25 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “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. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
There are many hard texts in the Bible that send us to a commentary, looking for a second opinion, quicker than you can say, “Methuselah.” This particular passage contains not one such text, but four of them.
In Verse 26a Jesus says, “Whoever does not hate father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, cannot be my disciple.” This saying is 180 degrees opposite the “Family Values Platform” that is universally proclaimed in churches around the world.
In verse 26b Jesus says, “Whoever does not hate life itself cannot be my disciple.” The late Robert Schuller used to say, “Your attitude determines your altitude!” If you believe that, and I do, then anyone who hates life itself cannot help but be miserable. Of course, Jesus did not have a TV, so I suppose he never heard Robert Schuller or Joel Osteen.
In verse 27 Jesus says, “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” This text is hard, but at least it is semi-familiar. It is familiar because there are several times in the gospels that Jesus advises his disciples to take up their personal cross and follow him. It is only semi-familiar because in this case Jesus does not advise his disciples to take up “their cross,” but “the cross.” The definite article indicates that Jesus wants help carrying the one cross on which he will die, and in the light of which we must live. If we take these words literally, then only Simon of Cyrene who did help Jesus carry his cross was a true disciple. Or, maybe not, because St. Mark tells us that the Roman soldiers compelled Simon to carry the cross of Jesus.
Finally, after telling his disciples that they should count the cost before following him, in verse 33 Jesus says, “…none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” In saying this, Jesus makes no mention of the poor, nor does he propose acts of charity, nor the redistribution of wealth. He simply makes giving up “all our possessions” a condition of discipleship. In the Hebrew scripture, the word for “wealth” is the same as the word for “weight.” Maybe Jesus just wants his disciples to be unburdened.
On Tuesday night, when I read these hard sayings to members of our Board, verse 33 hit everyone particularly hard. One board member said, “If we all give up everything, how then are we going to live?”
Another board member summed up our response to the entire lesson with a simple story. He said, “This passage reminds me of a man who fell off a cliff. On the way down he managed to grab a rotten snag. As he hung by the snag, holding on for dear life, he looked up to heaven and cried out saying, ‘O, Lord, what should I do?’ And a voice from heaven said, ‘Let go!’ So he cried out again, “What should I do.” Again the voice said, “Let go!” And the man said, ‘Is there anybody else up there?’
There are times when we would all like a second opinion. Times when we would prefer a God whose thinking was more in line with our own. Likewise, there are times when we would prefer a Savior who would stick to preaching, and stop meddling in things like our family, and our money and our happiness.
So, can we get a second opinion? Well, in a sense we can. I went to The Daily Study Bible by William Barclay for a second opinion, expecting a lengthy explanation. However, I was surprised at the brevity of his commentary. Barclay said that all four of the texts in this passage make up a single case of oriental hyperbole. He points out that, at this juncture in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is nearing the end of his ministry—and his crucifixion and death loom large. In good oriental tradition, Jesus uses big, bold, near impossible words to drive home the possible cost of discipleship. He knows what he is about to suffer, and he knows that if the authorities are willing to afflict such suffering on the Master, how much more are they willing to afflict it upon the disciples of the Master.
The lectionary texts are meant to compliment one another, and I think the lectionary verify Barclay’s opinion. Let us look quickly at just the “economic” position of all three.
The Old Testament lesson is from the book of Deuteronomy. It reflects the situation of the people of God as they are about to cross over Jordan and enter Canaan Land. Moses tells them that if they keep God’s commandments they can expect a long life, large happy families, and the prosperity of the Promised Land.
The Gospel lesson reflects the situation in the life of Jesus and his closest disciples, like the twelve. Jesus is an itinerant preacher. Elsewhere he said, “The son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Neither did his disciples. Like the homeless today, Jesus and his disciples traveled light, slept rough, and lived on the charity of others.
The Epistle Lesson reflects a situation in the Early Church. Paul addresses the letter to a man named Philemon, and he greets him as a convert and as a friend. It is obvious from the text that Philemon was well to do by the standards of his time and ours. His house is large enough to have a guest room, which Paul soon hopes to use. Indeed, we see from verse 2 that Philemon’s house is large enough for the whole church to meet there. Philemon also owns at least one slave, Onesimus; but Paul has a hope that will soon change.
So, in light of these Lectionary texts, what does the “oriental hyperbole” of Luke 14 mean for us? It means at least this: We become the disciples of Jesus not on our terms but on his terms. Needless to say, Jesus lays down different terms for different people, because he meets us where we are.
Jesus challenges some potential disciples at the point of family. Not all families are as healthy as those in which we were loved and nurtured. Some families are toxic, and hateful, and it would be impossible for a person to be loyal to these families at the same time they are seeking to follow Jesus. Can you imagine trying to follow Jesus while living in the family of Joseph Stalin, the dictator who killed millions; or Marry Ann Cotton, the 19th century serial killer who killed twenty people over forty years, including several husbands and multiple children; or Jeffery Epstein, the sex trafficker who forced teenagers into the trade. No doubt Jesus was thinking of these toxic and hateful families when he told his disciples that, “A persons enemies are the members of his own household.” Of course, even seemingly ordinary families can sometimes sidetrack our discipleship. In his little devotional guide, “My Utmost for His Highest,” Oswald Chambers says that we need never tell God how our obedience to God’s commands will affect our family; God already knows how it will affect our family, and God often ask us to obey him anyway.”
