For Sunday September 4, 2016
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
Jeremiah 18:1–11 or Deuteronomy 30:15–20
Psalm 139:1–6, 13–18 or Psalm 1
In class one day when I taught at Moscow State University (1991–1995), my student Irina described meeting an American missionary on the subway. The missionary had advised her that to become a Christian, all she needed to do was to acknowledge four simple propositions in a little booklet, then say a short prayer. It was that easy. Would she like to pray and become a Christian right then and there?
I still remember Irina's response twenty years later: "You Americans make being a Christian so simple and easy; for us Russians in the Orthodox tradition, it's much more difficult."
Irina was channeling the Jesus of this week's gospel. Jesus bluntly warns us to count the cost of following him. Whereas we like to comfort ourselves with the hope of heavenly rewards, he reminds us of the earthly risks. He tells those who focus on the benefits and blessings not to forget the costs and constraints.
In perhaps the most uncompromising declaration that he ever made — he repeats himself three times, and versions of this saying occur five times in the gospels, Jesus says, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters — yes, even his own life — he cannot be my disciple. Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple."
I don't think that Jesus means that we should treat our families with antipathy or aversion. Family, like many other aspects of life, is not only a legitimate concern but often the source of great love and joy.
Rather, Jesus uses hyperbole to express a literal truth — authentic discipleship demands radical renunciation. Even good things can distract us. Jesus's call to an absolute and unconditional allegiance relativizes every other legitimate claim.
Renunciation as a condition of discipleship is a prominent theme in Luke. In the parable right before his "hard saying," Jesus compared God's kingdom to a great banquet. But when guests received their invitations, "they all alike began to make excuses" about wealth, work, and family that prevented them from attending.
When an over-zealous follower insisted that he would follow Jesus wherever he went, Jesus told him that he had no idea what he was promising, for he himself was a homeless wanderer. He discouraged another disciple from attending his father's funeral, and even a request for final farewells earned a rebuke.
The disciples, who failed so badly in so many ways, could at least tell Jesus with a straight face, "Lord, we have left all we had to follow you." When Jesus called Andrew, Peter, James and John, Luke emphasizes their categorical and immediate break with the family business: "they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him." When Jesus visited Matthew at his tax office and said to him "follow me," Luke writes that "Matthew got up, left everything and followed him."
Luke describes how "large crowds traveled with Jesus." It's easy to imagine why, given the spectacle he made. Jesus could be irreverent — he ate and drank with the riff-raff. He violated accepted ideas about institutional religion; befriended the ritually impure; broke social taboos by honoring women, eating with despised Roman tax collectors, and embracing prostitutes; mocked the hypocrisy and self-righteousness of the religiously scrupulous; silenced the religious experts; satirized Rome's political power; and proclaimed a new world order characterized by God's bias for the weak and the vulnerable.
But Jesus raised the bar for these casual enthusiasts: "Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple." You can bet that thinned the "large crowds." By his own estimate, only a few people would stoop to enter the narrow door and find the winding road.
We shouldn't judge these people too harshly; everyone has responsibilities and legitimate concerns. The gospels are realistic in describing how many people rejected Jesus's invitation to his subversive way of life. Many people who heard him teach and saw him heal considered his call, calculated the cost, and refused the invitation.
After a particularly scandalous teaching, "many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him."
In a Samaritan village, "the people there did not welcome him."
After healing a man, "all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear."
People in his home town of Nazareth "took offense at him." Luke adds that "all the people in the synagogue were furious. . . They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff."
When Jesus asked a young entrepreneur to renounce his riches, "the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth."
The religious establishment plotted to kill him.
There's an emergent tension in Jesus's own life between his filial identity with God the Father and his willing obedience to his earthly parents. That obedience eventually gave way to a radical rupture.
By the time of his public ministry, his family tried to apprehend him as a deranged crackpot (Mark 3:21, Luke 4:29, John 7:5). In his first miracle at Cana Jesus actively distanced himself from his own mother (John 2:4). When his mother and brothers tried to speak to him, he rebuffed them and redefined the meaning of family (Matthew 12:46–50). Some disciples, said Jesus, would renounce not only family, but even marriage and sex (Matthew 19:12).
In the Old Testament reading, Jeremiah renounced the idolatrous myths of nation and state. His long prophecy deconstructs every aspect of society that a citizen might cherish — the government, foreign and domestic policy, religion, the judiciary, business, and the military.
The cultural status quo offered soothing words of reassurance: "You will have peace; no harm will come to you!" Jeremiah unmasked these "reckless lies" and offered Yahweh's alternative analysis: "I am preparing a disaster for you." For renouncing national myths, Jeremiah was beaten (20:2), threatened with death (26:8), imprisoned (37:15), thrown down a well (38:6), and derided as an unpatriotic crank and traitor. Few people listened to him, but in the end history proved him right.
In the epistle, Paul challenged Philemon to renounce the status quo of work and wealth. When he was in prison, Paul had befriended and converted a runaway slave from Colossae named Onesimus. When he sent a letter to the Colossian church, he shocked them by also sending Onesimus back with his courier Tychicus (Colossians 4:7).
Paul praised Onesimus as “our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you.” To the slave owner Philemon, who worshipped in the same Colossian church, Paul made a pun on Onesimus’s name, which in Greek means "useful."
True, Onesimus was a runaway slave who ended up in prison, but now in Christ he was Paul’s "son" and “very heart.” True, he used to be “useless” to Philemon, but as a new convert he was “useful” to both Paul and Philemon. Philemon would get Onesimus back, said Paul, but it ought to be “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.” With his gentle irony, Paul challenged Philemon to renounce slavery's status quo.
Renouncing family, idolatry of the nation, work and wealth are indicative of a broader call to multiple conversions. Renunciation is a lifelong process in which the goal posts keep moving. We're never finished.
When Jesus first called Peter at the Sea of Galilee with the words "follow me," he renounced his life as a fisherman. Three years later at that same sea shore, and after he had denied even knowing him, Jesus again called Peter with the same words, "follow me" (John 21:19), and so Peter renounced the stigma of failure. Later still, Peter renounced his bigotry when he realized that God welcomed Gentiles, and people of every nation, without favoritism (Acts 10–11). Finally, Peter renounced his own hypocrisy when Paul confronted him for refusing to eat with Gentiles, after he had said he would (Galatians 2:11–21).
Renunciation accentuates the conflicting and competing interests between the call of God's kingdom and the voices of family, work, wealth, patriotism, bigotry, and even personal failures. The "hard saying" of Jesus validates Irina's observation that the way of Jesus is complex and difficult, not simple and easy. In an odd sort of way his strident demand comforts us because it affirms our struggle for vigilance.
Renunciation offers the ultimate risk-reward decision, said Jesus: "whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." When we give up all, we gain all. And so I've taken to praying with Saint Augustine, "Lord, give what you command, and command what you will."
For further reflection:
* Consider the first chapter of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's book The Cost of Discipleship in which he contrasts "cheap grace" and "costly grace."
* Daniel Berrigan, from The Kings and Their Gods: "One must urge (to his own soul first) a firm rebutting midrash; bring Christ to bear. Read the gospel closely, obediently. Welcome no enticements, no other claim on conscience. Mourn the preachers and priests whose silence and collusion signal plain revolt against the gospel. Enter the maelstrom, the wilderness; flee the claim that would possess your soul. Earn the blessing; pay up. Blessed — and lonely and powerless and intent on the Master — and, if must be, despised, scorned, locked up — blessed are the makers of peace."