The Gospel reading for the Twenty Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, Luke 14:25-37, is one of those passages that I just ache to cut down to size, to make certain that it says something more palatable, easier to handle, than what it seems to be saying. Jesus speaks to a crowd: “now large crowds were traveling with him; 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” (14:25-26 NRSV). Hate your family? Hate life itself? In what way do these teachings agree with the command to honor your parents or God’s desire that we share in the goodness of creation? It is possible to deal with the word “hate” in a reasonable manner; most scholars understand that the use of hate indicates a comparative, along the lines of saying, “you must love me more than father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself.” Fair enough, but it does not seem to leave us on easy street: Jesus demands our allegiance, beyond that given to family and even this good life. If you want to be Jesus’ disciple, then you have to be all in. Where the demands of the goods of this life, including family, conflict with the commands of Jesus and his teachings, Jesus comes first. This is not a soft saying, even if we soften the meaning of “hate.”
The teachings that follow are also fascinating, though, and I think often lost in the first two verses, which always spin my head as I seek an escape clause for true discipleship. Jesus gives a couple of examples to the crowds following him, at least quasi-disciples or wannabe-disciples at this point. He tells the crowds that they must be prepared to “carry the cross,” which even if the followers did not understand in light of the implications for Jesus himself at this point would have understand in the context of the nature of crucifixion in general. A disciple of Jesus would have to give up everything to follow him. The next two examples, though, I think, pertain more to Jesus himself than to his followers, that is, I think he is telling them why it is essential that he have disciples willing to give up everything.
He gives the example of a person who builds a tower, but runs out of money when the foundation is complete; it is necessary to calculate the full cost in advance to know whether you can finish your task, for if you fall short you will be subject to ridicule. In the same way, a king going into battle must know whether his army of 10,000 can do battle with an army of 20,000; if they cannot the king will sue for terms of peace. These examples might be applied to the possible disciples, to have them search themselves to see if they are prepared to give everything up, but I think that they could easily apply to the master-builder or the king, who must know that as he builds and as he leads that each disciple is in for the long haul. He cannot build the kingdom of God or fight the powers of destruction without followers who will give all to the task at hand.
The section ends with this saying of Jesus: “so therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (14:33). I know that “possessions” might mean different things in different contexts to different people. In Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, the wealthy developer Tom White tells Paul Farmer that he would like to come to Haiti as a missionary, but Farmer’s medical work is being funded through Partners in Health which in turn was funded to a large degree by Tom White. Farmer says to White, “in your case that would be a sin.” The issue is not so much that we are all called to live in poverty, by throwing our possessions, like St. Francis, out the window or retreating to the desert, like St. Anthony, but that all of our possessions, our talents, our heart, our being, are ready to build and willing to do battle for the only kingdom that matters. I am not certain how well or how often I am able to meet these demands because as simple as they are, they are not easy.
John W. Martens