I am indebted to Pastor Michael Rodgers for preaching a sermon long ago that stuck with me for decades. This sermon is inspired by his work!
Jesus you’ve got to be kidding! “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?…None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions?”
Hate your father; hate your mother; hate your wife; hate your children; hate you brothers; hate your sisters; hate even life itself and oh yes while you are at it give up all you possessions and then, and only then will you be ready to take up your cross and follow Jesus. What is Jesus talking about? Has Jesus forgotten about the fourth commandment? Are we to forget about honouring our parents? Wasn’t it Jesus who said that we are to love our neighbours as we love ourselves? Didn’t Jesus try to talk people into loving their enemies? Has Jesus forgotten that God is love? Why does Jesus rant and rave about hating our father’s, mothers, children, sisters, brothers and even life itself?
It is difficult to recognize the Jesus in this text. This is not the gentle Jesus of my childhood. This is not the happy Jesus who smiled out from the pictures in my illustrated Bible.This is not the Jesus that the rightwing conservative Christians point to when they harp on about family values. This is not the gentle Jesus we have come to expect. This Jesus sounds to harsh. This Jesus wants to turn us into religious fanatics who hate everybody and give up everything, even life itself.
For a few years now, there has stood on the shelf above my desk a quotation from Deuteronomy 30. I put it there so that these word’s of God might guide me in my decision making. According to the writers of Deuteronomy, God says: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live”. God says “Choose life!” How do I reconcile this to the Gospel lesson in which Jesus says whoever does not hate even life itself, cannot be a disciple of Jesus? Why was Jesus so harsh? What is going on here?
According to the gospel of Luke, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. The gospel writer tells us that huge crowds were following Jesus; clamouring for his attention; pleading for his healing touch; anxiously waiting for the next miracle; and pledging to follow Jesus where ever he was going; hoping against hope that Jesus could save them from all their problems. Only Jesus knows where they are going. Only Jesus knows that he is on his way to Jerusalem; headed straight for the cross. Only Jesus knows what horror lies ahead.
Jesus looks out at the large crowds who were travelling with him and Jesus throws a huge bucket of cold water all over them. At that moment Jesus may well be their saviour and they may want to follow him to the ends of the earth. But Jesus knows exactly what following him will mean and so he asks the crowds to think carefully before they follow him any further. Jesus cautions the crowd: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sister, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” What is Jesus talking about? Is Jesus contradicting the scriptures, is he contradicting himself? Does Jesus really want his followers to hate?
According to the dictionary the word “hate” is defined as “intense hostility and aversion; distaste coupled with sustained ill will”. Well if that’s what Jesus is asking for — then count me out. I don’t have the greatest relationship with my family but I am not prepared to summon up intense hostility, aversion and distaste coupled with sustained ill will. There may well be days when I don’t exactly like life, but hate even life itself? No way!
This passage has troubled me so much that I went back to the original Greek to try and discover just what it was that Jesus was saying. The writer of the Gospel of Luke uses a Greek phrase that comes from a Semitic expression meaning, “to love less, to turn away from or detach oneself from.”Jesus is warning the crowds that following him means that they must turn away from the people they love and detach themselves from the life they have known. Jesus is trying to shock the crowds into some sort of understanding of what’s to come. Jesus knows that most of the crowds will not be able to follow him to the cross. Jesus’ words are designed to shock the crowds into an understanding of the cost of following him. Jesus knows that the messiah seekers and salvation hunters don’t really want the type of leader who is headed for a cross. Jesus’ words are designed to shock the crowds and unmask their idolatry.And now, these provocative words provoke us. These shocking words shock us. These difficult words unmask our idolatry. For we too seek salvation everywhere but in Christ. We want desperately to justify our existence. We want desperately to know that our creation was not in vain. We want to know that we are not merely a waste of space. And like those who went before us, almost without fail, we turn to our families to provide justification.
Think for a moment of the family in which you grew up in. Where was your place in your family? Were you the eldest; the youngest; the middle child; how much jockeying was there for position in your family? Did mommy love you best? Were you Daddy’s favourite? How many of us got caught up trying to justify our existence by trying to live up to impossible expectations? How many had a demanding father? Or how about the mother who can still make us feel like nothing with the words: “Are you going to wear that?” How many of us have spent our lives trying to live up to or reject the family expectations? How many of us replaced family expectations with society’s expectations and are still trying to measure up to some advertisers’ idea of the perfect person?
When I was a little girl, I loved my father dearly. In my eyes my father could do no wrong. I wanted to be just like him. I wanted to please him. I worshipped and adored my Dad. One of my father’s hobbies was cycling. He used to build his own bikes and ride all over the country-side on them. When I first started school my father would hoist me up on to his bicycle’s cross bar and give me a ride to school. I longed for the day when I would get my own bike and ride along with him. I knew that if I only had my own two-wheeler, then I would be somebody.
We moved around a lot when I was a kid and there was never much money so I spent a long time longing for my bike. I knew that every thing would change once I could ride. When I was about six, I talked a playmate into letting me borrow his two-wheeler and all by myself I learned how to ride it. I was proud of my accomplishment but somehow I knew that if I only had my very own bike, things would be even better. When I was ten, we moved into yet another new neighbourhood. I hated being the new kid in town. It was hard. The evening before we were supposed to start at the new school, my parents arranged for the next-door neighbours to keep an eye on us while they went for a walk. My parents were gone for quite a while and I remember wondering if they were ever coming back. My brother and I were playing in the front-yard when my parents came riding down the street. My father was sitting on a shiny red bicycle and my mother on a sleek blue bicycle. They were brand spanking new bikes.
