Power and piety

A sermon for September 4 2022; Year C Proper 18

Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, “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 14:25-26

Elsewhere – specifically, in fact, while preaching the sermon on the mount – Jesus tells his disciples and anyone who will listen, “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:22)

So how do we hold that sermon in tension with this rather harsh set of demands that Jesus offers the crowd who are thinking of following him to Jerusalem?

The context for that difficult set of words about hating your family and even your life is on one side the crowd and on the other, the parable.

Great crowds were following Jesus, looking for healing, or food, or living water, something of hope in a harsh landscape – and rightly so. He is the image of God’s grace and mercy among us. He is hope for the helpless and life for the powerless.

But he worries that the crowd does not understand that he has not come to take them out of this world, but to be with them through it – he is God with us, Emmanuel. He knows that although resurrection is coming, it comes through the cross.

The commentary in The Jewish Annotated New Testament notes that the people following Jesus down this road are the type with the disposable income to build a tower with their name emblazoned upon it, according to the parable he offers them.[i] Power and piety are a dangerous combination.

So he asks them, “Are you sure?” Because he wants them to know what they are getting into, the cost of loving neighbour as self, enemy as neighbour, denying pride and vengeance for the sake of love, denying self for the sake of God, giving and forgiving, and never counting the cost.

“Are you ready for the cross?” he is asking them.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his masterpiece, The Cost of Discipleship, offers that “The life of discipleship is not the hero-worship we would pay to a good master, but obedience to the Son of God.”[ii] Jesus is not offering a get-even-richer-quick scheme, nor even a decent return on investment. He is offering a radical re-ordering of the lives of his followers, and they, and we, may not be prepared for what that might entail.

I met a man in a hospital once, long ago and far away, who had suffered a major medical event which would involve a long and arduous recovery and, once that was underway, a complete transformation of his lifestyle. He told me that God had done this to him, struck him low and smitten him, and I thought that would make him angry; but no, he told me, he was grateful.

He had prayed to Jesus to help him get free from a way of life that was killing him and destroying his family, and this total and devastating disaster, he believed, was in fact Christ’s way of healing him, of getting him the help he needed, and setting him on a new path.

Bonhoeffer says, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die … because only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ.”[iii]

In our own rite of Baptism, in that blessed Sacrament, we speak of dying to an old way of life, of drowning it in the waters of a new creation, a new life in Christ. We say we mean it metaphorically, of course, but metaphor is not without meaning.

Elsewhere, the disciples cried out, “Look, we have left everything and follow you!” And Jesus told them, “Yes, and anyone who is prepared to give it all up for me will get it back now and in the age to come; and you may expect hardship, too.” (Mark 10:28-30, paraphrased)

In order to love as Christ loves, to love even family, friends, life itself as God so loved the world, we have to recognize the breach within it, which is the cross, which is sin, which is every selfish impulse that would lead us away from Jesus toward something that, someone that, in the moment, we prefer.[iv]

Jesus challenges those who would follow him to hate, to abhor, to detach from, to cleave their relationships with that which they hold most closely, be that money or family or reputation, and cleave unto him, not because it is wrong to have a happy family life. Far from it. He does not want anyone to hate those who should be beloved. Love God, and your neighbour. He does not want us to hate the life which is our gift from a generous and gracious God, I don’t think. Love God, and your neighbour as yourself.

But when we come to a crossroads, and the gospel calls us to walk one way, and the world tells us that way leads to ruin, or rejection, Jesus wants us to have the courage to follow him, even in the way of the cross.

The people followed Jesus looking for healing, or food, or living water, something of hope in a harsh landscape – and rightly so. He is the image of God’s grace and mercy among us. He is hope for the helpless and life for the powerless. He became our hope by becoming as helpless and as powerless as we are, and by resisting the temptation to find any better way than this: the love of God made perfect and living among us, now and for ever. Amen.

 

 


[i] The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Amy-Jill Levine, Marc Zvi Brettler, editors (Oxford University Press, 2011), commentary to Luke 14:28

[ii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, revd edn (Macmillan, 1963), 84

[iii] Bonhoeffer, 99

[iv] See Bonhoeffer, 110

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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