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There is a rather famous story in the Bible about Jesus meeting a rich, young, ruler as he traveled the road on his way to Jerusalem. Essentially, the story goes that this young man approaches Jesus and asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus, being a good Rabbi, tells him to keep the commandments. The young man claims to have been a keeper of law since childhood, and so Jesus invites him to do one more thing, “sell everything you have and give it to the poor… Then come, follow me.” The man was taken aback by Jesus’ advice and walked away from Jesus quite sad. I love that story because of how easy it is to explain it away. “Oh, Jesus wasn’t talking universally, but rather giving very specific directions to just one would-be disciple who had a bit too much pride and a whole lot of money,” is the easiest and best way to preach that story. It is a nice, safe interpretation because it doesn’t demand anything of us except to shake our heads and say, “boy, I’m glad I’m not like that guy.”
Preaching devotion to Jesus in this way has become something of the American Way as Christianity continues a three-decades’ long shrinking process and the Church tries its best to “sell” discipleship as easy, fun, and a free eternal life insurance policy. What any marketer worth their salt should know, however, is that people don’t put much value on things that are cheap and easy. It seems to me, then that the church marketing strategies of the past 30 years have accelerated the decline of church membership by telling people, “we know that you’ve got better stuff to do with your lives, but if you’re bored, scared, or need to get your kids sprinkled with water, stop by for a quick dose of Jesus in a box.” The lie that faith in Jesus is easy has lead two generations to leave the Church in search of better challenges. Worse yet, when we water the faith down enough, the Church has nothing to say when the going gets tough, and so people have left in droves over illnesses, financial stresses, and family struggles because nobody could tell them that Jesus was there, even in the hard stuff. And so, I am extremely thankful for the Lectionary folks who have forced preachers to deal with the difficult stuff that Jesus says by assigning Luke 14:25-33 for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost. In my Harper-Collins Study Bible, this passage is subtitled, “The Cost of Discipleship,” and if you’ve been serious about following Jesus for more than a few weeks, you’ve probably begun to realize that being his disciple is neither easy nor cheap.
Our story begins with Jesus continuing his single-minded journey to Jerusalem. He’s been doing a whole lot of healing in recent days and the crowds around him have swelled to a large number. Here, it seems Jesus has three options: military, con-man, or the Kingdom of God. He could turn to the crowd and say, “follow me to Jerusalem where we’ll storm the palace and restore YHWH to the throne!” This would have been received by shouts of joy as his army grew by the thousands, but he didn’t do that. He could have turned around and said, “from now on, if you want to be healed, it’ll cost you 30 Denarii and I’ll pass a plate around after my sermons for a free-will offering. My guess is that Jesus could have retired to Cyprus in about a week, but he didn’t do that either.
What he did instead was to continue to preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God while emphasizing that the Kingdom requires sacrifice. For his part, Jesus will take care of the once and for all sacrifice of the cross and resurrection, but his true disciples will be called upon to live sacrificially: they will be called upon to follow his example of single-mindedness and live for Christ alone. Jesus lays out for the crowd the true cost of following him so that they might fully understand what they are getting themselves into. First, Jesus tells them that they should be people of “hate.” Now, hate is a strong word: so strong a word that we weren’t allowed to use it in my house growing up. Yet here, Jesus uses it as a descriptor of his disciples. Hate your father and mother. Hate your wife and children. Hate your brothers and sisters. Hate your very life itself! As in the story of the rich young ruler, many have tried to water this down for more palatable consumption. The New Living Translation, copyright 1996, went so far as turn the words of Jesus upside down, “If you want to be my follower you must love me more than your own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters– yes, more than your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple.” As much as we might want this to be a bad translation of Jesus, the truth of the matter is that Jesus says “hate,” and uses the strongest verb at his disposal to do so. Unless you despise your father, mother, sister, brother, wife, and children, even your very life, you cannot be my disciples.
There is a long tradition of hate in the Bible, but not in the “I hate the New England Patriots” sort of way we think of today, but rather as an idiomatic way of showing degrees of devotion. As in, I love the NFL, but I hate College Football. In reality, I love all football, but even after six years in Alabama, I still prefer the games on Sunday. What Jesus is getting at by calling his disciples to be a “people of hate” is an attempt at trying to eliminate the secondary distractions that would pull us away from Kingdom living; even those most essential elements like family and even one’s very life. While it is hard for us to hear Jesus use such strong language, it would have been downright radical for the large crowd gathered around him in the year 32. Family was all anyone had in those days. Family was your first obligation and you only retirement plan. To call upon his followers to leave family behind, as Jesus himself had done, was to rip apart the very fabric of the 1st century economic system. As they said on Sermon Brainwave this week, “It is no wonder they killed this guy in the end.”
Jesus goes on to tell the crowd that in order to be his disciple they must, “give up all of their possessions.” This is awfully reminiscent of the story about the rich young man I talked about earlier, but here there seems to be a whole lot less wiggle room. “None of you can become my disciple,” Jesus says to the large crowd following him. That seems to include everyone. Even you. Even me.
You can’t be a disciple if you don’t give up everything you’ve got. Maybe he is talking about stuff. Maybe Jesus actually means we should live in communes and share everything. Or maybe, and quite frankly, hopefully, it means that we shouldn’t be tied to all of our stuff. Maybe as long as we are chasing bigger houses, better cars, or the latest Apple release, we can’t really be focused on Christ. Maybe as long as we are seeking after letters behind our names, zeros on our paychecks, or job titles, we can’t really be seeking after the Kingdom. Maybe as long as are paying attention to what the Jones’ are up to, we can’t be paying attention to what God is doing in and through and for us.
Maybe discipleship really means hating everything of this world and living a single-minded life of devotion to the one who came to save us from our distractions, who set us free from sin and death, and who calls us to follow him: through the good and bad, even through the shadow of the valley of death. If it sounds difficult, it is. If it sounds foolish, it is, but like the rich young ruler, each of us has a choice. We can take up our cross and follow Jesus toward life, or we can turn around and walk away unhappy. Choose life, my friends. It is the most excellent way. Amen.