Every age has its key dilemma, its key anxiety. For us in the post-modern west the key anxiety is the crisis of meaning. What is life really all about? Does it actually mean anything at all? All our traditional ways of finding meaning in life are disintegrating.
Given that, I think we will find that, even though this reading is difficult, it helps us to see a way forward. In this sermon we will examine the passage, then talk about what it means, especially in terms of the paradoxical and shocking language Jesus uses, and then I will invite you to consider what it might mean for you.
Jesus, we are told, turns to the crowds that had been following him, and addresses them. Just as a side note, I like the plural of crowds here – it’s to emphasize just how many people were following him at this point. It’s plural in for the same reason that Australians have a strong temptation to say “youse” when addressing several people.
One of the many ways in which Jesus is counter-cultural for us is that he evidently sees the large size of the crowd as being something of a problem. He doesn’t seem interested in leading a mass movement at all. Presumably, given the tenor of the teaching he is about to give, he thought that the people we following him because they wanted an uninterrupted diet of bread in the wilderness, healings of the sick and possessed, and generally the good times to keep on rolling.
The remainder of the passage breaks down into four sections.
The first section, “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.” It’s shocking, and it’s important to acknowledge that. I sometimes find my parents a little annoying – but to hate them? Apart from anything else, it contravenes the fifth commandment to honour your father and your mother.
And to add to the complexity, in other passages we see Jesus explicitly praise people for keeping the commandments – for instance, the rich young ruler who had kept all the commands since his youth. But, of course, it wasn’t enough – Jesus had a particular call for him, which transcends the merely ethical.
We will come back to this shortly, but for the moment I want to emphasize how shocking the words are, how completely contrary to everything that morality teaches us, shocking even that enlightened self interest that keeps the wheels turning in our culture.
It’s shocking, and it’s supposed to be shocking.
Next, Jesus describes the life of the disciple as taking up your cross. It’s strange, but true, that this terrifying image has become a bit of a truism in church circles. However, in the context he was addressing, to take up one’s cross was indisputably to be walking to one’s execution along with the lowest criminals.
Then Jesus changes gear a little bit, winds the downer back a little bit, and dispenses sensible advice about counting the cost of discipleship. If you commit to it, and you can’t follow through, then you will be like a fool who started a pretentious building project and couldn’t afford to finish it. Your neighbours will be mocking the half-completed extension for a long time to come.
Not exactly a pleasant reflection, but to my mind it lowers the temperature a bit from the previous points. You might be thought a fool, but at least you will be alive after all.
However he ramps it right back up again next when he finishes, a bit bafflingly, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
“Therefore” seems an odd word to use. It’s not as though he has he just completed a logical syllogism. Far from a logical argument, he has been piling terrifying and shocking images on top of each other, completing it with the alarming idea that in order to be Jesus’ disciples we have to “give up all our possessions.”
Again, seriously? Not just a tithe, a generous donation which helps the cause but leaves me enough for a latte tomorrow morning? And suddenly, we are back with the rich young ruler who, we are told, goes away sad when Jesus makes precisely the same demand of him.
So much for what it says. What does it mean?
Let’s start with Jesus’ repeated use of the formulation “if you do not do X then you cannot be my disciple.”
There are two ways in which you can read this “cannot.”
The first is one of permission. If you don’t pay the entrance fee, you cannot come into the club. If you don’t meet these arbitrary, terrifying, conditions, Jesus will not let you become a disciple.
The other reading, and the one I think is intended, is to convey impossibility. “If you do X then you are not able to become my disciple.”
To put this in terms Melbournians can understand: if you don’t use an egg shaped ball, then you cannot play AFL. You will be playing some other game entirely.
So the way to read the passage is not that Jesus sets up arbitrary, and indeed impossible, conditions before he will let you into the club. Instead, he is describing what being a disciple is actually like.
In a way, I feel like that makes it worse rather than better. If the rules were arbitrary, then Jesus could be waived. If someone rich and famous enough shows up at the door of a restaurant in bare feet, then the dress code could be found to be more of a guideline than a set of rules.
However, Jesus seems to be saying something more like: If you don’t come into the restaurant, you cannot in fact eat in the restaurant.
Taken in isolation, this all seems like a strange way to proceed. It isn’t at all clear why on earth anyone would want to be Jesus’ disciple. It sounds, frankly, like a bit of a downer, and, put in those terms, a large part of me would want to say: look, no offense Jesus, but perhaps I would just as rather not bother.
This takes us back to the point we made earlier about the paradoxical nature of Christianity. You need both poles to understand it. And that’s because, as we see here, Jesus teaches through paradox. His intent is not primarily to convey information. Rather, its purpose is primarily to transform you and your way of looking at the world.
Before we go further than this, I think it might be useful to define paradox. Richard Rohr, the contemporary Franciscan teacher defines paradox as: a seeming contradiction which is not really contradictory at all if looked at from another angle or through a larger frame which demands a change on the side of the observer.
I’ll repeat that because it is important.
A paradox is a seeming contradiction which is not really contradictory at all if looked at from another angle or through a larger frame which demands a change on the side of the observer.
