Today’s reading is one where we really have to understand the social structure in which Jesus is speaking. When you hear the word people, what do you think of? Is it a singular or plural noun? Do you visualize a group of random individuals or do you think of a single entity made up of many interconnected, interdependent persons? Odds are, you probably thought of people as a plural noun describing a random group. Our culture encourages individualism, independence, and diversity, but in Jesus’ world it was not survival of the fittest, it was survival of the connected.
When I lived in Dallas, there was a local news program that had a segment called “Family First.” Their premise was strengthen the family and you will strengthen the community; strengthen the community and you reduce poverty, addiction, homelessness and crime. There is a lot of wisdom in their social philosophy, but it is certainly more complicated than their sound bites made it appear.
Today “Family First” is attached to all sorts of religious and secular programs. I am not against families. I believe strong families can help promote a strong society, but it is one of those phrases like many of Ben Franklin’s statements, such as “God helps those that help themselves”, that people think are Biblical, but in fact is contradicted by scripture.
Families were the tightest connection most people had. When we talk about “family first”, we usually mean come home from work in time to see your children before they go to bed and hopefully eat dinner with them at the kitchen table. Turn the television to a channel appropriate to everyone in the room. Help your child with their homework so they can get in a good college and become independent. In Jesus’ day, children worked beside their parents and older siblings learning the family trade. It was considered normal for multiple generations to live in the same house and a blessing if your parents lived long enough to help you with the children. Protecting the family honor was very important. This meant that a family member who went astray and brought shame on the family was shunned or worse. They were considered dead to the family. A good example of this is in the Fiddler on the Roof when the one daughter marries outside her religion. She brought shame on the family and her father refused to acknowledge her presence, even when she was standing right in front of him.
Jesus’ words in the gospel sound very harsh to us. We are accustomed to hearing Jesus speak about loving everyone, so why would he tell someone to hate their families? What he is talking about is loyalty, commitment, and priorities. When you have to make a choice, and it will happen, between following Jesus and doing what your family wants, Jesus says you must decide whom you will serve.
When Jesus says believe in me, he is not calling for an intellectual acceptance of Trinitarian theology. What we believe does matter. It affects how we act. But Jesus’ call to belief came with the command “Follow me,” He says “follow me” 16 times in the gospels. Nearly all of his references to “belief” are associated with a response or lack of response to an action. What would you think if I was teaching Math and told you the name of the book, handed you a workbook with some exercises, and said, “Just believe this book is true and you will understand Math. I have already given you an A in the class. It is up to you to decide whether or not you want to complete any of the exercises, but it is not required. ” A small handful of people would do the exercises because they truly wanted to learn math, but for the majority of students I would be doing them a great disservice. I would be setting up the false expectation that belief in the concept of math was all that was required to balance a checkbook or solve complex engineering problems. Too often that is the way we approach our spiritual lives. Jesus did not expect belief to be separate from the hard work of discipleship.
When a man came up to Jesus and asked him how to inherit the kingdom of heaven Jesus acknowledges that the man already knows the Ten Commandments. Keeping the Ten Commandments was important, and the man states he had done so since his youth, so Jesus tells him to give away everything he owns and come follow him. Jesus asks the man to put following Jesus at the top of his to do list, and forget about everything else. We know the ending of this story, the man walks away, unable to let go of his possessions.
In another story, a scribe comes up to Jesus and says he wants to follow him; Jesus reminds us that he is homeless. Jesus has no ties to keep him from his mission, but the consequence is that he never knows where he will be sleeping that night. In that same story, one who was already following Jesus asks for a short sabbatical. “Let me go and bury my father.” Now we do not know if the father was already dead, but Jesus tells him, “Let the dead bury the dead.” Jesus is not opposed to funerals, but he is saying, “Let those who are spiritually dead carry out the social rituals expected by society.” We are seeking to please the wrong person. Jesus is asking for total loyalty, total commitment. Jesus never said or did something to be politically correct. He was committed to bringing about the kingdom of heaven and reconciling God and humanity at any cost.
We are fortunate. Most of us live in a world where the worst that will happen to us is a little teasing by family or friends who are not believers, but in Jesus’ world that was not the case. Jesus was telling his disciples that if they want to follow him, they must be willing to bring dishonor on their families. They must be willing to have family members consider them as good as dead, or even worse, they must realize a family member may turn them over to the authorities to save the honor of the family. One cannot serve two masters. At some point in time, you will have to make a choice between doing what you believe Jesus would want you to do and doing what your family wants you to do. You will have to make a choice between doing what you believe Jesus is calling you to do and doing what your family and friends believe is the most fun, financially prudent, or socially more acceptable. Jesus says there is only one choice if you want to follow him, and that it will probably cost you.
We wonder why today’s generation does not find church meaningful. I think it is because a long time ago, we ceased talking about true discipleship. Deitrick Bonhoffer, a Lutheran minister that was executed in Nazi Germany spoke of “cheap grace.”
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross.”(Bonhoeffer 1937 transl. from German 1949, 36)
We believe God transforms us at the time of our baptism and we are marked as “Christ own forever.” We baptize infants on the promise of their sponsors that they will be raised in the Christian faith and we believe they become part of the body of Christ at their baptism. In the early church, a period, sometimes up to three years, was spent preparing people for baptism. The Catechumens, those not yet baptized, were only allowed in the service through the reading of the scripture, at which time they were taken out for instruction. This served two purposes. Christianity was a persecuted religion and becoming a Christian could be a life-or-death decision. One did not choose to be a Christian lightly. Also, it protected the worshipers from people who were seeking evidence to arrest individual Christians. Once it became socially acceptable to become a Christian, services became more open. Perhaps because we believe that God acts in the rite of baptism and that we are truly marked as Christ’s own forever, perhaps because we no longer worry our physical lives are at risk by our profession of faith, we have become lazy and fail to follow this up with true discipleship. Many act like their baptism is a “Get out of hell FREE” ticket rather than initiation into the body of Christ. I have found this true across denominations and whether you were baptized as an infant or an adult.
Jesus knew there was a cost for following him. He didn’t put any fine print in the contract, he put it out there in big bold print with boxes for initials and pastors have the job of pointing them out before anyone signs.
“Hate your family” and “take up your cross” means count the cost before the purchase and know the price is high, it is your life. If Jesus put his family first, he would never have left his family to take up the life of an itinerate preacher and healer nor put his mother though the pain of seeing him crucified. These are hard words. This is a hard lesson and there is nothing I can say to make it easy other than to echo that it is worth the cost. If Jesus had been unwilling to be crucified, we would never have witnessed his resurrection. When we build a house, buy a car; go on vacation we know it will cost money. Money is a representation of our time and our energy. Once it is spent on something we cannot get it back without returning the item, if we are allowed to do so.
Jesus paid the price of our salvation, in full, and we can never repay him, but we can follow him to show our appreciation.