Deuteronomy 30.15-20 / Luke 14.25-33
Good news and context
When I was training to be an LLM I was given lots of good advice about preaching but two things in particular have stayed in my mind.
One is, always look for the good news as that’s what the gospel is all about.
The other is, always consider the context.
Now, when I first looked at today’s readings I had some trouble with spotting what the good news could be in the reading from Luke so I turned to the context to see if that would help.
So, we start our reading by noting that large crowds were following Jesus.
He was popular, this Jesus.
Of course he was: he spoke with authority, he performed miracles, he radiated compassion and love.
Yet he also shocked people with his teaching and his strong demands.
The crowds following him were confronted with three hard things:
One, you must hate your family in order to be my disciple.
Two, you must be prepared to die a painful and humiliating death to be my disciple.
Three, you must give up everything you have to be my disciple.
It seems a strange way to gain followers and not an approach that’s likely to feature in any modern-day mission strategies.
But perhaps Jesus was just issuing a reality check to these crowds, which probably included large numbers of people who just wanted to be in on the latest thing, or who were high on excitement about someone they thought would solve all their problems for them.
They hadn’t yet realised that Jesus was heading into trouble, and his followers could head into trouble as well.
He wanted them to think it over before they got in too deep and faced trouble they weren’t prepared for and hadn’t signed up to.
Jesus wasn’t the kind of person we’re all too familiar with now who makes false promises to lure people in and then just shrugs or passes the buck when things became difficult.
So that’s one piece of good news: Jesus may say tough things but we can trust him not to lie to us or lure us in with empty promises.
But now let’s look at his three demands.
Hating our families
First, we must hate our families.
This sounds shocking, even if you happen to have some difficult family relationships, because blood is thicker than water, right?
It also sounds shocking to us because for so long in the west we’ve treated the idea of getting married and having a family as a Christian ideal, whereas in fact over the centuries there have been many different approaches to marriage and family and singleness within the Church.
However, that aside, this isn’t really as bad as it sounds but is more of a translation problem.
Jesus was speaking in Aramaic, and the word he used which is translated into ‘hate’ in English was used to talk about liking something less than something else.
So, if I was magically able to speak Aramaic I might say that I loved chocolate ice cream and hated vanilla ice cream in order to explain that I liked chocolate ice cream more than I liked vanilla ice cream.
This is about priorities: nothing must come between us and Jesus, however dear it is to our hearts.
Loyal to death
Second, we must be prepared to die a painful and humiliating death.
The people listening to Jesus would’ve seen many people going to their deaths on crosses.
It was a punishment reserved for the worst criminals and a particularly cruel way to die.
Dying because of our faith isn’t really a danger for us now, although it is for many other Christians across the world, but the principle remains: as Christians we are choosing to live in a way that other people won’t like and they may turn against us, even if it’s only in mockery or dismissive attitudes, and we need to be prepared to deal with it.
Again, this is about prioritising Jesus above everything else, even our own reputations or safety.
Third, we must give up everything we have.
Giving it all up
This can make us feel very vulnerable.
Must we give up all financial security, the things we’ve worked hard for, the things that make us feel safe and comfortable?
Must we give up on all our ambitions and dreams for a more financially secure life?
Well, some may be called to do this but for the majority perhaps what’s more important is that we’re prepared to hold our possessions and comforts lightly enough that we can give them up if asked, and not hold on to them selfishly when others need our help.
It’s about loyalty and God’s priorities and our willingness to freely obey, not forcing ourselves into misery.
It’s about prioritising Jesus so that what we have is freely available to him and others, not held onto tightly with a sense of entitlement.
Running through all of these demands is a call to us to realise the cost of discipleship.
It means putting God first whatever this costs us in terms of relationships, reputations, material goods, or even our lives if necessary.
And we need to make sure we can cope with the commitment.
But, and this is where we get some good news again, this isn’t just a list of demands from on high.
Rather, it’s a set of 2-way commitments between us and our God.
For the call to commitment in our gospel reading is matched by God’s commitment to us.
We heard that commitment set out in the Deuteronomy reading, where it says that if we keep faith with God he will bless us.
As we set out on the journey of faith God in Christ comes with us and sticks with us all the way, giving us power, helping us up when we stumble, offering constant love, companionship and forgiveness, and above all assuring us that if we persevere in love and faith we will make it because he has made it possible.
So, as Deuteronomy puts it, “Choose life so that you … may live”.