Counting the Cost
Ordinary Sunday 23: 8th September, 2013
Bishop Graeme Rutherford,
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Well thank God the election campaign is now over and there is now a blackout on all those noisy, brash, debased advertisements with three word slogans —'stop the boats' or worse, one word repeated three times — 'cut, cut, cut' .
Political rhetoric has been influenced by the market place. It is shaped by the 'sell' mentality. To persuade the electorate, a political party in a market driven society must offer 'low cost' and 'low risk' policies.
By way of contrast, Bishop Tom Wright invites us to consider a different kind of political spin. He imagines a politician standing on a soap-box addressing a crowd in the following terms: 'If you're going to vote for me, you're voting to lose your homes and families; you're asking for higher taxes and lower wages; you're deciding in favour of losing all you love best! So come on — who's on my side?'
That, suggests Tom Wright, is the stark kind of language in which Jesus frames the demands of discipleship in today's Gospel passage. The passage is made up of three demands and two short parables or illustrations:
First, we must hate our families and ourselves
'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).
This rhetoric is a bit of a shock! Jesus says, in effect, 'let me tell you how to hate your wife — how to hate your biological families!' Given a choice of passage, this is not one I would naturally choose. I would much prefer not to preach on this text! After all, Christianity has often been associated with 'family values'. What are we to make of such stark 'hate' language?
There are two things that help us to appreciate what Jesus is saying here:
Jesus is using, hyperbolic language as he does often, as for instance, when he calls his disciples to amputate the limbs of their body 'If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off or throw it away' (Matt. 8:8). This is figurative language. Jesus means that we are to be single-minded in our discipleship! It is the language of hyperbole.
Jesus is speaking in Aramaic, a language which lacked the little comparative words — 'more than'. Instead of saying 'Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah' as we would do in English, the Semitic languages say, 'Jacob loved Rachel and hated Leah'.
Similarly, in these opening verses of today's Gospel, Jesus is not calling his followers to hate their families in terms of emotional response, he is not denying the importance of close family and the need for family support; instead, he calls for undivided loyalty to himself above family loyalties. He warns against making family an idol. We are to love God 'more than' family. Family must not take the place of God. It is not 'Family First' - but God first. This stark language about hating our families is all about our priorities.
The second demand spoken about in this passage concerns the call to carry our own cross.
In speaking of 'hating' family members Jesus was employing hyperbole. Here he is not. Many of his first followers in the first century had to take up their cross quite literally. They knew that when they carried a cross on their shoulders outside the city, they were on a one way journey. They would not be back. And still today, in large numbers, church members around the world face violence or discrimination for their faith. In a new book, entitled Christianophobia, Rupert Shortt investigates the shocking treatment of Christians on several continents, revealing that they are oppressed in greater numbers than those of any other faith. By comparison, Christians in Australia lead a very comfortable life. The cross we carry is about dying daily to our 'selfish self' and rising daily to new life in Christ.
Thirdly, Jesus speaks of 'giving up all' possessions.
The 'all' here is another example of Jesus' use of hyperbole. Clearly, there were some in the early church who did give up 'all' to follow Jesus. The majority continued to own houses and possessions. But just as 'family' must not become an idol, neither must material possessions.
At this time of the year at St Peter's our parish community is asked to prayerfully reconsider their stewardship to the work of extending God's Kingdom. Too many people still think of giving as getting rid of the spare change that has accumulated in the bottom of their pockets. They tend to give on impulse. For Christians, giving money is about whether we mean it. Money is the sacrament of seriousness. For the well-healed or the hard-up, the question that must be answered is, 'For whom is your money good news?'
These three demands — hating our families, carrying our own cross and giving up all our possessions, are a challenge to 'easy believism' or a 'low cost' form of faith — what some have called 'decaffeinated Christianity' — the 'Me' church.
Our Lord reinforces these three demands with two further illustrations:
The first envisions a tower-builder. If he does not estimate how much the tower will cost, it is possible that the project will remain unfinished due to lack of funds. The end result will be ridicule from all who see the unfinished structure.
The second parable is about a King who assesses the number of his troops in the light of the greater number his enemy possesses. If he cannot win with the number of soldiers he has, the only wise course will be to negotiate with his enemy long before they meet in battle.
Taken together these two illustrations — the one of the tower builder and the other of the King considering going to war, drive home the necessity of 'counting the cost'. Jesus extols a commitment to finishing the discipleship journey once begun, or not beginning it at all.
There is a little motto that some African Christians have coined called: 'KOKO'. It means 'keep on, keeping on'. Many start the Christian journey with a flourish of enthusiasm but the call is also to finish well.
Something of the consumer mentality of our culture has unfortunately invaded the church so that we now have many Christians who are 'hoppers and shoppers'. Baby boomers typically have loose ties to denominations. Some Churches are adopting marketing strategies, modelled not on the synagogue but the cinema and the shopping mall. Many are uncommitted, restless, and ever-open to being what someone has called 'conversion prone' — ready to be converted ad nauseam — without the conviction that would stop the dizzying spin and allow them to be at home somewhere.
In its many shapes and forms, spirituality, like hamburgers, is increasingly something one can get quickly and in a variety of places. Just as in work there is now little loyalty to the company, so in the church there is a lack of commitment and determined persistence.
But being a disciple of Jesus involves not an intermittent state; it's a relationship that continues.
Following Jesus is an all or nothing proposition. It is a call to the kind of discipleship that is not cheap (akin to Dietrich Bonhoeffer's aversion to 'cheap grace'). The passage speaks of the importance of loyalty and allegiance to Jesus over all other competing loyalties, including family, self-interest, and possessions.
The heart of Christian Spirituality is a value judgement concerning Jesus. What kind of a price are we prepared to pay to be part of a movement of self-exile from the mainstream culture of consumerism?
As we seek to become a parish at mission we must beware of the market place mentality, cracking up the benefits and minimizing the commitments. Jesus words, 'follow me' are both gift and demand. They require us to stop playing religious games and start seriously following Jesus.
Discipleship is about:
- counting the cost,
- putting the things of the Kingdom ahead of family, self and possessions
- and of KOKO — keeping on keeping on.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.