Pity the lectionary preacher this week. Luke 14:25-33 is some of Jesus’ hardest teaching. You can count on a whole lot of scrambling in pulpits across the country to say that Jesus just couldn’t have meant what he said.
All those hermeneutical gyrations can make you worry your orbit is out of balance. (But really the reason for the illustration above is coming later in the post. Read on, my friend.)
It’s some of the hardest stuff in the Gospel — hard for everyone, really, not just for groups who hold one particular ideology or another. Seriously: Jesus takes on basic living here, as if being an ordinary person trying to, say, live an ordinary life were an obstacle to discipleship.
That can’t be right. Right?
But before we dive into the details let’s remember two things.
1. Living an ordinary life actually is an obstacle to discipleship.
In a verse of the previous chapter omitted from the lectionary, Jesus says,
Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.” (Luke 13:24 NRSV)
Well that’s a bit scary. But how narrow is “narrow”?
Matthew answers that one for us:
For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:14 NRSV)
Got that? It’s not just that the road to life is rocky and long. It is that the gate to get on the road is so small that most people can’t even locate it.
Wait a minute: Weren’t we supposed to just say the sinner’s prayer and getting on with things?
Apparently not. That’s the broad and easy way that leads to…
Well anyway, discipleship does not seem to assume we go on as before.
2. The calling is, by definition, absolutely extreme.
Take a look at Jesus’ answer, from a few chapters before, to the question of what one must do to inherit eternal life:
He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’” (Luke 10:27 NRSV)
That is what the other Gospels agree on as the summary of the most important commandments.
You could take a sort of Pauline stance and say “That’s the standard we all fall short of; That’s why we need grace.” And that makes tons of biblical and experiential sense — but here in Luke those commands are presented as the path to salvation.
Think of those commands as telling us that our life is intended to be lived in orbit around God like the Earth is in orbit around the Sun.
It’s a really high bar. One of the life-changing realizations of influential people like Luther, and Augustine before him, was that no matter how devoted we are, our motives are always mixed.
We may love God with all we can find of our heart, but there is always part of that heart that is motivated by something else — like our own reputation, or status, or even salvation.
The purity of “all” our heart, or soul, or mind, or strength is just beyond our grasp.
So, ordinary human living, with an ordinary human heart, or mind, or soul, or strength, really is an obstacle to discipleship.
Jesus doesn’t make it any easier for us in Luke 14:25-33. He offers us four short reflections, all highly useful for self-examination, but only one of which is remotely manageable.
The Manageable One: The Cost
The one that sounds like something we could actually do, and probably should, comes third. In verses 28 through 32 Jesus says that before we set out to be his disciples we should think it through, take stock of our resources, plan ahead. Do we have what it takes to finish?
He illustrates the point by saying out how dumb it would be to commit to building a great big beautiful project, a tower in this case, without making sure you can pay for the labor and materials. If you can’t finish, people are going to mock you.
And he illustrates again by pointing out how dumb it would be to commit to a war that you don’t have the troops and resources to win. Better to see the danger and seek peace.
That one we feel we can do. If we are just starting out on following Jesus, we should definitely count the cost as best we can. And if we got involved in faith before counting the cost, well, we can look back and say we should have.
He owns us and could ask anything of us. Following Jesus is a dangerously big deal.
The Familiar Pious One: Death
Counting the cost seems perfectly reasonable until we see where Jesus intends to lead us.
Verse 27 brings us there in a verse many preachers like to weigh in on:
Whoever does not
carry the cross
and follow me
cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27 NRSV)
It’s part of the familiar language of pious Christians. Any old hard thing we face is “our cross to bear.”
But Jesus is asking considerably more than that.
You only pick up your cross when you are en route to your crucifixion — as Jesus was at this point in the Gospel, whether anyone else knew it or not.
By Luke 14, Jesus is making his way to his death in Jerusalem. His call is for us to join him in the journey to our own death.
The Hard One: Hatred
The one that sounds completely impossible is actually the first one he mentions. In verse 26 Jesus calls us to “hate” everybody we are predisposed to love — including our own lives.
The topic of hate is unpleasantly familiar from the headlines. There is far too much hate out there, right?
Hate crimes happen all the time, pitting people against each other for their religion, or their ethnic background, or their sexuality — and probably other things.
