpepper gave me these escape hatches in his commentary on Luke:
“Two factors help put [the command to hate father and mother] into context. First, it is a Semitic hyperbole that exaggerates a contrast so that it can be seen more clearly. “Hate” does not mean anger or hostility. It indicates that if there is a conflict, one’s response to the demands of discipleship must take precedence over even the most sacred of human relationships. . . . Second, this saying may have had a very practical function in the lives of the first Christians. . . . Discipleship required a willingness to leave home and family and travel with minimal provisions . . . to proclaim the gospel.
“The verse on cross bearing . . . evokes . . . the suffering that awaits [Jesus] in Jerusalem. He warns the crowd . . . that no one can follow him unless he or she is ready to suffer the same fate Jesus would suffer.
“The third condition [is] . . . if you seek to follow Jesus, then understand that what is required is all you have. . . . The verb translated . . . “give up” literally means “to say farewell to” or “to take leave of.” The descriptions of the sharing of goods in the early church . . . probably illustrate what Luke understood this demand to mean.”
As much as we might try to get away from these demands by reading them in the light of other Gospels, or by understanding them to be prophetic exaggeration, or by realizing that we are in a different historical context from the crowd following Jesus to Jerusalem or the disciples on a missionary journey or the early church pooling its resources for survival, we cannot get away from the fact that discipleship is costly and that each of us “who would be a disciple [must] consider in advance what that commitment requires.”
Discipleship requires love. This requirement does not mean that we love no one else. On the contrary, Jesus tells us to love God and to love our neighbors. Jesus tells us to love one another and even our enemies. But the love required of disciples is so vibrant that the other loves of our lives pale in comparison, a thin shadow of love, or even the love’s opposite of love. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” Jesus said. And that’s exactly what he did. And he asks us to do the same.
Discipleship requires us to bear the cross, not in the way we usually think, as though suffering the ordinary challenges of human life were the equivalent of Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross. Bearing the cross means suffering in the way Jesus suffered: putting aside our agendas for God’s, facing constant criticism from the powers that be and the upholders of the status quo, crossing the boundaries of propriety for the sake of justice, and, yes, putting our lives on the line for others.
Discipleship requires freedom. Being so free from the attachment to material wealth, or social status, or reputation, or security, or control, that we have absolutely nothing to lose in following Jesus. That kind of freedom upends our perspective so that our losses become gains and our gains become losses. How? Because when we shed ourselves of wealth, status, reputation, security, or control, we gain a radical freedom to follow Christ. Most of us here look at our lives and count ourselves blessed. Chris and I certainly do. Often, when we are sitting outside in the evenings, our conversation turns to the ways in which we have been deeply blessed, and it is mostly in terms of what we have: a home, ample food, steady employment, good health, children who are grown and responsible and independent, a strong marriage. But Jesus, and the Psalmist, and Moses before him in our OT reading and our psalm of the day, remind us that true blessing comes by following the Lord. Following the Lord means letting go of faint loves, letting go of self-preservation, and letting go of attachments.
Large crowds were following Jesus, and turning to them he spoke about the danger of making a decision to follow him without considering the cost. Discipleship is costly. But in these dangerous days, we need to consider: What is the cost of not following Jesus?
In a recent article on the Sojourners website, writer, teacher, preacher, and justice advocate Jim Wallis wrote:
[read from article]
I don’t know what the answers to the problems of systemic racism and the resurfacing of the white supremacy movement are. I don’t know the answers to gun violence in epidemic proportions. I don’t know the answers to political polarization, or climate change, or separation of families at the Mexican border, or children in cages or domestic violence or widening income inequality or any number of other ills that beset our nation. But this I do know: we cannot begin to approach a Christ-like response to these ills until we learn to love as deeply as God loves, put others—especially the poor—before ourselves, and give up everything rather than see one more person suffer. That’s what Christ did. That’s what Christ calls us to do.
 R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1995), pp. 292-293.
 Ibidem, p. 293.