Counting the cost
Sermon preached at Enmore, 4th September 2016, Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Jeremiah 18. 1-11; Philemon; Luke 14. 25-35
There are times when I am grateful that we follow lectionary readings because they impose a discipline on our reading forcing us to read Scripture in all its breadth and diversity, rather than focusing all the time on the preacher’s favourite books or passages. It is also good to know that the passages we listen to each Sunday are also being read by millions of Christians around the world wherever the lectionary is followed. The down side is that you have to deal with difficult texts like the Gospel reading this morning from Luke 14. Today is Father’s Day when many in the wider community acknowledge the important role of fathers and we remember and give thanks for our Dads. Given that context the words of Jesus in verse 26, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters and yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple” feel like a slap in the face. Does Jesus really call us to hate our biological families and our very lives?
The scholars, of course, remind us that this is an example of Jewish hyperbole, deliberate exaggeration intended to shock the audience and get their attention. Certainly it does that. If we find the words shocking then we can be sure the first century audience would have had the same reaction for this was a society where the demands of family were sacred- ‘Honour your father and mother that your days may be long on the earth’ is the fifth commandment. But it is also helpful to remember that in Hebrew, ‘hate’ was sometimes used to mean ‘to love less’, so in the story of Jacob and his family in Genesis 29 we are told that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah and that Leah was hated by Jacob. It is significant that Matthew’s rendering of these words of Jesus is, “whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” So we can say that Jesus is not calling his followers to hate their families in terms of emotional response but he is calling for undivided loyalty to himself above our natural family ties. We remember that on the cross in his dying moments Jesus had a special word of comfort for his own mother, Mary and entrusted her into the care of his beloved disciple.
So what does this kind of loyalty to Jesus look like? How are we to live in obedience to these words of Jesus? Perhaps the first thing to note is that following Jesus, like marriage is not something we enter into ‘unadvisedly, lightly or wantonly’. Come to Jesus and have all your problems solved and your bank account doubled was not part of his message. The two parables that Jesus tells reinforce the message that following him will have a cost- the landowner building a tower to store his grain will have to work out if he has sufficient funds for the project. Having a half finished tower on his property will not only look silly but cause great loss of face. The second story concerns a king planning to go to war against another king and weighing up the risk of attempting to win a battle when he has a smaller army. Some time ago I read ‘D- Day’ by Antony Beevor which highlights the months of preparation and meticulous planning that went into that massive endeavour. Jesus says to the huge crowds following him- before you commit yourself make sure you have examined carefully what this will mean, what things you may need to relinquish and what priorities you will have to change. Better not to start the journey with me, Jesus implies, than to start and then give it up. The disciple who abandons the commitment to follow Jesus is likened to salt that has lost its taste and is now rendered useless.
Perhaps no where else in the Gospels do we have the demands of discipleship laid out so plainly. Jesus asks that our loyalty and allegiance to him should come before all other demands of family, self interest and possessions. We know that for many of those first followers of Jesus there was a literal leaving of home, family and security. Peter was not exaggerating when he said to Jesus, “Master we have left everything to follow you.” And we know that many like Peter would give their lives in the cause of Christ’s kingdom. We also know that in parts of the world today Christian discipleship is still costly and may lead to rejection by family, loss of job and imprisonment or worse.
But what does it mean for us in the comfort of our community? The two areas that Jesus particularly stressed in this passage were relationships and possessions. Our primary relationship is with Christ and that will inform and influence all other relationships with family and with friends. Put family first and we risk making the family an idol and souring relationships through possessiveness and control. Jesus called his followers into a new inclusive community that brought people together from different backgrounds, cultures and traditions. Today’s epistle reading gives a startling example of this. Paul calls on his Christian friend, Philemon, to accept as a Christian brother his runaway slave, Onesimus. In doing so Paul transgressed the norms and expectations of his society where escaped slaves had no rights or privileges and could be punished by death.
If possessions were a snare in first century society how much more have they become for us? We live in the throw away society where we are constantly being encouraged to get the new and improved model. We are seduced into believing that our future happiness and security is found in the size of our superannuation fund and the amount of stuff we own. Jesus challenges us to see our possessions as gifts from God to be used for Him and for the good of others as well as ourselves. We may not be asked to give them all up but we are asked to sit lightly on our possessions willing to offer any of them when needed. Our security is not in the number of our possessions but in the one who has promised never to leave us or forsake us. Jesus’ command to ‘follow me’ involves both gift and demand.
But while Jesus calls for serious thoughtful, commitment and the willingness to surrender any attachment that would hinder us, what he offers in return is joy. This is made clear in the parables that follow in chapter 15, the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. The shepherd returns home rejoicing that he has found the sheep that strayed, the woman celebrates finding her lost coin and the father throws a party to give thanks for his wayward son’s safe return. The one who calls us will not easily let us go once we start the journey with him. He welcomed back Peter, the disciple who denied him three times and the others who fled when it all became too difficult and he remains patient with us when get tired and discouraged. So on this Father’s Day we remember that Jesus’ desire is to leads us back to the heavenly Father who waits with open arms to welcome us.