Deut 30:15-20, Luke 14:25-33
‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes even life itself, cannot be my disciple.’ What on earth are we to make of words like that.
I come to this story with two assumptions.
First, that we can’t just try to explain Jesus words away because we don’t like them. We have to take what he said seriously, even if that makes us deeply uncomfortable, and we can’t pick and choose the bits we think are nice, and listen to them, and ignore anything that isn’t quite so ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’.
Secondly, his words cannot mean that Jesus wants us to start despising those that are closest to us - this is not a charter for all out family war. It is not possible that Jesus spoke of love, kindness and forgiveness throughout his ministry, and then landed something completely contradictory on his listeners. Nor is it possible that Jesus had a bad day when he went off-message. Nor could Jesus, who was so soaked in the Scriptures, and who knew so God intimately, have suddenly decide that the commandments to honour your Father and Mother and to love those around you were wrong. His words are saying something else, something richer and deeper.
Whenever we come up against passages like this, it’s worth trying to understand what things were like when Jesus was talking. The Middle East 2000 years ago was not the same as 21st century Britain, and it’s easy for us to misunderstand, by missing the context.
In Jesus’ world, the family was everything - so much so that who you were was defined by your family. The modern Western sense of ourselves as a unique individual, with gifts and talents, strengths and weaknesses, simply didn’t exist. You were who you were because of your family. Who you were, we might say, was defined more by your surname than your first name. And people didn’t leave their families to go off to University, or to set up home somewhere else. The family was what gave you your identity, and you were with them for life.
So when Jesus calls people to follow him, and to leave their families, it’s not like someone being offered a gap-year. Jesus is asking for them, in effect, to leave their family and join another one. That was deeply shocking, and meant cutting yourself off from everything - including social connections, income and work. In this context, hating your family isn’t about having angry feelings towards your rellies, it’s about who you really belong to. Jesus is not telling his followers to go and start being mean to their nearest and dearest. He is telling them what it will be like if they choose come with him.
You know those full page adverts for holidays that you see in the weekend newspaper supplements. Imagine there’s one for a beautiful cruise. The image is of a pristine white liner cutting its way through iridescent blue waters, with nothing in the sky but a big warm sun. And the price is incredibly reasonable. So you book your place and start choosing your outfits.
When the time comes and you walk on board though, things aren’t quite so lovely as you expected. The boat looks more like a cargo ship than a luxury liner, and the smells from the kitchen seem rather…basic…And then, when you’re given a hard hat and thick gloves and told to pick up the heavy rope you can see, it becomes very clear that this holiday is not quite what had been advertised. You have been duped.
Jesus is not going to dupe anyone. He isn’t trying to sell anything or to entice anyone. He wants us to know what it means to be his follower. Notice in the story that Jesus makes a difference between those who ‘come to him’ and those who will be his disciple. ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate his family, cannot be my disciple’. Many came out to listen to Jesus, to see what this man, who was the talk of the town, was really like. They had heard people speaking of miracles and amazing stories, and they wanted to find out more. Think of the 5,000 that were fed, the crowds that were so big Jesus had to get into a boat on the lake to be able to speak to them, the hordes who pressed around him so tightly that the woman with a haemorrhage couldn’t get to talk to him. Thousands and thousands came to see him. And he fed them, healed them and shared his wisdom with them.
How many were there on the day he died?
It’s easy to come to Jesus. It’s harder to follow.
Jesus wants those who get to know him to understand what the next step means. He wants us to know that there is a difference between getting to know him, and deciding to follow him.
Because following Jesus means being ready to let go of those things that we love most. It means being willing to invest our trust in him - not in the gods that surround us and call us to follow them. Jesus wants us to know that the road he will walk is tough and difficult. He is not dangling some kind of offer in front of us - sign up with me and get a free gift. We are not Christians because we are promised success, wealth, health or happiness by Jesus. We follow Jesus because he is the only one who can offer forgiveness and wholeness of life. Because he is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Because he is Lord.
And following him means having to get things in the right order. Jesus is Lord and everything else follows from that. Our possessions are not our lord. Our money is not our lord. Our work is not our lord. Our family is not our lord. Even our family. Even those people that we love most in the whole world cannot ultimately provide us with what we need most deeply. Because they are not the ones who created the Universe, or who restore our relationship with God, or who watch over us without sleeping or giving up. Our families are wonderful gifts. But they are not God. Only God is God, and if we want to really follow him, we will need to learn that.
And following Jesus won’t be easy - because standing against evil isn’t easy. Because loving our neighbour as ourself isn’t easy. Because learning to see our possessions as a gift, to be used for the glory of God and his kingdom, isn’t easy. Because forgiving seventy times 7 isn’t easy.
‘Choose life’, says our first reading. It’s a choice. God will never manipulate us, con us or lead us up the garden path. Following Jesus is a choice, and it’s one we have to make every day. It will mean letting go of things that are important to us. Even things that we think are essential to us, and he wants us to know that. But we only let go, so that he can take charge, and lead us on a journey to the kingdom.
So choose life.