The Way Costs Exactly Everything

BabelBy Wes Howard-Brook & Sue Ferguson Johnson, a commentary on this weekend’s Gospel text, re-posted from September 1, 2016

It is no mystery who Luke’s audience is in this week’s Gospel (14.25-33): “For which of you, intending to build a tower (Gk, purgon)…” (14.28). Clearly, this is not a building plan envisioned by landless peasants, lepers and other poor and marginalized people. Luke is speaking here to the young elite of the Roman Empire, seeking to instill in them the cost of rejecting their imperial formation and choosing Jesus’ Way of discipleship.

The tower image also invokes one of Luke’s favorite Septuagint passages: Genesis’ tale of the Tower of Babel (which uses the Greek, purgos, three times: Gen 11.4, 5, 8). He narrates in Acts 2 the “reversal” of the outcome of the Babel Tower story, with its confusion of languages, through the Pentecost experience of all people hearing the Word in their own native tongues. Here, however, the tower image slyly expresses the reality of all imperial building projects. They are public monuments to the power of patronage, putting the names of the “big donors” in lights (cf. Gen 11.4).

Ironically, however, Luke’s Jesus speaks of a failed tower building project which results in the public “mockery” (Gk, empaizein, 14.29) of the builder. Later in the Gospel, Jesus will rightly predict that the Way of the cross will be mocked by those who witness it (18.32; 22.63, 11, 36). Jesus’ formerly elite disciples will be mocked by Roman observers either way: for attempting to defect from the imperial path and quitting their discipleship or for not quitting all the way to the cross!

In no uncertain terms, then, Jesus calls his hearers to consider in advance the cost of discipleship. Three times in our short passage, Jesus presents conditions apart from which people “cannot be my disciple”:

“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.” (14.26)

“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (14.27)

“So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not take leave of all your possessions.” (14.33)

The thread tying these imperatives together is the call to detachment. Let’s listen more closely to each one in sequence.

Detachment from biological family: Almost nothing that Jesus says is more shocking to hearers than his dethronement of the centrality of biological family. In the ancient world even more than today, people depended on their families for the most basic forms of support. The language he uses sounds especially harsh to us, as he calls disciples to “hate” (Gk, misei) their parents, spouses, children and siblings. The Greek verb, though, is not an expression of emotional hostility as “hate” implies in English. Rather, it is an expression of an intentional choice to reject something. Again, Luke uses the term ironically. If one chooses to follow Jesus in “hating” one’s family, you will be “hated” by others (6.22; 21.17).

We have twice already seen what this looks like in practice in Luke. First, we heard Jesus respond to the message that his mother and brothers are standing outside the crowd who is listening to Jesus. His response: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (8.21). A chapter later, as Jesus is about to embark on the long journey to Jerusalem, a person considering discipleship requests permission from Jesus to “bury my father” first. Again, Jesus’ response is sharp and clear: “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” And if this isn’t sufficiently clear, Luke immediately presents a petitioner with a similar demand: “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell (Gk, apotaxasthai) to those at my house.” Jesus again sharply reject this excuse to put off commitment to the Way: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (9.62). The “looks back” echoes the angelic command to Lot and his family on the way out of Sodom, and, of course, Lot’s wife’s salt-inducing gaze backward (Gen 19.17, 26).

Plainly, Jesus is not saying that family is “bad” or that people cannot practice Jesus’ Way in the midst of family. Rather, he is reinforcing the challenge we heard a few weeks back when he warned about bringing “division” into the midst of one’s house (12.51-53). Keeping family “peace” can often mean conforming to social expectations that run counter to the Way. As Jesus says elsewhere, one cannot serve two masters, but will “love” one and “hate” the other (16.13). The admonition is not limited to the question of wealth/Mammon, but extends to anything/anyone that would make demands on people that are opposed to Jesus’ Way.

