September 4, 2016
So our fall series is on money—partly because of the Capital Campaign, yes. But also because, based on scripture, it would seem that our money and possessions are intimately connected to our faith. Our relationship with our money and possessions has a huge impact on our relationship with God—and our relationship with each other . . . and certainly our relationship with the created world.
With 2,300 references to money in the Bible, the challenge of choosing scriptures for this series was not finding enough, but deciding between so many. We’re starting our series this morning with this rather confounding passage from the 14th chapter of Luke’s gospel. To be honest, we chose it because it is the lectionary reading for today. And I like preaching on lectionary texts because a lot of pastors use them which means it’s generally easy to find commentaries and sermons and articles on any text that is assigned as a lectionary reading—particularly a gospel text.
Turns out, though, that I’m not sure how much all of those resources helped me this week. I started out a bit baffled by the text. And that’s pretty much where I still am.
At first, this doesn’t seem like a text about money and possessions at all. Verse 33 seems to come out of nowhere: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” We could pretend like it is unrelated to the rest of the passage, except for that pesky phrase, “So, therefore.” Somehow, at least for the writer of Luke’s gospel, giving up possessions is connected to the other points Jesus makes here about discipleship.
Let’s take a look at those other points, shall we?
When we read this passage, it’s probably the “hate your mother and father” part that most stands out. It’s upsetting. (We may be upset because we really love our family and can’t imagine hating them. We may be upset because we secretly hate our family but feel like we shouldn’t and now we’re just confused. But either way, it’s upsetting.)
Many commentators talk about this line as hyperbole—that wacky Jesus, exaggerating for effect again. But I think back to the story of the man who wanted to bury his father before he came with Jesus—that is, he wanted to fulfill his familial obligation to care for his father until his father died. And Jesus, infamously, said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead.”
So hyperbole? I’m not so sure. But should we really hate our family members? Rev. William Lamar IV suggests that Jesus’ words here do not intend hatred in terms of animosity, but rather as an insistence that when conflicts arise between family and discipleship, the path of discipleship is always the one chosen.1 Rev. Sharon Blezzard reflects on how that has played out in her own life—being faithful to the call she felt to ministry even though her mother believes that women should not be pastors.2
Whatever the intended meaning of “hate” is here, it is clear Jesus is calling us to prioritize our discipleship over even the most important human relationships in our lives.
But the question remains, How is hating your father and mother connected to giving up your possessions? I don’t know if this holds up for Jesus’ original audience, by for me, many of the possessions I would have the most difficult time giving up are linked to the people I love. Necklaces that my dad made, quilts sewn by Ryan’s mom and grandma, my wedding photo album, cards the kids have given me . . . Our connection to our possessions is sometimes related to our connections to other people.
After Jesus tells the people in the crowd to hate their family members, he says that in order to be a disciple you also have to take up your cross and follow. Now this line about cross-bearing is commonplace in contemporary Christian circles. We all know the story of the crucifixion. We understand the cross to be the consequence Jesus faced for the ways he challenged authority. For us, in simplified terms, to take up our cross means to be willing to suffer for doing what it right.
But I’ve been wondering–How would that phrase have sounded to those in the crowd listening to Jesus? Listening to a Jesus who has not yet been crucified. A Jesus who is a rabbi, not a prisoner. “Carry the cross,” says Jesus. And they must be thinking, “What cross? Why do I have a cross? What are you talking about?”.
You may not have noticed, but this is not a typical Jesus crowd in this passage. Usually, the crowds Jesus addresses are locals who gather around to hear him preach while he’s in town. But this crowd is different. We are told that large crowds were traveling with Jesus. These aren’t locals who’ve gathered for an afternoon’s entertainment. They are people who have left home to follow Jesus on the road.
I wonder if Jesus’ words about carrying the cross make any sense at all when he first says them to the crowd. And I wonder if, as they get closer to Jerusalem, they begin to suspect. And I wonder if, as Simon of Cyrene carries the crossbeam behind Jesus while the Roman officials march him up the hill—I wonder if then they remember his words. And begin to understand.
