September 4, 2016
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
Change is difficult. Even when we want change, it is hard. Several wise people have noted that quite often we only change when we are in enough pain that staying the same no longer feels like an option.
Following Jesus is a big change from ordinary, day to day, business as usual life. Take this morning’s reading:
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.
Can’t you just hear the television commentators? “Crazy preacher is anti-family!” “Whacko preacher trying to destroy the basis of society!”
This is the same Jesus who preached, in this same Gospel that divorce is equivalent to adultery. So we could say that Jesus wants us to stay married as long as we hate each other.
Such a dilemma is not unlike the man who wanted to know what the Bible had to say to him, so he opened it, flipped to a page and put his finger down. “…and [Judas] went and hanged himself.” (Matthew 25:5) Well, surely that wasn’t the answer God was giving him, so he tried it again. “Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” (Luke 10:37)
We hope that he, and we, find better ways of reading the Bible.
To be the church, we must read the Bible. But we must read it carefully. Interpret it with our mind as well as our heart, with an awareness of all the ways that it speaks, all the voices that it uses, all the genres and patterns that it comprises, and read it with an eye for Good News.
The word used in the Gospel does in fact mean “to hate.” But the use of exaggerated language is a common trait of teaching in Jesus’ day. So we can better understand this word to mean “to love less.”
But why family?
Jesus is not just talking about the people in our family, but the relationships. This is how they would have been seen in Jesus’ day.
Father and mother are those who come before his listeners. Growing up, they have power and authority over their children. In Jesus’ day, that authority could continue long after the child becomes an adult. They made the top ten list. “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”
Wives and children were seen as those below the male listeners. This is a patriarchal culture. In those days, men were seen as the moral agents, the teachers in the synagogue, the elders at the town gates. Women were to stay inside the home and take care of the family.
And this seems strange for Luke. Luke’s Gospel (including Luke 2.0: the Acts of the Apostles) includes women more than any of the other three. Luke has female disciples and women who help Jesus and later Paul. But in this speech, Jesus seems only to be addressing men, hence “wives and children.”
In our more careful reading of the Bible, it should be noted that this is not a “go thou and do likewise passage.” In fact, he is preaching about breaking this pattern.
Brothers and sisters would have been the closest to equals, but still under the authority of the father. And brothers would be over sisters, older would be over younger.
This is how society structured power and authority in Jesus’ day.
To no longer have to play the games of power and authority, either others over us, or us over others; that sounds a lot like liberation. Liberation for those below and for those above.
In his book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J. D. Vance writes about poor Kentucky, Appalachian whites who moved to Ohio to escape their poverty. They came from a place where the extended family is the support system. They move to a middle class area, where the nuclear family is considered normal. Extended family systems of support are diminished, and for the poor they are often replaced by government systems.
As the child of a dangerous mother, Vance discovers this. Tell the truth of what mom did and he will enter the foster system, completely cut off from his family. Or he can lie and he can live with his grandmother.
Vance does not shy away from describing the ways that the family brings with them the effects of alcoholism, poverty, trauma, and abuse.
We all have families. All families have dysfunction. In this light, loving God, trusting Jesus, more than the dysfunctions of our family of origin starts to sound like healing.
Jesus does not stop there. He goes on to say “yes, even life itself.” The Greek word here for life is psyche. It is the root word used in psychology. It has come to mean our emotional self, our persona, our mental state.
But here and elsewhere in the Bible it is translated as “life” or as “soul.” It is the word used in Greek to translate the Hebrew word nephesh, or totality of the Self. We might refer to it as our own personal trinity: body-mind-spirit.
It is the word we hear in Matthew:
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. — Matthew 11: 28-30
What does all this mean? I believe that following Jesus means we love our family (as best we are able), we love ourselves (as best we are able), we love our neighbor as ourselves (as best we are able). But none of these loves are primary.
The love that is primary is the love that loves without restriction, without reservation, without condition, without all the problems we have in loving. All of our loves grow out of the love God has for us. God’s love for us, known in Jesus Christ, knows us deeply, warts and all, and loves us deeply, warts and all. Far better than we are able to.
The warnings about carrying a cross, or estimating the cost of building the tower, or counting the troops before choosing to go to battle or sue for peace, are warnings that we are talking about important and difficult stuff. Following Jesus is not a hobby alongside other things. It is not a once and done walk with him one day. Following Jesus changes us, and does so because it must.
Finally, what this passage speaks to us is about
- loving God so much that it strengthens all the other loves in our lives;
- receiving so much love from God that all our other loves start to echo this divine love;
- and letting who we are and what we do be shaped by this love.
And this…well this starts to sound like the kingdom of God.
Thanks be to God.