One more clarification is essential if we are fully to hear Jesus’ Word in this first of three imperatives. The NRSV continues by adding “yes, and even life (Gk, psuche) itself” to what must be “hated.” This unfortunate translation is part of a long history of contempus mundi, a “Christian” sense of rejection of “worldly” things and even of one’s own physical pleasure and delight. Such an interpretation, of course, runs counter to what we see and hear of Jesus throughout Luke and elsewhere, where he eats and drinks heartily and fully embraces the joys of embodied life (e.g., Lk 7.34).

Detachment from imperial security and identity: Rather, what Jesus calls potential disciples to forego in advance yearning for a physical security that precludes rejection by imperial society. This interpretation is reinforced by Jesus’ next words: “whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” While our cultural Christianity has often extended the meaning of the cross to include the pain of everyday life (“This is my cross to bear.”), the image had a very specific and terrifying meaning to Jesus’ hearers as the instrument of imperial torture and humiliating death. Further, only Luke has Jesus add this qualifier: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (9.23). In other words, get up each day and see oneself as rejected by and dead to imperial society. Jesus speaks in both passages not of being crucified as such, but of “taking up” and “carrying” the cross, i.e., being seen and known as someone who has been marked as “dead” already to the way of empire. The flipside of this is Jesus’ call to depend not on empire, but on God for one’s daily provision (11.3, the only other use in Luke of Greek, kath’ hēmeran).

Detachment from possessions/substance of one’s life: Finally, Jesus links his third admonition to the previous two via the connector, “therefore” (Gk, oun; 14.33). Again, the NRSV translation is confusing: “…none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up (Gk, apotassetai) all your possessions (Gk, huparchousin).” Both the verb and the noun carry nuances hidden by the English. For instance, we already heard the verb apotassō above from the mouth of the one who asks to “say farewell” to those in his house (9.62). It carries the sense of taking leave from people or things (see also Acts 18.18, 21). The noun huparchō has an even wider range of meaning, as evidenced by Luke’s fifteen uses of it in the Gospel (e.g., 7.25; 8.3, 41; 9.48; 11.13, 21). It can certainly refer to physical things, but more deeply, it implies one’s substance; i.e., what it is that makes a person who they are. In an imperial culture, then or now, physical possessions symbolically express who one is (e.g., clothes, houses). Putting these together in our narrative context, we hear Jesus admonishing his audience in advance that we must be prepared to reject everything that makes us who we are in our imperial “self.” Thus, his Word here is wider than in 12.33 and 19.8, where it is explicitly about “possessions.” Making family penultimate and seeing oneself as rejected and dead to empire necessarily implies “letting go” or “taking leave” of anything and everything that remains of our imperial identity.

This is echoed in Acts both positively and negatively: in the community of believers “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions (Gk, huparchontōn), but everything they owned was held in common” (4.32), while Ananias and his wife Sapphira seek to have it both ways, contributing some but not all of the “honor” (Gk, timēs, Acts 5.2) that flowed from who they had been. They, like us, seek to hedge their bets, leaving the door open to return to their imperially-sanctioned way of life if the Way of Jesus turns out badly. Just as Peter condemns them for lying to the Holy Spirit, Jesus in advance warns would-be disciples that the Way costs exactly everything.

All this is not, of course, a new Word to us. More than seventy years ago, a young German pastor, wrote in a time of increasing racial scapegoating amid the rise of an authoritarian leader who promised to rid the land of “foreign” elements that corrupted society. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote boldly and prophetically of the “cost of discipleship.” Bonhoeffer claimed openly and subversively that Christ was his “fuehrer.” For that and similar proclamations, he was imprisoned and eventually executed.

We, too, seek to claim Jesus and his Way amid rising hated of the “other” accompanied by thinly veiled threats of violence against “them.” We must also be aware in advance of the inevitable cost of following Jesus amid empire. All these forms of detachment lead us to a stance of holy indifference, as Paul embodied so clearly and joyously (e.g., Phil 4.10-13). As we move closer to the beginning of a new church year, may our times of summer “vacating” and re-creation renew and strengthen us to be daily cross-bearers.

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