Jesus challenges some disciples at the point of family, and some disciples at the point of money and possessions. In Luke 18, Jesus challenged the man we call “the rich young ruler” at the point of his possessions saying, “If you would be perfect, sell all you have and give to the poor, and come follow me.” The man went away sorrowful, because he had great possessions. A little later in the same chapter, Peter reminds Jesus that he and the rest of the disciples have left hearth and home to follow him. And Jesus says:
“Truly, I say to you, there is no (one) who has left house or spouse or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”
Most of us hope that Jesus will deal with us the way that Paul dealt with Philemon. Like Philemon, we have a home, with a guest room. We have savings in the bank, investments and a discretionary income. It may be that we give a tithe or better of our income, which Jesus approved. Yet, we are keenly aware that Jesus reserved his highest praise for the poor widow who put two copper coins, all that she had, her whole living, into the temple treasury.
Of course, if we all followed the example of the poor widow, we would be right back to the observation of one board member, “If we all gave up everything, how then would we live?” Mahatma Ghandi adopted voluntary poverty, but he frequently observed that his poverty had costs his friends a fortune. Likewise, some priests and nuns today adopt voluntary poverty, but the cost of their poverty is born by the church. The average believer is much more comfortable with the advice that John Wesley gave to the early Methodist. Wesley said, “Make all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.” We all want to make all we can. Fewer of us want to save all we can. Fewer still want to give all we can. We tend to think, “I made it. It is mine. I can spend it how I like.” Some break this pattern. I recently spoke to a who said:
“My wife and I recently sold our big house—and now we live in a little house. We are both retired, but we invested well, and we have a nice income, and we can give away more than ever before.”
More and more people are seeking to live more simply so that other people can simply live. This is difficult for Americans. We have to break some old, comfortable habits. For instance, we Americans make up 5% of the world’s population, and we are using 24% of the world’s energy, and a similarly high percentages of many of the world other resources. In his book, “The World Is Hot Flat and Crowded,” Thomas Friedman points out that the US has now been exporting TV shows and movies extolling the virtues of our lifestyle for several generations. People in the rest of the world, are convinced: They want to live like us. Now, thanks to a global economy more and more people in once primitive countries like China, India and Africa can live like us. This means that the strain on the world’s resources have doubled, and tripled, and quadrupled, and so-on, and so on, with no end in sight. We are already using resources that that should have been set aside for our grandchildren and all future generations.
We Americans—indeed, people around the world, are going to have to learn that “Less is More.” Young people are already discovering this. Not long ago I talked to a young man about a one bedroom condo he owns in downtown Winston-Salem. He said:
“I don’t need anything else. When I have friends and family visit from out of town, I put them in a motel. When I want to throw a dinner party, I book a big table at Ryan’s. I don’t need a lot of stuff. I subscribe to Kindle Unlimited, Amazon Prime, Netflix and and Spotify. Those subscriptions give me instant access to millions of books, and songs, and hundreds of hundreds of magazines and newspapers, and more movies than I can watch in two lifetimes. I keep all my exercise equipment at the YMCA, and when I need a book, or a cup of coffee, I just walk around the corner to the Public Library. I would gladly pay to me a member there; but I don’t have to. I own an old Prius, but last year, I flew to California for a two week vacation, and rented a red Mustang convertible. Best of all—I have not cranked a lawn mower since I went off to college.”
Of course, I made up this conversation. However, this young man is not a myth. He is a composite based upon many encounters I have had with many young people, including my own children and their spouses. Young people around the world are discovering that, “Less is more!” The amazing thing is that many young people are discovering this who have never even really considered the teaching of Jesus. If they did, they may make “more advanced disciples” than many of us who have known him the whole of our long lives.
I am not saying that “One size fits all.” It does not. I have one friend who said, “I want to simplify my life, but each time I attempt it, it coast me more time and money than I have planned for.” One size does not fit all, but “Less is often more!.”
Now someone will say, “Okay, Worth, you have dealt with families and property, but what about hating our life and living in light of the cross? What do you have to say about that?
Well, I think hating our life simply means that we must have something bigger than self to live for. Dr. Carl Jung said, “We never truly live until we discover that for which we are willing to die.” Likewise, I think living under the shadow of the cross means remembering that there is nothing in life that we disciples of Jesus can possibly suffer that even compares with the intensity of what Jesus suffered for us, including his voluntary poverty. What does the apostle say, “Who, though he was rich, yet for our sake, he became poor, that he might make many rich.” (2nd Corinthians 8:9) In the final analysis, Jesus never impoverishes us, he makes us rich beyond our imagination.
Worth Green, Th.M., D. Min.