A Provocation: Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 4, 2016): Luke 14:25-33

Luke 14:25-33

14:25 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them,

14:26 “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.

14:27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

14:28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?

14:29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him,

14:30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’

14:31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?

14:32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.

14:33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

A Question or Two:

  • Hate?
  • Any possibility of a discount?

Some Longer Reflections:

Whatever we do with the business about hating “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even life itself,” the two most notable options (1. to discount “hate” down to “treat as relatively less important;” or, 2. to join a cult, abandon family, thus actually hating them) are illuminating.  And disturbing.

Of the two, the first is more disturbing, since it takes harsh words about discipleship (whatever that actually means) and makes them into smooth words about mild middle-class commitment.  At least the harsh words fit into the clashing images that follow.  The smooth words fit best into the suburbs.  Oh well.

The most important words in this strange torrent of demands are the words about “carrying the cross.”

These, too, have been translated into a call to go to church, donate to good causes, and annoy other people by being aggressively religious.  But this translation ignores what these words will have meant when Jesus said them and when Luke’s storyteller performed them.

When these words were spoken and performed, they were not metaphors even for radical discipleship.  Back when I was in graduate school, my advisor (Donald Juel) asked me to search through all the ancient Greek texts that had been digitized and trace down every use of “cross-bearing” as a metaphor for discipleship.

So I did.

There are none.

Not until after the career of Jesus, anyhow.  And even then it took a long time before the idea of carrying a cross could be anything other than a horrifying prelude to an actual execution.  (In a related note, ancient Christians were also extremely reluctant even to portray Jesus on a cross, with such portrayals waiting centuries before they became common.)

Crucifixion was not capital punishment, applied to punish murder and other extraordinary cruelty.  Crucifixion was a tool Rome used to break the will of conquered people, in this case, the Jewish population of the eastern Mediterranean.  It taught a simple lesson: Rome is willing to do anything (with no limits or exceptions) to hold power.  To this end they crucified thousands of people.  Random application of such a penalty would, of course, improve the learning of this lesson (think “operant conditioning” and B.F. Skinner).  That means that the only instance of “cross-bearing” in the gospels (other than Jesus) is especially terrifying.  When Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry the cross on which Jesus would die, he would have assumed that he, himself, would be crucified.  And he was just coming in from the country.  His sons, named by the storyteller, would never know what had happened to him.

So, what does the storyteller mean when we are told that Jesus made “cross-bearing” the single identifier of those who would be his disciples?

I do not know.

Neither do you.

This isn’t the sort of thing one CAN know, and then be done thinking about.

These words shake the earth.  If they don’t shake you, you aren’t listening.

And none of us knows what they mean.

So allow me to pretend that I know.

The crucifixion parade was intended to teach every would-be faithful Jew to say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”  That is what we give ourselves (the grace of God) as a consolation prize when we realize that we do not have the courage to snatch the Romans’ victim out of their hands.  Because, of course, we could have done that.  Rome had plenty of soldiers, but they would not have devoted a great many of them to object-lesson executions.  The crowd could, in fact, have grabbed the poor unfortunate victim and run away.  But then, of course, the larger Roman force would have entered the game, and many more people would have been crucified.  But at the moment the crucifixion parade passed through the streets of the city, all that Rome cared about was that all the would-be patriots who liked to imagine themselves as heroes would realize that they lacked the courage to do anything except look away.  People who have realized their own cowardice need a consolation prize.  “There, but for the grace of God,” they said, and felt better.  Sort of.

I have heard people (myself included) talk about the grace of God lately.

Sometimes it has been in the context of major theological pronouncements.

Other times it has been in the context of murders committed by law enforcement officers  in the course of traffic stops or other random encounters.  “It could have been me,” we say, knowing that it wasn’t.  “There but for the grace of God….”  I have read those words also in the silence that follows the revelation that segregation continues in both housing and schools, with both houses and schools not just separate, but markedly inferior.  “There, but for the grace of God,” we say.

I imagine that God might be weary of having the “grace of God” linked to our racist resistance to being connected with our neighbors.

So maybe, just maybe, these harsh words about “cross-bearing” are a call to do what Simon of Cyrene did.  Once he picked up the cross, it wasn’t clear to anyone how the day would end.  It was only clear that his future was bound up with the future of the poor, unfortunate person who could no longer carry the weight of the cross.

Maybe that is what discipleship is now.  Maybe it is what it always was.


6 thoughts on “A Provocation: Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 4, 2016): Luke 14:25-33

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