A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr C ~ Pentecost 13 ~ Luke 14:25-33
It doesn’t mean what you think it means, but then again, it kind of does, but not in the way it appears to be. In fact, it’s much heavier than it seems, and may even be harder than you think. But ultimately that’s better than what it looks like.
Confused? You aren’t alone!
This passage of scripture delivers a vitally important spiritual teaching, but the language the translators chose has served us poorly. I’d argue that this has become among the most misunderstood passages in the New Testament, and that’s a shame – because it’s so vital! So my task today is to help you get past what it says and help you see what it means!
It begins by saying, Luke 14:25, that “large crowds were travelling with Jesus.”
Wouldn’t we love that?! Isn’t that our fondest wish? – that big crowds would turn up here at Faith United, and that the message of God’s love that we celebrate could be shared with more and more people, and together we’d live out that love in tangible ways. The more the merrier, right?
Well, apparently not for Jesus. The big crowd is following him and it says that he turns to them and basically tries to talk them out of it – or at least give them a serious reality check.
Consider the crowd.
Something has stirred their imaginations.
Something has inspired them to step away from whatever had their attention and give it to Jesus for a bit.
Something has drawn them to Jesus.
They’re hungry and thirsty for something more, Something More, and they wonder if Jesus has it, or can point the way to it.
Of course he can – but before he does he wants to tell them that this Way he offers is not a simple and easy Way that you can put on or take off like a fall sweater. You can’t just take it or leave it. You can’t just plug into it for an hour or so on a Sunday morning and be done with it. Jesus tells them that there’s a cost to following, and the cost is very high.
No, it’s not money.
And it’s also not what verses 26 and 33 say it is. We have inherited translations that frankly mislead us and give people entirely the wrong idea.
Luke 14:26 Jesus says, “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.”
And hundreds, thousands, millions of people say, “Excuse me? What the? I’m supposed to hate my family and my life? That’s idiotic! Christianity is stupid.”
And they’d be completely correct – if that’s what it said – but it absolutely doesn’t say that!
The Greek word translated as hate does not mean what we generally understand it to mean. The choice of words leads us completely in the wrong direction. We hear hate and we think ‘bad feelings, intense and passionate dislike’. So, to follow Jesus means to have to intensely and passionately dislike your kin? No, no, no!
The word actually means ‘to hold one thing in less esteem than another – elevating one value over another’.
It’s still immensely challenging, but it has nothing to do with hate.
In fact, it actually means to continue to hold those things like family and whatnot in fantastically high value and esteem, but to hold one’s relationship with the holy mystery we call God in even higher esteem – the highest value.
Look, it’s not an either/or situation. It’s not a binary choice. It’s a both/and – but Jesus does point to a primacy.
Here’s my favourite example to try to explain this.
Our relationship with God comes before all else in the same way that if you were in a plane and there was trouble the first thing you’re instructed to do is, what? Yes, it’s to tend to your own self and put your own air mask on before you try to do anything else or help anyone else. Even if your parent, your sibling, your child, your favourite person in the world, is sitting beside you – a person you love with all your heart – you’re still supposed to put your own mask on first – because if your core need isn’t tended to first you can’t actually help anyone else.
Jesus is saying the same thing.
If you attend to your relationship with God as your primary focus then you will actually be empowered to love all your other loves with greater power, and joy, and compassion, and fullness. Loving God first actually helps you love everyone and everything else more than you ever could on your own.
So instead of communicating a false thing about needing to hate anyone before you can follow Jesus, what the words actually say is that love of God needs to be the utter and primary foundation for discipleship.
Then Jesus punctuates it with a reference to carrying the cross. This is not necessarily foreshadowing. Crucifixion was a very present and very real threat for the Jews in Jesus’ time.
Carrying a cross meant you were about to die. There’s no turning back. It’s about finality and utter commitment.
Again, we’re not talking about slipping a cardigan on and off. We’re talking about giving one’s all.
Then Jesus gives examples to help this crowd of curious, would-be followers understand that before one undertakes such an all-encompassing journey one really must understand its scope, and be prepared for it.
You don’t start a home renovation project without first figuring whether your budget allows for it. (I’m going to come back to that image in a minute.) Jesus says that if you were to do such a thing you’d be setting yourself up for ridicule.
Here’s a real life example. Near where I live a retail company built a massive warehouse style store and when it was completed they figured out that opening it didn’t actually make economic sense. It sat idle and empty for years. Foolish!
That seems pretty clear. But what we miss is the subtle teaching Jesus is actually giving.
