by Michael UseyLuke 13:10-17, NRSVUE
I decided to preach on Luke 14:25-33 this week as the opening salvo of our fall sermon series, True Fiction, in which we’ll look at Jesus’ unique parables in Luke (those that are recorded by Luke exclusively). Another feature of this series is that we’ll use memes for our bulletin covers. A meme of course is a humorous image that is copied and often altered via the internet. We’ll try to make them match that week’s text, but they may not. So sue me.
This is an interesting parable to consider as our government has forgiven $10,000 of student loan debt for people making less that $125,000. Since student loans were privatized, the percentage rate went up from 1-2% to 6+%, and has kept the economic dreams of many frustrated. The government program used U.S. Treasury money to buy government-backed student loans from banks, so they could lend more. But in 2004, Sallie Mae privatized, which meant it can now make student loans not guaranteed by the federal government and carry much higher interest rates.
When we say the Lord’s prayer, our gospels have three Greek words in and surrounding the Lord’s Prayer petition, “ Forgive us our …. “ One is trespasses; one is sins, and the other is debts. Which word you grew up using was determined by what church or denomination you went to. The translation closest to the Aramaic Jesus used is debts. And all kinds of debts were meant, including economic. We have privatized and spiritualized the meaning of this petition. Consider this a teaser of Kari’s sermon for next week.
I had several moments during the week when I wondered if I should have picked another text. What if there is a visitor looking for a church home? What if someone comes to worship who needs a word of comfort? What will this passage say to the members of your congregation who are praying that God will make their hard lives easier?
In the book called The Year of Living Biblically, A. J. Jacobs decided to live by every rule in the Bible. He tried to follow the Ten Commandments. He refrained from gossiping, lying, and coveting. He estimates that he cut down on his coveting by 40 percent.
Jacobs did not enjoy tithing, but he made himself do it. He stopped shaving and wearing clothes made of mixed fibers. He attached tassels to his clothing, tried his hand at a ten-string harp, and ate crickets, but no pork or shrimp.
A. J.’s wife, Julie, accepted the rules against him touching her, or any chair she sat on, while she was menstruating. But, when Julie and A. J. got into an argument, she purposely sat on every chair in the house, leaving him nowhere to sit.
Jacobs tries to keep more than 700 rules, but when he comes to Luke 14, he writes, “I could have lived an even more bizarre life. I could have hated my parents because Jesus says to.” When he gets to this passage, he does not even try. This is too difficult. Hate your family. Carry a cross. Follow Jesus. This is too much, and we religious-types know it.
We learn to compromise because Jesus’ way is difficult. We believe in peace, but we want our team to win. We believe in justice, but we get used to inequality. We are concerned about poverty, but we appreciate wealth.
The crowds are following Jesus because they think the trip to Jerusalem is a parade, but Jesus knows this is a funeral procession. His attitude is the opposite of most preachers. He is distressed when crowds show up because he assumes they must not understand the cost.
Jesus does not appear to know how to grow a church. Jesus has a large, enthusiastic crowd ready to sign up. Jesus could break attendance records, but instead, he offends them. “You must not be ready to follow this hard path. You have not counted the cost.’
People used to talk about the Roman Road to salvation, but nobody ever mentioned the Lukan Road—hate your loved ones, carry a cross, and follow Jesus. Jesus has a lengthy list of people to hate—father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, and self.
In this parable with complementary halves, Jesus gave back-to-back examples of the potential problems resulting from a lack of planning. The first example, of building a tower without first counting the cost, is sometimes thought to be based on a failed building project in Jerusalem planned by Pontius Pilate.
In the second example Jesus gives, he may make an allusion to a specific event of that time. Herod Antipater (21 BCE–39 CE), known by the nickname Antipas, was the first century ruler under the Romans of Galilee and Perea on the east side of the Jordan River. Antipas divorced his first wife Phasaelis [Fa-sale-lis], the daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea, to marry his brother’s wife Herodias (as condemned by John the Baptist), and this divorce added further friction to a dispute with Aretas over territory on the border of Perea and Nabatea. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Antipas declared war on Aretas without proper planning, and his army was routed by the larger forces of the other king. These events would have been clear in the minds of Jesus’ hearers and would have made the allusion to the king at war seem particularly real.
