Hard Words

Jesus has some hard words for at least some in the crowd that followed him... but is it all or nothing?

Proper 18c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus has some hard words for the large crowds that are following him. In addition to the challenge about carrying the cross and giving up all of their possessions, he calls for a complete separation from ordinary family life: “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.” These words are shocking to us now — even though we’ve heard them more than once in our lives. So imagine how shocking they must have been to the crowds who followed Jesus, and who heard them for the first time.

These words are perhaps all the more shocking because Jesus himself criticizes the Pharisees for neglecting their parents as they perform their religious duties; and in his conversation with that rich young man he cites the commandment to honor your father and your mother. Is Jesus talking out of both sides of his mouth? This passage warrants a much closer look before we come to any such conclusion.

First of all, let’s pay attention to the fact that each of these things — forsaking family, carrying the cross, and giving up all of one’s possessions — are set as the conditions for becoming a disciple. Jesus is speaking to crowds who are following him, but says, “If you want to be my disciple you have to do these things.” This raises the question, Is Jesus talking about anyone who simply puts their faith in Jesus as a Christian, or is he referring only to those who are called literally to give up everything to follow him — the real “disciples” — the apostles and the others who traveled with Jesus on the road? Not just coming out for a day or two to hear what Jesus had to say, but who would follow him for the rest of their lives. If these are requirements just to be a Christian, then precious few would qualify! I know I wouldn’t.

Secondly, it’s helpful to look closely at that first qualification for discipleship — probably the hardest for us to understand in light of the scriptural commandments to love and honor one’s parents, to be faithful to one’s spouse, and support one’s family.

If we look at the whole of Scripture more closely we will find that there are particular exceptions to those general laws regarding loving your father and mother, caring for your spouse, and caring for your children. For example, in the book of Deuteronomy (33:9) a blessing from God is pronounced upon one “who said of his father and mother, ‘I regard them not’; he ignored his kin, and did not acknowledge his children.” And in the book of Numbers (6:7) a rule is laid down concerning deceased family members, “Even if their father or mother, brother or sister, should die, they may not” go near them to do the usual and customary funeral preparations. Finally, a similar rule concerning the dead is described in Leviticus (21:11), “He shall not go where there is a dead body; ...even his father or mother.”

Obviously these exceptions did not apply to everyone — that’s why they are exceptions. So to whom do these exceptions apply? The first — about the one who said of his father and mother, “I regard them not,” who ignored his kin, and did not acknowledge his children — that is part of the farewell blessing bestowed by Moses upon the tribe of Levi — the tribe of the priests, who have no property in the land of Israel, and instead lived dispersed throughout the land, and have to be provided for by the rest of the people of Israel, for they have no property to hand down to their children.

The second is part of the rule for a Nazarite: that is someone who has taken a dedicated vow to serve the Lord in a particular way for a period of time, separated from normal society by means of strict regulations.

And the third is part of the rule of life of the high priest himself, a member of the tribe of Levi but set apart even further and regulated more severely than his brothers.

The Jewish believers who followed Jesus, that crowd that came out following him during his ministry, they would have recognized his demands as a reference to these portions of the Law of Moses. They would have understood that these are not general rules for the Christian life, but special requirements for those who are indeed prepared to give up everything and serve him as disciples — whose life would be as different from the normal life of most Christians as the Levites , the Nazirites, and high priest would be from ordinary Israelites.

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Now, before we get too relaxed and imagine that we are off the hook of having to despise our families, crucify ourselves, or give up all of our possessions — because not everyone is called to be a disciple in the sense of following Jesus on the dusty roads of Palestine — let us also remember that there is another kind of discipleship that involves following Jesus on the dusty sidewalks of the Bronx!

It is also helpful to know that there is one more passage in the law of Moses concerning the kind of harsh treatment of one’s own family described by Jesus. It relates to the passage from Deuteronomy we heard this morning — the choice between serving God and serving idols, described by Moses as choosing a blessing or choosing a curse; choosing life and prosperity, or death and adversity.

For earlier in Deuteronomy (13:6-10) Moses had laid down a law concerning the worship of idols: “If anyone secretly entices you — even if it is your brother…, or your own son or daughter, or the wife you embrace, or your most intimate friend — saying, ‘Let us go to worship other gods,’ ... you must not yield…. Show them no pity or compassion… you shall surely kill them; your own hand shall be first against them to execute them…. Stone them to death for trying to turn you away from the Lord your God….”

Strong words! Stronger indeed than those of Jesus who only called for separation from family — not their slaughter. But those words of the Law of Moses must also have echoed in the minds of the Israelites who heard Jesus that day, those crowds that went out to follow him. And they echo in our minds today as we consider that sometimes family does get in the way of being even an ordinary Christian believer, much less a disciple. Possessions and belongings do sometimes get in the way of the ordinary practice of Christian generosity and charity. And don’t each and every one of us want to be a disciple of Christ in the truest and the purest sense of that word — to follow him with all of our heart and mind and soul and strength?

If so — and I think it is so for many of us here — we had best also take to heart the advice that Jesus gives, to consider, to count the cost. Will we will be able to follow through on this commitment once we begin? No one wants to spend time and effort to build half a tower or to fight one battle and then surrender. The path of discipleship of this sort is not an easy path — and perhaps not all are called to it. But if you think you are, my friends, then consider it carefully — and if a member of your family or a close friend tempts you away from serving Christ as you think you ought to serve, have the courage to shake the dust from your heels and move on. The sad fact is I know — you may know too — there are plenty of people who haven’t spoken to a brother or sister, a son or daughter, in years because of some small slight, some passing insult or neglect — would the same person have the courage to do so — to cut them off — if they drew them away from a call from God to a path of discipleship?

It is the same with possessions — and only each of us can know in our own hearts whether you own the things you have or they own you! I will be candid and say that there are times I think I spend too much time tending to my computer and its needs than it does to serving me! And don’t get me started on smart phones. I’m not sure who’s really smart. Maybe it is the phones! I think they are the smart ones and we the dumb ones. I sometimes wonder who is in charge — but when I do I am called to remember that neither I nor Microsoft nor T-Mobile are the rulers of my life.

Like Moses, my friends, I set before you this day a choice — to forget it all and go about your life without allowing God to be a part of it, or to strive each day to live your life in such a way that God’s Name will be honored and the people of God served. Consider, my friends, which path you choose. But as Joshua said in similar circumstances, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (24:15)+