That’s what is going on here. Jesus is not trying to convey information so much as he is trying to jumpstart us to a whole new way of looking at life.
So let’s quickly glance at the other side of the paradox. At the heart of the Christian message is joy – that Jesus came that we might have life in all its fullness. The joy of the in-breaking rule of God overthrowing our corrupt, alienated, self-serving lives and culture to bring new life. The joyful mystery of God, in Jesus, suffering the worst that we could devise, and bearing the huge load of sin down to the very depths and redeeming it at all, and us too, in his life, death, and resurrection.
This is, let us never forget, primarily good news, paradoxical and complex as it sometimes seems. But then, I find that complexity and paradox quite good news in itself. Life is complex, paradoxical, ironic and if God really has spoken through Jesus, then the truth he brings will need to be at least as complex, paradoxical, and ironic as life itself is.
So, what, exactly, is the Good News here?
The passage is shocking, yes. But what is its purpose? If Jesus wasn’t to transform, rather than merely inform, his listeners, then what is the nature of the transformation he is attempting?
One way to think about this is to think about what I’m going to term ethical life.
The ethical life involves finding our identity in finding our identity within our social role as a good citizen, worker, parent, and churchgoer. It means keeping your pleasure seeking tendencies under control. No staying out late partying on a school night. And the ethical life has a clear sense of payoff – if I am a good employee, I will be paid, promoted, praised. Live by these perfectly sensible rules, and good things will happen for you. That’s the message of the ten commandments isn’t it? IF you life according to these rules, then you will prosper in the land?
However, the ethical life has its limitations. As all good Protestants know, it is impossible to live a completely successful ethical life. That’s because, no matter how hard I try, the gap between the infinite demands and an infinite justice remains unbridgeable by my own efforts.
Technically, we know this gap by the name of “sin.”
Another way in which the ethical life is lacking is when the ethical life doesn’t seem to be working for you. You are doing the right stuff, but life is just so hard. No matter how hard Anne and I worked and planned and behaved ourselves like good people, it did not result in a much desired pregnancy.
Even people who feel like they are leading a pretty successful ethical life – good parents, good employees, good citizens who don’t cheat on their taxes, prospering enough to afford the occasional trip to Europe – sometimes find themselves looking at their lives and thinking: is this it? Just more of this dull plod towards the grave? I’ve got a good enough job, and pretty good relationships with my friends and family, but, really, is this all there is? What is life for?
What is life for?
Into this situation, Jesus steps, with his outrageous demands. To follow Jesus it’s not enough to be good. We know we can never be good enough, and, while being good isn’t nothing, we know that it is not sufficient.
It’s the best thing we know, and it is shocking to realise that it isn’t enough.
This is why Jesus so strongly contrasts normal ethical behaviour – loving other people, even loving our own lives – with our prime reason for living, which is God alone
And Jesus shows us God. “Whoever has seen me has seen the father,” he says.
This is why he is able to make these incredible claims – that following Jesus is more important even than the very best thing we know. It’s more important than merely doing good – it is, somehow, an entirely different game, a different conversation.
Let me pause here to emphasise that Jesus is not in fact advocating hating one’s parents. God is good, and doesn’t in fact contradict himself. To follow Jesus is to be open to the possibility of a truly self-sacrificing love which goes beyond merely fulfilling one’s responsibilities.
It’s just that, in discipleship, you step out of that whole ethical quandary of “how much is enough?” You pay your taxes, and hope there is enough to live on. You go to work, and hope that it gives you enough time off to have a life. The temptation is to give your tithe to God and hope that it will be enough to buy him off, make sure the divine pokie machine divulges a moderate shower of good fortune. Not an embarrassment of riches, nothing vulgar. Just enough to get by.
How much is enough, essentially, to keep God off my back?
Discipleship is no longer dividing life up into piles marked “mine” and “Gods.” It is stepping out of the whole profit-and-loss mindset. It is knowing that everything is grace. You are bathing in grace, dead and then alive again. The question of the meaning of life is resolved. Not in a simple statement, rather it is participating in the three-personed life of God, where you find your meaning and sense of identity in Jesus, in what is ultimate, rather than in your job, your family, your citizenship. It costs everything – and, in return, it gives you God, and one another. Which, in the final analysis, is all there really is.
It is a paradox, because our perspective is inadequate. We need a new perspective which includes both being committed to trying to live an ethical life, but also to find your identity not in your relative levels of success or failure, but in Christ alone and in this rag-tag collection of fellow disciples we call the church.
It is a hard saying – deliberately hard. But, somehow, it speaks to us. And this is, I think, the key bit of Good News in this passage: that the meaning of life is to be found in discipleship.
Here we stand in whatever our life circumstances are, rich or poor, coupled or single, parents or grandparents or childless, quietly pleased with how things are working out for us, or on the brink of despair. And in all this, we know that our own resources are not enough. That we need to orient our life towards the ultimate centre of the universe. We need something to live for, and that something is greater than ourselves.
Jesus stands and calls us to follow.
How will you respond?
Let me conclude with a prayer written by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. You may, or may not, wish to join in in the silence of your heart.
I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.