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” The spiritual costs of building the “tower,” like the cost of engaging in “war,” Jesus tells us, are the costs of being willing to give up family, friends, possessions, position or anything else that might be necessary in order to succeed in what we set out to do – though, as biblical scholar Joachim Jeremias has said, this double parable is an “exhortation to self-examination” – are we willing to give up anything necessary – rather than to plan self-denial.
Our first reaction to this verse is to explain why Jesus does not mean what he says. We would like to take the edge off these hard words by suggesting that the word translated “hate” must mean something else. The Greek word miseo means hate. If it is necessary, we have to turn our back on our family. Some of you here have done this very thing, in order to be true to the gospel of God, and to be true to yourself.
Carry a cross. To bear a cross is to choose the consequences of suffering with Christ—telling the truth when it is hard, working for the poor, loving enemies, listening to the lonely, and caring for the lost.
Follow Jesus. Anyone following Jesus needs to know that Jesus is going to Jerusalem to be killed. Christianity is following someone headed in a direction we would not normally go.
What we may do for Christ seems utterly unattainable in the version of Jesus Luke presents in chapter 14. In the previous chapter Luke tells us that Jesus was “casting out demons and performing cures.” No wonder large crowds were mobbing him wherever he went. It was squarely in their self-interest to do so. Still, it must have come as a shock when this hard -working exorcist and healer suddenly unleashed his stark criteria for discipleship. Hate, he says. Not, “Put your family in proper perspective, given God’s prior claim on you.” He doesn’t remind them that all life comes from God and so permanent gratitude is in order. Such teaching would have made perfect sense. Instead he tells the cure seekers that the key family value is hatred for it. Loathe life, he recommends. They are not to busy themselves usefully, but to engage in cross-carrying (whatever that might mean) and itinerancy, that is, following him.
What could the crowd do with this wild counsel? What are we to do with it? Yes, Jesus once described his true family not biologically but theologically as those who do the will of his Father. But he also basked in the “family” of Mary and Martha, gave a once-dead daughter back to her father and created an instant family for his mother with his dying breaths. Will the real Jesus please stand up?
Perhaps we can do no more than leave the tension in place. We are not prepared to hate, carry, follow or give up all our stuff. Maybe, having counted the cost and declared it excessive, we cannot be counted as disciples of Jesus. Our only recourse is to the God of the cross we’re incapable of carrying, to a grace that requires nothing, including discipleship. And perhaps mercy will allow us to (mis)interpret the Master’s words as calling us to give up all our plans and possessions to God and let this impossible Jesus be Lord of every relationship, and of every last penny.
Jesus tells us, with absolute clarity, that nothing—not family or work or possessions—takes precedence over God. We preachers want to suggest that following is as easy as being faithful members of our families, using our possessions wisely, and living generously, but Jesus talks about towers and wars: “Which of you intending to build a tower, doesn’t first sit down and see whether you have enough to complete it? Count the cost before you say that you are going to follow. What king, going to wage war, 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?”
Jesus is a king making sure that his army is truly committed. When we hear Jesus’ words, we may feel like Jesus is saying that we will never be strong enough. This talk of counting the cost and fighting the battles would be completely discouraging, except for this—we get Jesus.
We hear the painful, wondrous truth that when it is hardest, we discover that Jesus is with us. Have you ever had a week where everything goes wrong? You know you are trying to do what’s right, but nothing is working. Then there is a moment when you feel God holding you.
When we become utterly dependent upon the grace of God, when we live in partnership with Christ, when we listen to the promptings of the Spirit—we find our way to hope. God helps us live in the way of Christ, with compassion—an alternative to the jungle of selfishness around us, with generosity—in opposition to the marketplace of greed, and with love—treating people as friends and not problems to be solved. It also helps us sleep at night.
Jesus is demanding, but he is also loving. The one who demands everything of us gives us everything—comfort, meaning, and joy. He said, “I came to give you life abundantly.” Costly discipleship is not easy, especially when the world makes counterclaims, but the question becomes, “Are you willing to give up your limited life to truly live in Christ?”
Do you remember the old spiritual, “In the morning when I rise, give me Jesus. When I come to die, give me Jesus. You can have all the world, give me Jesus”? If we try to follow, that is what we get. We get Jesus.