Just when we think we know what Jesus is about, he surprises us.
Sometimes the gospel is revealed to us in parables, wonderful teaching stories that give us heavenly messages, using everyday metaphors and images. But sometimes, Jesus just lays the gospel bare – and when it is not dressed up in a beautiful story, it doesn’t come across as being all that pretty or romantic.
During the past few weeks, we’ve seen Jesus take a little respite from his journey to the cross to teach in the synagogue and dine at the house of one of the Pharisees. He performed two healings on the Sabbath, and then, using a parable, taught his followers about true hospitality and inclusiveness that will be a hallmark of the coming kingdom of God. But now, the scene has shifted and Jesus is on the move. He is on the move with a purpose, one that will bring him to Jerusalem and to his ultimate sacrifice on the Cross. By this point, Jesus has become a rock star, with a following that is now shaking up and threatening the established powers in Palestine. Wherever Jesus goes, large crowds are now following him, full of hopes and expectations invested in this new messiah. This must be weighing heavily on Jesus’ mind, as he knows his destiny is not a throne, but the cross - not a coronation, but a crucifixion, – not adoration, but humiliation – and ultimately not revolution, but resurrection. Jesus is counting the cost of his destiny, and in his compassion for the crowd of people that are with him he turns around and hits them with some “tough love”.
When Jesus suddenly turned around to face the crowd following him, they must have stopped immediately, hoping to hear some more wisdom, some more promises, some more beautiful kingdom of God stories where those faithful to God would overcome their faithless oppressors, and live happily ever after. Always the great communicator, Jesus sensed the crowd may have been misinterpreting his message and his destiny. He knew that once the crowds realized what would happen in the end, many, if not all, would abandon him to die alone – a strange fate for one anointed to lead the people to a new generation of glory.
So what the crowd heard must have been very unsettling to them, as I’m sure it is to us today. Aren’t you asking yourself why Jesus called on the people to hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even life itself? This doesn’t sound like the Jesus we know who calls us to love God, love our neighbors, love each other, and love even our enemies. Is it possible that Jesus, the incarnation of a loving God, meant this literally?
Well, the answer to that question is no – and the people following him would have known not to take it literally either – so we should gain a deeper knowledge as to what Jesus means.
To properly understand what Jesus is saying, we need to see these statements of Jesus in their rhetorical context. And given that we are in the midst of one of the most peculiar Presidential races in history, I think we might understand better the exaggerated nature of public speech. Rhetoric is an ancient art, dating back at least to early Greek civilization, where speakers used exaggerated language to draw attention and persuade an audience to adopt a certain point of view. A more modern example of rhetoric would be something similar to what you would find in a 1983 Ronald Reagan speech, when attempting to rally support for his efforts to bring freedom to Eastern Europe, referred to the Soviet Union as “the focus of evil in the modern world”. I doubt President Reagan really meant that the entire Soviet Union was evil, but his exaggeration made an important point about what he stood for and who would be on the right side of history in the end.
And so I doubt Jesus meant that we should literally hate our families and hate even our own lives if we want to be considered his disciples. Used rhetorically, the word hate must be understood comparatively as Jesus calls his audience into a single-minded focus on his mission, ministry and march to the cross. Jesus is not advocating for hatred here, in a literal sense. Instead, Jesus is counseling his followers to give him first allegiance in all matters. Instead of a repudiation of the commandments, it reinforces the first and overriding commandment to love the God who teaches us how to love others. Jesus uses the examples of things that are most dear to us – our families, our lives, and later in the discourse, our most valued possessions – to draw attention to the fact that Jesus wants to be the primary focus of our souls – paradoxically the things he calls us to “hate” will actually end up even more precious to us as we reflect the love of Christ in all our relationships, and in how we use the things we call our possessions.
To validate this understanding of the use of the word “hate”, we can examine other points of scripture that clarify what Jesus actually means. We know that Jesus was a very pious Jew, and had a love for the commandments of God – claiming to fulfill and not abolish God’s law. Therefore, Jesus never would have turned on the commandment to “Honor your father and your mother”. In fact, Jesus was known for expanding on the commandments beyond a strict literal interpretation, and in an explanation of the commandment “Thou shall not kill”, considered anger and hateful speech the same as murder. For Jesus, each commandment, indeed every element of God’s Law was subordinate to the law of love – The love of our God, and the love of God’s creation. The call to single-minded devotion to Jesus was a call to love. (But, as we will see – not a call to live happily ever after)
Yet even love, we find out, does not come without a cost. Jesus favors the crowd with two analogies, each of which provides a caution to people about what it takes to be a one of Jesus’ disciples. The first is the more obvious reference to us to be sure that we know what we are getting into before we claim Jesus as our master – because Jesus wants us to go all the way with him, understanding the level of commitment to the gospel it will take over the long run. The meaning of the second analogy is a little less clear, but I think it’s actually telling us that once we count the cost, and we realize that it is more than we are willing to pay, that too is a call to discipleship – a call to rely completely on the grace of God, and not our own abilities to be welcomed as disciples. The king realizes that he is underpowered to win in battle against his more powerful opponent. Instead of fighting to the death, the king chooses life for himself and his own followers – based solely on the graces of the more powerful king. Taken together, these two analogies communicate to us an important truth of the gospel – that being called to follow Jesus is simultaneously both a challenge and a blessing to us today. The call to be a disciple of Jesus Christ is a challenge because it requires our full commitment – indeed our very lives devoted to Christ. It is a blessing because when we find the cost too great to bear, we can find rest in knowing that Jesus knows our weakness and promises us forgiveness from an endless fountain of God’s grace.
“When Christ calls us, he bids us to come and die.” This was written by German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer in perhaps his most famous book, commonly known as The Cost of Discipleship. At first look, this is a glum statement which doesn’t support the biblical truth that Christ came so that we may live and live abundantly. How is it that both statements can be true? Of course, the answer to this is found in our baptisms. In our baptisms, we are claimed by Christ as his disciples. In a sense our baptisms represent first a spiritual death and then an emergence through the water into a new life – a life made new by the power and promise of the resurrection. For many of us, our baptism is the first time we experience the paradoxical truth of the gospel as both, and simultaneously, challenge and blessing. Bonhoeffer called this truth costly grace – something free, but not cheap – something granted to us by God’s promise, but something for which Jesus risked everything in order for us to receive that message.
Fellow disciples, where are you challenged today in your relationship with Jesus? When you hear the call of Christ to follow, what is it that holds you back? Where might you be counting the cost, reluctant to make the sacrifices needed to live a full life under Christ? If you are wrestling with those questions, take some time this week to think about what it takes to follow Jesus – and follow Jesus all the way to the cross. Consider what you are holding back, unwilling to give up as a child of God so claimed by your baptism. Be simultaneously challenged by the call to discipleship and blessed by the invitation to share new life with Christ. Know that even if you are not ready to give all to Christ, Christ has given all for you and always whispers “Come follow me!”
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Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church (GA) in New York City has been chosen as one of eight internship congregations to participate this year in a church-wide initiative designed to increase our understanding of Holy Scripture and most importantly, to cultivate our engagement with it. In partnership with The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, Vicar John Heidgerd will be working to develop innovative ways to deepen our faith formation and sense of discipleship for the sake of ourselves and our communities.