There are some weeks where it seems all the literalists and fundamentalists disappear from the church pews. One such week is when we read Jesus’ instruction to pluck out your eye or chop off your hand if it causes you to sin. Jesus doesn’t really mean that, of course.
One other such instance involves this week’s reading where Jesus says that to follow him requires people to “hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life.” Jesus doesn’t really mean that, of course.
But even that teaching can be swallowed by some. It’s how this passage ends that usually seals the deal when it comes to not taking Jesus literally. To cap off this section on what discipleship means Jesus says, “those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.”
Ok, Jesus. So, that excludes everyone. No one is left now.
Because Jesus is not just talking about the tangibles, but also the intangibles that we possess: our relationships, our pride, our self-worth, our need to be right. Everything.
Surely Jesus doesn’t mean that, of course.
A.J. Jacobs, a would-be social researcher who uses his body as his test subject, wrote about his journey to “live Biblically” for a year in his aptly titled book “The Year of Living Biblically.” (A great read, btw!) He starts with the Hebrew scriptures, piling on code after code and law after law, moving to the Gospels and letters, until he was trying to follow every ordinance and command in the scriptures.
His conclusion: everyone who claims the Christian faith is a “cafeteria Christian.” That is, every person of faith and faith community decides which sections of the scripture are central to the faith (and subsequently, for the faithful) and which ones are not, because one cannot follow all the commands and ordinances (especially the contradictory ones).
And, the Lutheran would add, the faithful shouldn’t even try. Because in the Lutheran cafeteria, that’s not the point of it all.
Let’s look at this gospel reading for this Sunday again. Embedded in this confusing reading (I mean, we don’t really like it when Jesus talks like this, do we?) is, what I think, a key verse for unbinding the reading from traditional interpretations that smack of moralistic code-following commands.
Look at that second little story, the one about the king counting his armed forces before heading to war. Jesus says: “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.”
I love this little Jesus insert. It seems really cut and dry, of course, like a moral tale about “counting the cost” as it were when it comes to following Jesus. Kind of like Jesus saying, “Are you prepared to lose it all? If not, ask for a peace deal.”
And let’s face it: we’re not prepared to lose it all. Peter thought he was. “Even if all the others desert you, I will not!” he confidently says in the Gospel of Matthew when it comes to facing the cross with Christ. The other disciples mumble similar affirmations as they all back away slowly into the foliage of the garden that fateful night.
We talk a big game, but we’re not prepared to lose it all. If we were really prepared to lose it all, then the Christian circles would be all atwitter (or, rather, on Twitter?) around this deal with 49ers would-be quarterback Colin Kaepernick, telling stories about how they, too, all swore off their allegiance to any flag directly after their baptism.
Can you be a Christian and salute the American flag? Depends, I guess. Do you take Jesus literally when he says you must give up everything?
That sort of nationalism is, after all, part of what is implied when Jesus tells his followers to “give up everything,” especially in the ancient world where family, tribe, and allegiance meant survival. Everything, Jesus says, even your other allegiances: family, country, all of it. So the Facebook post war going on between that uncle of yours and that sister-in-law over Kaepernick’s sitting out the national anthem takes on a new light when seen through this scripture reading if we’re taking in the context, right?
Are either of them willing to give up their ground? Should they?
So here’s the thing: we’re just not willing to give *everything* up. I’m not even sure we should be. I’m not even sure that’s what Jesus is actually intending here, (though it could be a valid interpretation!).
But here’s what I do think.
I think that, seeing that humanity is not willing to give everything up, and indeed will fight tooth and nail to keep their possessions and right opinions and all the things that we cling our hearts to in this world: relationships and flags and laws and ordinances and the need to be right and know that others are wrong, God sent out a peace delegation.
A peace delegation named Jesus. God looked at the field and saw that humanity would cut off their nose to spite their face and embodied a face to show it didn’t have to be that way.
And that Jesus, caught in the crossfire between factions of humanity needing to be right, gave up everything, including his life and his need to be right in the end, to show just how far God is willing to go for peace.
And maybe that’s what this little section of Luke is about. It is about knowing that the cost of discipleship will eventually take everything, and only God is willing and able to do that in the end.
And thank God for that. Because if it were up to us, we’d all lose out.
The cost of following Jesus is a cost that Jesus will bear, and we will benefit from, and though that peace is costly, God’s willing to spend it.
I still think we have to be wary of what we cling to in this world. Everything can become an idol, even our opinions, our flags, and our sense of pride, and our moral high ground on social media.
But I don’t worry that those idols will hold too much power in the end. I mean, I don’t actively try to worship them (and indeed, I keep my guard up!), but I also don’t think that even these things will keep God in Christ from continually seeking me out with that nail-pierced hand of peace.
Me with my right interpretations and opinions and moral high-ground. And you with yours.