Collect for Trinity XIII
STIR up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people, that richly bearing the fruit of good works,
we may by you be richly rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Jeremiah 18, Vv 1 - 11
Philemon Vv 1 - 21
St Luke 14, Vv 25 - 33
Some commentators have referred to the words of Jesus that we heard in our Gospel proclamation as, ‘the hard sayings’. If Saint Luke’s gospel is chronological in content, and he inferred that it was in his opening verses, then we are about half way through Jesus’ earthly ministry. By now he has his nucleus of twelve disciples well established. A few chapters earlier we can read of them being sent out, initiating in this activity, their future, post-resurrection lives as apostles. Later, in the same chapter, Luke gave some of the costs of following Jesus. In response to a number who were keen to follow him but had over-riding, worldly considerations, he said, ‘let the dead bury their own dead,’ and, ‘no-one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God’. In addition to the twelve, there were many hundreds and, indeed, thousands, of others who followed Our Lord wherever he travelled. Simple readings of the gospels tell us of the poverty and depravation that affected the lives of those Jews who lived in Palestine. We only have to observe the large numbers of poor, sick and hungry people who followed Jesus everywhere he went to appreciate their need for hope and leadership from this charismatic, itinerant teacher.
The first words of our Gospel told us, ‘Now large crowds were travelling with him’. It may be that the numbers of followers at times overwhelmed Jesus and perhaps interfered with his more intensive teaching of the twelve about the establishment of a kingdom of God on earth. Does this explain his use of the ‘hard sayings’ of which we heard? Jesus seemed keen to separate true believers from the multitude who only wanted to be fed and cured. These latter comprised those who cared not a jot for membership of a kingdom of God. No doubt there were devout Jews among them, people who kept the Law of Moses, the Torah. However, while they waited in painful anguish for the coming of the promised Messiah, they did not see in Jesus the fulfilment of that role. He had not come, as far as many of them knew, from King David’s city of Bethlehem; he originated in Nazareth, in Galilee, in the less cultured north. Jesus was not a latter-day King David, heading a powerful army to defeat the Romans. However, he was a captivating and compelling character, and he did heal the sick, drive out demons and feed the crowds when they were hungry. I feel sure that the attitude of many of the great crowds of followers was that they should get the most out of this man before he was painfully and irrevocably removed from society, as many of his predecessor, pretenders to Messiahship had been.
Does it not seem at first sight that Jesus went out of his way to dispel discipleship rather than make new converts to his kingdom? The first injunction that we heard was, ‘Whosoever 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’. But, just a minute; does this not contradict some other words given us by Saint Matthew? ‘But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you are liable to the hell of fire.’ Saint John, in his first Epistle General, used similar words, ‘All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them’. It can reasonably be argued that God does not contradict himself, and that goes for the Son of God, even when in his earthly, incarnate form. Has Jesus been misquoted by the evangelists in their gospels? We must remember that the earliest of these, thought to be that of Saint Mark, was not written until a generation after the events it purports to record. Saint Mark wrote his gospel, probably in Rome, and probably around AD65. Misquotation seems unlikely because Saint Matthew cites Jesus using similar words; ‘Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me’. So, should we hate our brothers and sisters, or love them? The simple answer is that we must love them, and love them dearly. But, what about Jesus? Yes, we must love him too. In fact, we must try to love him more than we love members of our families. That is what Jesus really meant in his tirade of angry words. We have to be prepared to put aside family relationships if they get in the way of our love for God. Let me give you a simple instance. How often have we said, or heard others say, ‘I couldn’t get to church on Sunday because I had my brother and his wife staying with me’. These visitors may, of course be other family members, or friends or acquaintance. What we should have said instead, to our visitors, was, ‘I am going to church on Sunday, as usual; you may accompany me or amuse yourselves elsewhere’. That’s the way we should put our love for God before our love for our family members.