Carrying the cross is, ultimately, a willingness to die. And I suppose this does connect to Jesus’ call to give up our possessions since, as they say, you can’t take it with you. Of course, for most of us—and for many of Jesus’ original followers—carrying the cross takes less extreme forms. Not death, but maybe the loss of a friend or a job; maybe moving to a new place—or giving up an opportunity in order to stay in the same place; maybe speaking the hard word, doing the hard thing. There are countless crosses to bear, and our willingness to take up many of them will be hindered if we are overly attached to our money and possessions.
After telling the people to carry their cross, Jesus tells the two little parables. The first is about a man building a tower. I suppose this is the part of the scripture passage that seems most directly relevant to our church right now. I know a lot of you have been—maybe still are—worried about just this thing. That we will start a building project we can’t afford to finish. I can assure you we have not intention of doing that. The Coordinating Committee and the task force members are doing due diligence.
But I don’t think Jesus is talking about a church building project. Actually, this reminds me of the story Jesus told a couple of chapters back about the rich man who built bigger barns and then died. And it seems like an odd story for Jesus to tell to this crowd, because, assuming his audience is mostly Jewish peasants (which is what most scholars assume), the people he is talking to have never “intended to build a tower.” They may have to calculate the cost of their next meal, but they are not planning home improvement projects. They are more likely to be the oppressed laborers building the tower than the one calculating the cost to build it. Maybe they get the “count the cost message.” Maybe they are thinking, “What an idiot, spending all that money on a tower.”
Nevertheless, I like this tower-building analogy better than the war analogy. “What king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.”
“Count the cost,” says Jesus. As a pacifist, I would argue that the cost of war is always too high; that seeking peace is always the best option—whether you are the one with ten thousand troops or twenty thousand troops.
People in Jesus’ original audience might have had different objections. I imagine many of them were thinking about the Maccabean Revolt that had occurred about 150 years earlier. The Jewish forces were drastically outnumbered, but still they prevailed against the oppressive Seleucid empire and gained religious freedom for the Jewish people. Their faith heroes did not count the cost, but boldly went forth, putting their trust in God. Isn’t that the testimony of scripture—Moses against the Pharaoh, Joshua leading his raggedy band into the promised land, David vs. Goliath. Faith, they have been taught—we have been taught—is not about counting the cost, but about trusting in God.
And what in the world does building a tower and waging a war have to do with giving up all our possessions anyway? I’m at a loss.
Looking at this passage, it seems to me that Jesus may be struggling. Struggling to explain to the people what is required of them if they want to be his disciples. They have already left their homes to follow him. They think they’ve given up a lot. They think they understand the extent of the commitment required of them. But Jesus knows they don’t. They have no idea. They can’t imagine what lies ahead in Jerusalem. They don’t understand the threat this movement of love and justice and truth poses to the powers of empire. They cannot foresee that their gentle teacher will be brutally executed. That they themselves may be targeted and persecuted.
Jesus wants them to understand what they will have to give up if they really want to be his disciples. So he starts with a startling statement: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” But that’s not quite it.
So he moves on to say, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” But they don’t get that either. Of course they don’t.
Maybe they’ll understand about building a tower—it’s expensive; you have to be prepared to pay the cost. But that’s not registering. So Jesus moves on to the military example. But that’s not quite right either.
So finally, after struggling through, trying to communicate the deep cost of discipleship to this crowd of baffled Jewish peasants, Jesus gives a big sigh. And he decides to just say it as clearly as he can. To present the most drastic sacrifice they can relate to: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
That is Jesus’ last word here about what it will take to be a disciple.
We’re doing this series on money, because the relationship we have with our money and our stuff is that important. The right relationship with stuff—a relationship that holds stuff loosely—can allow us to follow Jesus faithfully. The wrong relationship—a relationship in which we cling to our possessions—will prevent us from being true disciples.
Our lives today are very different from the lives of Jesus’ original audience. Our understanding of the world is different. Our culture is different. A lot of the words in scripture have a different effect on us today than they would have had on First Century people. But I have a feeling that Jesus’ conclusion here about what is required for discipleship was as much of a challenge to his original listeners as it is to us today.
“So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”