Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
28“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? 29For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, 30saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’
31“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. 33In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
According to the Gospel today, all we have to do to be a follower of Jesus is to hate our families, be willing to die and to give away everything that we own. I’m thinking that if folks knew it was going to be that easy they would be busting down the doors to get in here. It should be standing room only in every Church in the land!
Okay, these are some tough sayings. To use current church jargon, Jesus was not being very seeker sensitive. What was He trying to accomplish here? The challenge for us with this text is to determine what He was saying and also how we can make sense of these words for us today.
First we need to put up some rails so we don’t go off the cliff. There are two extremes that people face when confronted with Jesus’ teachings. One is to try to domesticate Jesus’ hard words so that they don’t sting quite so badly. Or more importantly so that we can keep doing what we are doing with no need to change anything about our lives. So when Jesus said that we should be storing up our treasures in heaven and not on earth, He certainly didn’t mean for us to take that literally and become generous to the poor. It was a sort of guideline for us to think about while we are buying more stuff.
The second extreme is when people take everything that Jesus says literally and out of context. This is how cults and fanatics are born. Jesus said to give it all away so give it to the leader and make him rich while you live in poverty. I went to seminary just a few miles from the mansion of Rev. Sung Myung Moon. It was a gorgeous place in Gloucester and I wondered how many roses the Moonies had to sell to keep in those digs.
It is in the land between these two extremes that we can discover what Jesus is teaching. But first notice whom He is addressing. This is not a private conversation with a chosen few. He did not pull Peter, James and John aside. The text says that a large crowd was traveling with Jesus and “he turned and said to them….” There can be no doubt that He is calling for complete commitment here but this is not just for those who are seeking ordination or for those who feel called to the convent or monastery. He addressed these words to the crowd. Of course we also know that not everyone will answer this call to commitment, then or now, and so as Jesus put it, while many are called few are chosen.
Jesus’ first condition for being a disciple had to have been shocking to the crowd. These people were raised on the Law. It was a commandment to honor father and mother. The second part of the summary of the law was to love your neighbor as yourself. This goes all the way back to Leviticus 19. So why is Jesus now saying that to be His disciple we must hate our families? That in itself sounds very cultish.
To begin with, we must understand that Jesus was using a Semitic expression that means to love less. We use the word “hate” that way sometimes in English. I have said before that I love canned peas but I hate frozen peas. But when I say that I am not being literal. I don’t like the taste of frozen peas but I don’t actually hate them. No frozen pea ever shot my pa, or stole my horse or called me a coward. It’s another way of saying that I so prefer canned peas to frozen peas that frozen peas are not even on my radar screen.
Thus when Jesus says we should hate our family, He is really saying that compared to how much we love Him; our family should not be on the radar screen. But why is such a comparison even necessary?
I suggest to you that Jesus did not just pull this condition out of the air. He knew that was going to be a real test very soon for many of His follower. We recently heard Jesus say that He had not come to bring peace but division. He said, “Families will be split apart, three in favor of me and two against – or two in favor and three against, Father will be divided against the son and the son against father” Lk 12:52,53. As the leaders plotted to kill Jesus and His followers put out of the synagogue, families were going to be divided.
And this kind of division continues to this day. I have read of children in other parts of the world being driven out of their families and some even threatened with death when they converted to Christianity. Here in the US we don’t think of losing our families when we become a Christian but Jesus tells us here that to be a disciple we must be willing to lose everyone in order to follow Him.
The second condition that Jesus places on those who would follow Him is that they must be willing to take up their cross. We must remember that in Jesus’ day crosses were not beloved pieces of jewelry. The one I wear is very meaningful to me because my deceased mentor, Fr. Kieran, left it to me. It is a piece that inspires me to want to be a better priest. But in Jesus day the only association with the cross was that is was an instrument of death. Jesus uses it as a symbol of the disciple dying. The disciple is to die to his own will and say to the Master “Thy will be done.” Jesus was the perfect model for us in the garden when He wrestled with His Father over His impending death and finally yielded to the Father’s will.
Immediately after saying we must take up our cross, Jesus gives two parables about counting the cost. One is counting the cost for building a tower before you begin to build it so that you are sure that you have enough money to complete the job. The other is of a king going out to war and first sitting down to see if he has enough men or if he should seek peace.
I think that Jesus puts the analogies right after the call to take up the cross because He does not want his disciples to be followers not fanatics. He wants His followers to be fully committed but He does not want them to be rash. Before they actually pick up the cross to follow Him they need to think it through and to realize the implications. As I read somewhere recently, before we accept the call to be Jesus’ hands and feet we need to remember what the world did to Jesus’ hands and feet.
