Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27)
I love horses. (I love dogs and cats too, but I can’t ride on them!) I used to do quite a lot of horseback riding in my younger days, and I’ve always been fascinated by the way horses communicate with each other. Recently, my esteemed colleague, Pastor Ben, shared with me a “horse whisperer” insight about the way horses welcome a new member into the herd. It seems that the “Alpha Horse” (and a horse becomes an “alpha,” according to horse expert Monty Roberts, by demonstrating a concern for the well-being of the rest of the herd) confronts the new critter by staring him down face-to-face. If the new horse acts submissive, the alpha will turn his head to the side as a sign of welcome. By repeating a little dance of alternating confrontation and welcome, the horses slowly create family relationships.
That’s kind of what Jesus does. When we encounter Jesus in the Gospels, he alternately confronts and welcomes us as a way of making us part of the herd—the family of God. In the Gospel lesson chosen for Pentecost Sixteen in the Revised Common Lectionary, Jesus is doing his confrontational thing, and it’s pretty uncomfortable stuff. I mean, what’s all this jazz about hating your parents, your family, and life itself in order to be his disciple (v. 26)? Who wants to obey that..? I know I sure as heck don’t!
So what do we do with this passage? The easiest thing might be to pretend it’s not in the Bible, or think that Jesus is just having a bad day when he says these awful things. The problem is, Jesus isn’t Donald Trump. If we’re calling ourselves Christians, we sort of have to take what Jesus says seriously. I’m choosing to deal with this by reinterpreting the word “hate.” The Greek word the Bible uses for “hate” here (miseo) can mean to despise intently, but my Greek Grammatical Analysis (1993 edition) suggests that the word is used here as an antonym of “love.” If love is to adore passionately, the opposite just means not to adore passionately. Miseo, according to my Greek-English Dictionary, can also mean “disregard” or “be indifferent to.”
Basically, Jesus is saying we need to consider the cost of discipleship. Following Jesus in the strictest and truest sense will mean placing our desire for righteousness above our identity as part of a family or a group. In the world of the text, it meant—quite possibly—alienation from one’s own nuclear family and potential imprisonment and execution. He’s confronting us by asking if we’re really willing to go the whole way with him. If we’re not, we’d better not pretend that we are.
In some parts of the world, following Jesus still means marginalization, imprisonment, or death. In twenty-first century America, there doesn’t seem to be much of a price tag at all. Or is there..?
Jesus is asking if we’re willing to surrender our lives to him, which means surrendering our time in faithful worship, Scripture reading, prayer, and volunteerism. Discipleship will mean we choose not to do whatever we want whenever we want to do it. Things which are ultimately hurtful to ourselves must be abandoned as signs of poor stewardship. Things which degrade others must also be jettisoned if we’re really serious about living out the Gospel. We have to look at all of our activities with the eyes of Christ.
Discipleship will also cost us in terms of our relationships. You will find yourself in conflict with people who put self-interest above love of neighbor. Others will avoid the “goody-two-shoes” Christian, thinking that you’ll be judgmental or fearing that your kindness and generosity only serves to highlight their selfishness. (I always leave wedding receptions early because people are embarrassed to party too hard in front of the pastor!) You might also find you have to cut off certain relationships with people whose behavior isn’t glorifying God. One of the teens in my congregation painfully dropped a friendship with a young person in the drug culture. A family friend quit his job because of his employer’s shady business practices. Such actions are the cost of discipleship.
And, of course, discipleship costs money. Just take a look at verse 33. Does Jesus really want us to give up all of our possessions? That’s a tall order. At the very least we’re being asked to support our congregations generously, to give alms to causes which matter, and to be ready to bail out our friends and family members who are in need without asking for the money to be returned.
Are any of us willing to go all the way? Are any of us true disciples? I don’t think I am. Sure, I’m an ordained pastor, a Master of Divinity, and a life-long-card-carrying Lutheran. But my discipleship still needs a LOT of work.
Here’s what I’m thinking: If I can’t measure up to the level of discipleship with which Jesus confronts me in the Gospel, I can just plain give up trying (which I’ll bet a lot of Christians do), or I can admit that I’m not there and decide to make the impossible quest for discipleship my life-long pursuit.
Just like that alpha horse, Jesus is confronting us yet also beckoning us to follow. “I know you lack discipline,” he seems to be saying, “but come and follow anyway. You’re welcome in the family.”
God bless you, my friend. I’m so glad you decided to drop by this week.