Friday, 3 September 2010

Notes for 5-9-10

Luke 14: 25-33
‘Anyone who does not hate their mother, father, sister and brother cannot be my follower’.
Sometimes what Jesus says is so shocking that we might wonder whether we’ve heard it right. Jesus telling us to hate?

My daughter Ellie happened to be in earshot as I was looking up the lectionary readings and heard me say “Oh boy!” – so wanted to know what I was reading. I read the gospel reading to her and her response was ‘Well then, Jesus is going to get some very strange people as followers”. If we take Jesus literally I think she’s right – only those who have been very damaged and hurt are usually in a position to say that they hate all their immediate family.

So what is Jesus doing? What does he mean? Well, for a start he’s got us thinking and like any good Jewish rabbi he does that by shaking us out of our complacent rut and saying what we least expect to hear.

All of Jesus’ listeners would have grown up with a good knowledge of the law: even in 21st century Britain most people will know that the 10 commandments are about love, not hate and the more diligent might even know that ‘Honour your father and your mother’ is one of those commandments. The whole commandment is actually “Honour your father and your mother that your days may be long in the land which I am giving to you, says the Lord”. I grew up with my father shortening that slightly to ‘honour your father and your mother that your days may be long’…I think he was joking.

Jesus himself, called upon on another occasion to state which law was most important, summarises the whole of the law as ‘Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and love your neighbour as yourself’.
It’s hard to think that Jesus means us to love our neighbours and hate our families – but there it is:
‘Anyone who does not hate their mother, father, sister and brother cannot be my follower’.

I cannot imagine that Jesus’ first hearers took that in their stride anymore than we can. Hate – not love?? What is Jesus saying?

We have other examples of Jesus using this sort of exaggeration, often used by rabbis, ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven’, ‘whoever would take the speck of sin from his brother’s eye should first take the plank from his own’. As stand-up comedy goes I’ve never found it laugh-out-loud funny, but the absurd images do help you to sit up and take notice. So maybe Jesus is using the extreme and exaggerated word ‘hate’ to have the same effect.
‘Anyone who does not hate their mother, father, sister and brother cannot be my follower’ – is an exaggerated way of saying that following Jesus comes first, even above family loyalty or responsibility.

It seems that Jesus had encountered some people who used the commandment to honour their parents as an excuse to get out of the things they didn’t want to do. If a neighbour asked for help with his roof, they might say ‘I can’t help you with repairing your roof, I have to visit my parents – and love your parents is a commandment of God’. But if these people were ready to use loving their parents as an excuse for not following Jesus – not trying to love and serve God, Jesus says ‘hate them!’. In other words Jesus says ‘Don’t put them first in front of everything else in life, including doing what God wants you to do’.
To those who would use the law about honouring family as an excuse to down-grade their discipleship of Jesus, he warns that following must come first.
On another occasion Jesus uses the parable of those called to a banquet (the banquet of the kingdom of God) who give excuses not to come. Again these are excuses which have their origins in the law. One man says “I cannot come – I have just been married”: using as his excuse the teaching from Deuteronomy (24:5) that no responsibilities should be placed upon a Jewish man in the first year of his marriage.

So Jesus, in the parable and in today’s teaching, is warning his listeners against twisting the law to their own purposes. Following Jesus, doing God’s will, being part of God’s rule on earth must come first – this must be the top priority. The law is meant to make this easier, not to get in the way.

But what about us? Jesus wants us to sit up and listen, too – it’s no good relegating Jesus’ words to statements meant to shock and discomfort and challenge other people.
‘Anyone who does not hate their mother, father, sister and brother cannot be my follower’ : what does this say to us?

Jesus isn’t telling us to revert to that stage of life when we could quite cheerfully say “I hate you!” to someone (I have 2 older brothers – I know what I’m talking about!). Jesus is telling us that whatever our excuses and whatever our other priorities, following Jesus and walking in God’s way must come first. And if the shock of ‘Anyone who does not hate their mother, father, sister and brother cannot be my follower’ is wearing off, here’s another shocking statement from Jesus: ‘Whoever does not give up all their possessions cannot be a follower of mine’.

Now, hang on, Jesus! I might understand that ‘hating’ my family is an exaggerated way of telling me not to use my family loyalty as an excuse for half-heartedly following you. But giving up all my stuff? I need my home, my clothes, my creature comforts. I love my MacBook.. and I’d really like a new iPad…
So maybe this is the challenge to me – to all of us.
We’re unlikely to use loyalty to the law and honour of our parents as an excuse to be half-hearted. But if Jesus is asking us to put him first, it means above earning a large income, or having all the things we want, about doing exactly as we please. Now Jesus has really made us sit up and listen – using words like ‘hate’ and ‘give up’ and even ‘take up your cross’.

Jesus isn’t messing around – he is serious about giving up everything – even life itself. We know that this is the way Jesus is walking – and so if we are to follow we need to be just as serious about self-giving and self-sacrifice. Serious – but not gloomy, because we know the way of Jesus doesn’t end at the cross. His life was given up to be restored in the power of the resurrection. In the end, Jesus doesn’t ask us to end our life to follow him, but to join all our lives in his eternal life. To place Jesus first in life is to know life not extinguished, but renewed, fulfilled and blessed.

So as we take this bread and wine we join our lives to the life of the kingdom, through Jesus: with no confusion, no excuses and no fear.
Thanks be to God for this gift beyond words. Amen.

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