We want less hate and more love, right? It seems sensible to start by loving your family better, and your faith community, and your neighborhood, and the poor and … everyone, right?
But Jesus sets it up differently:
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.” (Luke 14:26 NRSV)
Before taking this as an excuse to act with hatefulness toward those closest to you (or anyone else), note that Jesus is setting up a contrast of magnitude: Our love for God is to be so great that all else is, in a manner of speaking, hated.
A minute ago I pointed out that the Great Commandment asks that we love God with “all” of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We humans, with our brokenness, self-centeredness, and mixed motives have never been able to muster up love worthy of that description. (Think how often love promised to be “forever” ends in divorce.)
Now imagine if you actually could love that way — with the kind of absolutely pure devotion that could rightly be called “all.”
- If you loved God with all, really all, then what would be left?
- If you loved God with all, really all, then what would your devotion to other, created, and therefore lesser things seem to be?
Of course we do love our parents, spouses, children, and siblings — and even life itself. And we should — because these are all good gifts of God.
Still Jesus’ words here stand. As well as saying that our love for God should be much much larger than our love for created beings that it could be called hate, it is partly a question of where you start.
As I often paraphrase Augustine as saying, it is a matter of getting our loves in order. Here are two options:
Case One: Starting with love for other people
If you start with love for your family and try to fit love for God alongside, then things are going to be out of balance. We’ll be wobbling between one and the other at every turn.
We are created to live in orbit around God, with love keeping us always turned to God’s glory and God’s pleasure. And we can’t also be in orbit around someone else.
Case Two: Starting with love for God
But if you start with your orbit around God firmly in place, loving God before all and above all, then conformity to God’s will is what turns us to love others. That’s who God is, and why God made creation.
So by “hating” all those loved ones (in proportion to our love for God) we are enabled to love them in a more whole and life-giving way.
In proportion to our love for God, love for people looks like hatred. But because of the nature of the God we love, we are called, directed, inspired to love others — to love them even as ourselves.
The REALLY Hard One: Our Stuff
But then we arrive at the conclusion. As if he had been building a cohesive argument through all these warnings about hate, and death, and counting the cost, he says,
And that, the conclusion of the argument, is actually the hardest bit of all. It’s about our stuff.
I mean, we all know he can’t mean we should be outright hateful to our relatives. But we do all have possessions.
And Jesus’ “therefore…” is all about what we need to do with our stuff.
none of you can become my disciple
if you do not give up all your possessions.” (Luke 14:33 NRSV)
And despite its seeming impossibility it has been taken quite literally by countless Christians who wanted to follow Christ truly. It’s that “vow of poverty” which, along with vows of celibacy and obedience, make up the classic “counsels of perfection” followed by nuns, monks, and priests in the West.
And in the early centuries you’ll find a great many saints who sealed the deal on their conversions by selling the family property and giving it to the poor.
So though it wouldn’t be easy, history has shown that it can be done.
But must it always be done, and by all? In a literal and thoroughgoing way?
It would not seem so. I’m thinking of Jesus’ example by which we need to interpret his words.
- When Jesus is shown calling individuals he doesn’t always say “First sell all your stuff.” Sometimes, but not always.
- And he seems to accept the discipleship of those, like Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, who owned homes.
- Even Peter, who left his boat and nets to follow Jesus, still had a house, and presumably a wife, where he took Jesus to heal his mother in law. And after Christ rose from the dead, Peter was able to reclaim his boat and nets.
I think of this as another radical picture of the contrast between life orbiting self and life orbiting God.
Pure and total love for God reframes our love for people, making it look like hate by contrast until love for God leads to right love for people.
Likewise, pure and total love for God reframes my relationship to my stuff. If I myself am no longer my own, but belong to God, then the stuff I would call “mine” is actually not mine at all. It’s all given to God if I’m given to God.
And who knows? Maybe someday I’ll find that Jesus’ true teaching here has worked its way all the way through me. Let’s say for now, I’ve still got a long way to go.
Does that mean I’m not fit to be a disciple? Probably.
If I admit I’m unfit, should I stop following him? No way. I’m in this for the very long haul.
Hey, my Fall online prayer course will be opening for registration soon. We’ll look at the teachings on prayer of two super influential reformers from the Reformation: If you want me to let you know by email, click here and sign up on the waiting list!