This was 1967, long before 10-speed bicycles were all the rage. In those days you rarely saw such bikes. These bikes were three-speeds and they had hand brakes. They were magnificent. I asked my Mom if we could ride them and she said, “I don’t see why not, they are your bikes after all.” I could hardly believe my ears. My bike. This beautiful blue two-wheeler, with three speeds, hand brakes and everything was mine. Dad explained that we had to take good care of these bikes. They were the best that money could buy. I can still hear him explaining that the frames were Czechoslovakian racing frames, that these bikes were special and that he expected us to take good care of them.
That night I could hardly sleep as I imagined riding up to my new school on my sleek, blue, Czechoslovakian framed, three-speed, hand-brake, racing bike. On such a bike, I knew that I was somebody. My Dad had found me the best bike that money could buy and on the week-end, I would ride with my father. I would make him proud. The next morning my brother and I left early for school. Side by side we rode. Sitting straight and proud on our bikes. We took a few detours along the way, just so that we could try out all three of our gears. We were almost late, so we poured on the speed and as we turned into the school yard and headed towards the bike-racks, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was a sea of bicycles. But none of them looked like ours. There was row upon row of what, in 1967 was considered to be the coolest bike on the road. Some of you may have owned one yourself. How many of you remember “Mustangs”. They were the short framed bikes with the high-handle bars and the long seats we used to call banana-seats. In the sixties these were the bikes to have.
I cannot tell you how far my heart sank when I rode into that school-yard. My sleek, blue, Czechoslovakian framed, three-speed, hand-brake, racing bike stuck out like a sore-thumb. I was mortified. I wanted to blend in. I wanted to be like all the other kids. I did not want to be the new kid with the weird bike.
After-school was over, I headed straight for the bike-rack and tried to get out of there as fast as I could so that no-one could see my weird bike. When I pulled into our drive-way, my Dad was there to greet me. I jumped off my bike and demanded to know why he had made me ride such a stupid bike. I told him in no uncertain terms that I hated this bike and I demanded to know why he couldn’t have bought me a bike just like the ones all the other kids had.
My father just stood there in stunned silence. I went storming up to my room, threw myself down on my bed and cried. I cried because I wasn’t good enough. I cried because I didn’t fit in. I cried because life was hard. I cried because my Dad had made a mistake. I cried because the man I looked up to. The man I worshipped and adored; the man I thought could do no wrong; this man who I thought would protect me and save me from all harm, this man had made a mistake. I also cried because I now knew that this man could be hurt and that I was the one who hurt him.
It took me a long time to realize that my Mom and Dad couldn’t save me from harm. It took me even longer to realize that I couldn’t justify my own existence by living up to other peoples’ expectations. It has taken me a long time to stop trying to live up to my family’s expectations. It may take me even longer to learn that my possessions cannot save me from harm or provide me with salvation.
How many of us have spent huge chunks of our time trying to justify our existence by living up to expectations? Maybe your mother always wanted you to look your best and now you are never satisfied with how you look. Maybe your father pushed you to always do your best and you always feel like you could do better if only you tried harder. Maybe it was an older brother who excelled in sports and now you refuse to play, convinced that you are a clutz. Maybe it was a sister who got straight A’s and you feel like she got all the brains in the family.
How many of us are constantly competing with someone who we are convinced is, smarter, prettier, funnier, harder working, better dressed, sexier, or happier that we are? Or how many of just give up and try to justify our existence by taking care of someone, watching out for them, showing them the ropes, making sure they never get into trouble?
Some of us spend our lives justifying our existence by our careers. We have turned earning a living into earning the right to live. We struggle to maintain the illusion that we are in control of our own destiny. Not one of these relationships can save us. It is time for us to stop spending our lives trying to justify our existence.
Martin Luther urged us to put our old self to death. He urged us to remember our baptism. Baptism isn’t just a ritual moistening that we preform on new babies to thank God for the gift of new life. Baptism is a ritual drowning. In baptism, the old self, with all its struggles to justify its own existence, is drowned, put to death. Following Jesus means dying to self. Bonhoeffer said that “When Christ calls a person, Christ bids them come and die.” The cost of discipleship is everything. Not just everything you have, everything you are. But following Jesus – discipleship, baptism–also means being raised with Jesus.
It means understanding yourself to be a new creation in Christ’s image, with all the potential to be all that we can be. It is as if, God scoops us out of the waters of baptism and says, “Yes! This is exactly what I had in mind when I created you”. Turning away from and detaching ourselves from people, possessions and work so that we can follow Jesus means that: suddenly we no longer work to justify our own existence, we work simply because there is work that needs doing. We work because God has given us work that no one else can do, and because if we don’t do it, it simply won’t get done.
Suddenly our possessions no longer prove our worth; they are simply gifts from God. They are given to us to serve God and God’s people: our homes so that we can provide hospitality to strangers, our wealth so that we can share it with others. And suddenly our families no longer justify our existence, they merely surround us with love and care. Our fathers are not there to be lived up to, but to love us and accept us. Our mothers love us not because we deserve it, but simply because we exist. Our sisters and brothers can be companions for the journey, walking alongside us enjoying the scenery. And children can be more than just something we put our stamp on and raise to be just how we want them, the can be signs that God is at work in the world, constantly bringing new life, constantly opening up the future. Following Jesus means dying to self, to everything we have, to everything we are. But it also means being reborn, and receiving all of life as a gift.
God says: Today I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. In God, the gift of life is ours. It is up to us to receive the gift of life. To get on our bikes and ride for the sheer joy of riding. To be with our families and love for the sheer joy of loving. To follow Jesus for the excitement and the challenges that Christ offers. God has set before us life and death, choose life.