In today’s Old Testament reading, Moses defines life and death in familiar terms, linking life to prosperity and death to adversity. Who could argue with that? In Luke, however, Jesus serves up a definition of life so radical that it jars the senses. Listen again to that shocking assertion: “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 14:26).
Come again? We must hate our fathers and mothers, wives and children, brothers and sisters, to be Christ’s disciples? We must hate life itself? What can this mean? Surely it’s a misprint! Alas, Jesus, as always, isn’t messing around. He means it. Eternal life is just that—eternal, forever—and in the scheme of our earthly goings on, it comes first. Before father and mother, before wives and children, brothers and sisters. Before life on earth itself.
We Christians tend to think of Moses and Jesus as representing two different kinds of love. Moses, the lawgiver, the stern father, dishes out the tough love. We obey him. Jesus, the lifegiver, the compassionate son, offers us the understanding love. We follow him. Moses, a man, strikes us as godlike while Jesus, Lord, strikes us as human. It’s easy to forget that in the
end, Jesus demands a commitment that is just as stark and just as consuming as the one old man Moses demands. Both tell us in no uncertain terms that there is one way, one God—and no wiggle room. God comes first, our loved ones come second, and our possessions come in a distant third. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking: “This new priest is a finger-wagger! First minute in the pulpit and she’s already talkin’ fear of God!” I can just imagine you as someone walking through that door for the first time because you’ve heard that some neat things are going on in this church, and you hear the preacher ranting about how one has to forsake one’s family to be a bonafide Christian disciple. Now, I don’t know, you might be inclined to run up for the altar call shouting “Alleluia. Sign me up!” But you might just as easily be put off and give up before even beginning. Jesus’ demands are harsh and they are meant to sift the wheat from the chaff.
Well, let me be the first to tell you that just because I do discipleship for a living doesn’t mean I’ve got this discipleship thing wrapped up. I struggle every day with the lesson we see today in Luke—that for us to inherit the Kingdom of God, we must be absolutely committed to God’s service day in and day out for the rest of our lives. Don’t we get time off for good behavior? To make Jesus’ directives more palatable you should understand that while cross-bearing is underscored with a call to hate one’s own family and life, the meaning of the word “hate” is not our understanding of emotional loathing, but rather an exaggerated idiom that expresses detachment. It means that if there is a conflict, one’s response to the demands of discipleship must take precedence over even the most sacred of human
relationships. The Gospel is talking about a clash of allegiances occasioned by the loyalty to Jesus and his good news. Jesus wants us to know the score: no one should step forward as a disciple without being prepared to forsake everything. This detachment means finding our security and our self worth not in the things we own or the titles we hold, but in God. Jesus is not interested in tagalongs or casual observers, but in disciples who can walk the walk and embody the reality they proclaim. This is Jesus saying, “Count the cost. Loyalty to me can and will create tensions within you and between you and those you love.” It’s honesty in advertising.
When I, who was not raised in the church, decided to go to seminary to explore my call to ministry, a few family members and a lot of friends and colleagues freaked out. They thought the evil ways of New York City had driven me into the bowels of a sect of Jesus freaks. I couldn’t understand their fear. I had not been “saved” at some tent meeting at Madison Square Garden. I wasn’t unhappy with my life. I wasn’t going through a “phase.” I was the same Dana acknowledging a feeling, a call, that had long loomed within me. For some reason this meant that I was forsaking my normalcy. People feared I would cut my hair, wear frumpy clothes, lose my humor and stand in the subways handing out scripture tracts. They suddenly felt the need to watch their P’s and Q’s around me. Andrew’s officemates at GQ regarded me as a kind of circus attraction. “Look it’s the high priestess!” they’d exclaim whenever I stopped in. I couldn’t stand it! I never figured out why I had to forsake myself to be a bonafide, public Christian disciple. Couldn’t I be a normal person and commit myself to God too? The subtextual question
was always: What was I sacrificing to become a woman of the cloth? In my mind I wasn’t giving anything up, but taking a new thing on. God was calling me, not some saint he’d hope I’d become after seminary training. Like that was going to do it!
You know, my mother always told me you never marry someone because you think they have potential. You marry them for who they are now, not what you wish them to
become. If you do, you’re guaranteed to be disappointed. I know God is more perceptive than my mother, though probably not by much, so I knew God was not calling me because he could make me over into someone I wasn’t. Yes, God can mold me because I am pliable and malleable; he is still doing this. You should know that I am a work in progress. But giving myself to God did not mean a forsaking of the essence of the person he created–and it shouldn’t for you either.
Please know that I’m not out to dilute Jesus’ mandates, for without conviction and commitment we are nothing. Christianity is no holiday parade. At its worst it can mean
warfare as we’ve seen this past week in Northern Ireland where Catholic school girls have been tormented and threatened on their way to school through a Protestant neighborhood. At its best, our faith commitment has always meant discipline. No religion has any integrity unless born of sacrifice. But I do believe that Jesus is not asking for a guarantee of complete fidelity in advance of our journey. He knows our limitations better than we do. Jesus knew those limitations as he journeyed down the road to Jerusalem, as the crowds gradually became
smaller, as his admirers fell away. He knew those limitations that dark Thursday night when Caesar’s soldiers came for him, and as his followers forsaked and fled him. In a sense, no one can know without a doubt whether he or she will be able to fulfill the commitment to discipleship. Earthly life is complicated life.
You should know something about me. I will never ask you to do anything I would never do. I’m not going to preach that you should give away all your possessions when I’m not willing to do it. Andrew and I just bought our first house, and I’ve had great fun scouring decorating magazines trying to decide how to furnish it. I love this stuff! What I will ask of you is that you keep it all in perspective and in a healthy balance. What defines you should not be your fancy new car, but your relationship to God. I realized that I had to keep my church self in balance when I went to Kenya on a mission trip during seminary. For three weeks I was a bonafide Christian disciple. I praised Jesus as my Lord and Savior, gave testimony after testimony, sat through one interminable worship service after another, preached, taught and prayed without ceasing. By the end of it I thought I was going to crack up. At the Nairobi airport on the way home I found my salvation—a Vogue magazine for which I gladly paid $17. All due high praise to Anna Wintour! While I would have never confessed this to my seminary classmates, I realized that reading fashion magazines represented another side of me I could not deny. I love fashion; I love shopping, oh, but I love God more.
The flip side of this is the person all consumed by their call to discipleship who loses perspective. In their passionate love for
Jesus and all things Jesus this person misdirects their call, possibly ignoring everything else going on around them. As contrary as this may sound, our discipleship energies may be fed and nurtured here but they do not begin and end here. What Jesus tells us in Luke is that there is a natural hierarchical order. God comes before all of our relationships, even our relationship to St. James’s. Yet at the same time, Jesus also commands us to love our neighbors as we do ourselves. My point is that we can become so focused on our love of God, and what we think fulfilled discipleship means, that we demean other people in the process. We forget that even though our earthly relationships are secondary to our relationship with God, they are nevertheless crucial to defining that relationship with God. And so we need church, a community of faith—to bring us to him through one another.
For me it all comes down this: Can we wholeheartedly love Jesus without feeling like we have to give away the store? Must wholeheartedly loving Jesus and bearing the cross for him mean forsaking our families and giving up all our possessions? I don’t believe so. We are directed to separate ourselves from these things only if they alienate us from God, if they dissipate our joy in Him. I believe choosing life over death requires knowing the difference between literally giving up everything we’ve got—and just plain giving everything we’ve got.