This call to count the cost should make us rethink how much of the Church does evangelism. For example I was trained in a campus ministry to use pretty much the same techniques as a car salesman and do whatever I had to do to close the deal. Then I was to report back how many accepted Christ that day which also felt like a sales meeting. I felt smarmy doing it but at the time I didn’t know any better. Eventually however my discomfort grew to the point that I said I could do it no more and I left that campus ministry.
This is not an isolated example. I was talking to a brother and he described how at the end of their service of a church he used to attend that would dim the lights and play music quietly as the pastor said a prayer all to set the atmosphere to persuade people to make a decision to follow Jesus. But we never see Jesus cajole or caress or smooth-talk someone into becoming a disciple. What did He do? He put the skunk on the table and therefore so should we.
Tell them that Jesus is the Way and the Truth and the Life and there is no other and it is going to cost you to follow Him. Tell them “No cross, no crown.” Instead of being like a car salesman the Church needs to be like the Marines and say that we are looking for a few good men. That was essentially what Jesus was saying when He put these conditions before the crowd. What He knew, and what I have learned the hard way, is that if you have to talk someone into becoming a disciple then you will have to talk them into remaining a disciple. Plus they will be the first ones to jump ship when things get tough.
The third condition that Jesus gives for becoming His disciple is that we are to give up all our possessions. There is a hilarious commercial on the radio from a safe company where the guy says “Instead of buying a safe, why don’t you just bring us all your stuff to us and we will give it away, you rich people.” Is that what Jesus is calling us to do?
We know in the book of Acts that Christians in Jerusalem took Jesus literally here. They sold what they had and they laid it at the feet of the Apostles. But looking back we know also that it is likely that God had them do that because in 70 the city would be sacked by the Romans so there was no need for a long range plan.
It does not seem that this pattern was followed as the Church grew into other lands. We are told of Christians owning businesses. Paul speaks to Philemon of the church that meets in his home. Christians are called upon to be generous and to share what they had. You can’t be generous in sharing if you have nothing to share. So while some may be called to give up all they have, I am not convinced that is what Jesus is calling everyone to do in order to be a disciple. Just as He did not mean that we are to literally hate our families and He did not mean that we are to literally pick up a wooden cross, so He did not literally mean to give up all our possessions. Several translations, like the English Standard Version says that we are to “renounce” our possessions. To renounce is to formally declare that we are abandoning any claim or right to something. In a way we do that every week at the offertory. What do we say when we present our gifts to God? “All things come of Thee Oh Lord, and of Thine own have we given Thee.”
We must truly grasp that as a disciple we have no claim or right to our possessions because they do not belong to us. It all belongs to God and we are merely stewards of what is His. So in renouncing our possessions we are stating that as stewards we do not allow our stuff to own us. Jesus put it another way when He said that you could not have two Masters. You cannot serve both God and Mammon. He did not say that you cannot own money; He said that you cannot serve it. We are to have only one God.
A priest now deceased lived here in Middle Tennessee. He had quite a reputation of being a godly man and he also lived a pretty humble existence. His overcoat became pretty worn and so his wife saved all year to buy him a new one. She presented it to him on Christmas and true to form he was grateful but said that he did not need two overcoats. The doorbell rang and he answered the door to find a homeless man on his porch asking for help. After helping the man he returned to the family room the family asked if he had given the homeless man his old coat. He said “no. He had given him the new one.
To be honest I am not there yet. I would have given the man my old coat and felt pretty good about myself. But if you think about it the priest did the right thing because who was really at his door that Christmas morning?
My hope is that since this kind of generosity is a fruit of the Spirit, the more we grow in the Spirit, the more our perspectives will change and we will more quickly and naturally do the right thing.
Jesus offered discipleship too the crowd but it came with some stiff conditions. However allow me to put those conditions in context for us. He said in another place that if we come to Him with burdens that He will give us rest. So these conditions are not intended to be added burdens. They are actually means of finding rest. Imagine how unburdened you would be if the only person in the world that you cared about what they thought of you was Jesus. That is the fruit of the first condition. Imagine how much more peace you would have in your life if you could trust completely in God’s will being done in your life. That is the fruit of the second condition. And how free would we all be if we were not worried about material things! That comes with condition three.
Like Moses speaking to Israel, Jesus is putting before us life and death, blessings and curses. He wants us to choose life, but the choice is ours. May we choose wisely.