He says, Luke 14:30 “This person began to build and was not able to finish.” He’s actually talking about the building up of a person – spiritually – and the not finishing part means not making whole, not completing the work, not bringing it to maturity.
Why? Because the person didn’t understand the scope of the challenge, and didn’t commit.
Then Jesus gives an example about a king waging war with another king and deciding whether to fight or negotiate a settlement. But again, this isn’t literally about us picking fights – it’s about how when we approach a challenge one must face it thoughtfully and fully understanding the situation.
He’s talking about grasping the cost of discipleship – what it takes to follow his Way.
And what does it take?
Luke 14:33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
And again, the English language tragically lets us down and causes us to miss the point.
It sounds like Jesus is saying that following him means we have to give up all our stuff. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got some nice stuff! I don’t want to give it away!
Thankfully, that’s a poor translation. Well, it’s not so much that it’s translated incorrectly, but we tend to hear it too narrowly and literally.
The Greek word rendered as “give up” here is apostasso – where we also get the word ‘apostasy’ from.
Apostasy is usually used when talking about a person falling away from their faith – as in, they once held it dear, but now they’ve let it go, and don’t pay much attention to it.
When it comes to faith, falling away or letting it go are negative things.
But when it comes to the grip we have on our possessions – or the grip our possessions have on us! – falling away or letting go of that grip is a very positive thing!
So what Jesus is saying is that you can’t be a follower of his Way if your life remains centred around and driven by the accumulation of stuff.
It’s not giving away your stuff; it’s falling away from your fixation and obsession with stuff.
But wait, there’s more!
It’s not even actually about stuff!
The word translated as ‘possessions’ here isn’t about material things – it’s much deeper than that.
The word is more about your being, your ‘self’, your existence. It literally means ‘all that one already is, all that pre-exists, all that is currently under your discretion’. Your possessions aren’t what you own; they’re what you have agency over and choose to give attention to.
So put all that together.
“Therefore, none of you can be my disciple if you do not fall away from and let go of the things that have captured your attention and diverted it from deeper things.”
That’s a very different interpretation than the so-called plain words convey.
Jesus is not telling us that following him is an impossible task.
But he is telling us, pointedly, about the need for us to be all in.
That’s what this whole sermon has been about – trying to correct a wrong impression given by words like ‘hate your family’ and ‘give up all your possessions’.
Jesus says it has to be God first but that doesn’t mean we’re supposed to go around constantly talking about God all the time, with every conversation peppered with religious talk, and every idle thought trying to be holy.
It’s more like what happens with a computer’s operating system. The “God thing” is supposed to be our operating system. Then, on top of that operating system we run all our programs – built upon that operating system, deriving their shape and power from it. But with a computer you don’t constantly have to dwell on your operating system. It runs in the background. It underpins everything, but on a certain level you are totally oblivious to it. (Except, of course, when it wants to update!)
Let me give you two last images to try to sum this all up. Earlier I talked about a home renovation and how you have to budget it out before you start. Let’s take that one step further.
Not only do you have to plan ahead, you also have to let go of what was in order to enter into the new thing.
You can’t keep it how it was if you really want a renovation.
You have to let that go.
If everything stays the same in your life you aren’t actually renovating anything, are you.
And if you’ve ever lived through a home renovation you’ll know that while it’s in progress things can be very messy! That’s your life when you let Jesus lead and let the Holy Spirit start renovating. Things are gonna change (for the better), and it’ll probably be messy and uncomfortable for a while.
Here’s the other image.
Picture a lake. And a lovely dock. And now a boat.
Jesus is in the boat.
He says, “Follow me!”
That means you have to get in the boat.
That means you have to step off the dock.
You think that sounds great, so you put one foot in the boat – but you’re not totally sure about it – it’s a big deal, it’s a big commitment, the shore is so nice, and safe, and known, and you’re not sure where the boat is actually going to sail, or what your task on the boat is going to be, or, or, or…
So you decide to keep one foot on the dock.
How’s that going to turn out?
What’s going to happen to you?
“Whoever does not allow God to be their operating system cannot be my disciple.
Whoever invites me in for a renovation and does not want me to make any changes cannot be my disciple.
Whoever comes to me and is not willing to loosen their grip on the things that have previously preoccupied them cannot be my disciple.
No one can follow me if they insist on keeping one foot on the dock.”
With Jesus you have to go all in.
Otherwise, if you try to keep one foot on the dock, you’re going to end up all in – the lake!
And so that’s where I’ll leave you – standing on the dock.
Jesus’ boat is waiting.
And the choice is ours.