Pentecost 16: 4 September Luke 14:25-33
This passage offends against the values which most people hold dear. Worse than that, it offends against the love commandment by enjoining hate. Matthew’s version sanitises the saying by converting ‘hate’ to ‘love less’. What was Jesus up to? He comes through as something of a loose cannon, firing off shots in all directions without much concern for the consequences. This does not match the Jesus we find elsewhere. But before we ‘tame’ the saying, we do well to reel a little more in shock. It is shocking and doubtless intended to be shocking.
Why the dynamite? What is in need of such a blast? Clearly the assumption is that the object to be dislodged will take some moving. That object is family power. Family power and control which will not release from its womb, but has become a cage, a prison, but more often a comfortable and secure place in which to turn aside from one’s potential and the world’s challenge. The voice of Jesus articulates human need - one’s own and that of others - and calls people to discipleship. Discipleship means a relationship of learning and growth with Jesus as the teacher and God as God, not family.
Domestication confines religion to the domus, the home and family. In Jesus’ teaching we regularly meet challenges directed against so-called family values. To read Jesus as enjoining literal hatred of one’s family is to miss the point and mishear the rhetoric. But such shocking rhetoric reflects a view that families can constrict growth, become oppressive demons, and bring death rather than life. According to Mark, Jesus’ own (family) though he was mad and sought in their terms to rescue him (3:20-21, 31-35).
People today can recite a range of experiences about family demonics. Sometimes it is blatant abuse, whether by parent of child or among siblings or in marriage. Sometimes the destructiveness is more ‘innocent’: the peace and ‘goodness’ of family has suppressed self exploration and generation of self worth to the point where long after their passing the parents, internalised, continue to dictate terms and only with careful therapy can the soul find release. Sometimes it is much bigger than personal freedom and manifests itself in closed minds, eyes trained not to see, ears not to hear, lives self-preoccupied with often a kind of private goodness but no heart for compassion and justice in the world. Sometimes family has simply been one player in a social conspiracy which has written a gendered script which waits to be torn up. Dethroning such gods brings trauma for all concerned; it means giving up what has been ‘one’s own life’ in order to find oneself (and find others).
Radical change of this kind (for it, too, is what is meant by ‘repentance’) is not left in a vacuum, but directional. It has a direction, a goal, a God. That God is a god of journey and that goal can mean the way of suffering. ‘Taking up the cross’ might allude to the dedication shown by revolutionaries prepared to die for their cause. Set in the Christian story the expression finds its exposition in the life and death of Jesus. It is not a call to fanaticism with narrowed vision riding roughshod over people for its cause, but a radical inclusiveness prepared to stand up and be counted and face the consequences.
"Hating" family and "denying" self are closely related. Ultimately Jesus' appeal is not to ignore people's interest but to appeal to them. You want real profit? You want real life? Then follow me. This means abandoning those constructions of yourself which pit you against others to your advantage. Applied to family, this equally demands abandoning family constructions which are destructive and unhealthy and embracing constructions of oneself and one's family which affirm life and hope and love.
After these two striking sayings Luke brings two stories which we might subsume under ‘strategic planning’. The call of the gospel invites people to think hard about what they are doing, using as much common sense as a builder or as a king preparing for battle. Notice the shame culture at work: people will say he began but could not complete his tower. The motivation given in the illustrations is not the main point. The point is that in such situations people need to know what they are doing. Luke draws it together with Jesus’ words: ‘So then any of you who does not take leave of all your possessions cannot be my disciple.’
It is as much about letting go of possessions as letting go of being possessed by them. Jesus regularly associated family power with possession power, because both belonged together. One of the reasons for family power was protection of possessions. Letting go of being possessed does often mean letting go of possessing others. How many spouses have found this so in what might at first have seemed abandonment. One act of liberation creates other acts of liberation or can do. For some the thought of no longer being possessed is so scary that any such talk sends anxieties through the roof and may evoke violent responses.
The call to discipleship is not an ancient form of ‘doing your own thing’ or finding true happiness in spontaneous self fulfilment adrift of all others’ claims and free of care. On the contrary it is a call to be on the journey, which in Luke’s gospel has been symbolically underway since 9:51 and will lead to Jerusalem. It cannot compete with the ‘feel good’ philosophies of modern or ancient times. It is an invitation to engagement in radically inclusive love, living from the life of the God of love, and living in solidarity with all who share that love. So it’s not just about me; it’s about us and it’s about them. Ultimately it is also about family, but from a radically different perspective which turns much of what goes for family love upside down and meets family as persons with the distance and intimacy which is appropriate, undeified and dedemonised.
Epistle: Pentecost 16: 4 September Philemon 1-21