Jesus then told his listeners that, ‘whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple’. Again Saint Matthew parallels this saying, with, ‘whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me’. What are we to understand by this? Condemned criminals were all too often seen in the act of carrying a cross, usually the horizontal beam against which the arms and shoulders were fastened or nailed. These evil felons, invariably guilty of some heinous crime, had to suffer the indignity of carrying their crosses through the streets of the town on their way to the site of crucifixion. We may suppose that Jesus is not suggesting that we should become criminals, such that we suffer the severest penalties of the law. The word cross in this context can be taken to mean suffering. To bear ones cross means to be willing to suffer for the sake of Jesus. As I have mentioned already, the Jews of Jesus’ time, under bondage to a foreign power, were waiting in eager anticipation for the coming of the Messiah, a Messiah promised for the best part of a thousand years by seer, sage and prophet. The crowds that milled around Jesus and followed him everywhere, even into the desert when he wanted to be so desperately alone, were expecting this Messiah. Yet Jesus, the man they followed, was not the Messiah that they were expecting. He had not come to lead an army to defeat the Romans; he had not even come to restore the Jewish nation to its former glories. Jesus had come to enter into a new covenant with God’s chosen people; he came to build a new Kingdom of God on earth. This was, however, not what the populace at large wanted of him. They wanted to be led and fed, they wanted to be guided and supported, they wanted to be all of these things, but from an entirely earthly perspective. These diseased, deprived and disadvantaged people wanted earthly possessions; Jesus wanted to give them heavenly, spiritual things. They certainly did not want to carry crosses or suffer for the sake of this man. Hence the misunderstandings; hence the sharp words of Jesus to some of his followers.
Immediately after his ‘hard sayings’, Jesus told his listeners that they must prepare for the kingdom that he and the Father were preparing for them. His first example involved the building of a tower. If you are going to build a tower, Jesus said, then carry out the cost estimating processes accurately. Thereby you will establish whether you have sufficient funds to complete the project. Once the foundations are laid, then ridicule will follow if you are unable to finish the building. We could perhaps ask why this salutary dictum is not much in evidence in the many building projects that we hear about in our times; projects that don’t reach their conclusions, or take longer than expected, or are completed, but seriously over-budget. Perhaps the constraints on financial control were different in our Lord’s time. Finally, we heard about the king who would engage in war with another nation. He must assess the strength of his forces. He must also ascertain, as far as possible, the strength of the opposition. If he has ten thousand troops and the opposing army has twenty thousand, then he must carefully consider his chances of success. Military campaigns are not always won by the greatest numbers; tactics and strategies are of equal importance. However, if the king thinks that he cannot win then he should send a delegation to sue for peace, before he is destroyed in the inevitable blood-bath. Both of these parables tell us to be prepared before we commit ourselves to becoming members of the kingdom of God; it is not something to be undertaken lightly or indiscriminately.
Finally, in our reading, we heard Jesus say, ‘So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions’. This seems a strange statement with which to conclude; after all, there has been nothing in the foregoing about possessions. We heard about family relationships; carrying our cross, if only metaphorically; building a tower and going to war. Did Jesus really expect his disciples to give up all their possessions? Saint Peter once made the claim that he had left everything and followed Jesus, a statement reported in all three synoptic gospels. However, he said that he had left everything, not that he had given up everything. Some possessions were, of course, essential, and these were not necessarily of the meanest and lowliest quality. Jesus owned a coat, woven in one piece from top to bottom; or so we are told in the crucifixion narratives. This may have been a gift from an admirer, but it was no ordinary garment. No, I don’t think we are expected to give up all of our possessions, certainly not this side of the grave. Again, as we have seen, this is all about the ownership of worldly possessions that may get in the way of our understanding of the kingdom of God. Like family relationships, our possessions must not become all pervasive; they must not keep us from a deep and true love of our Saviour.
So, all-in-all we have a difficult Biblical passage to ponder on for the rest of the week. It did contain some ‘hard sayings’ but I think that, by teasing the texts, we have managed to throw some light upon them. The easiest way to remember the salient teaching of today’s Gospel may be to employ the acronym JOY. We are to keep in mind that the first letter ‘J’ stands for Jesus, the second ‘O’ for Others, and the final ‘Y’ for Yourselves. If we let this simple set of rules govern our lives then we shall not go far wrong in becoming members of the kingdom of God.
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