Strange Demands

Sermon preached for the Twenty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.

Luke 14: 25-31
Large crowds were traveling with Jesus. Turning to them, he said, “Whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate father and mother, spouse and children, and brothers and sisters—yes, even one’s own life—cannot be my disciple. Whoever doesn’t carry their own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

“If one of you wanted to build a tower, wouldn’t you first sit down and calculate the cost, to determine whether you have enough money to complete it? Otherwise, when you have laid the foundation but couldn’t finish the tower, all who see it will begin to belittle you.They will say, ‘Here’s the person who began construction and couldn’t complete it!’ Or what king would go to war against another king without first sitting down to consider whether his ten thousand soldiers could go up against the twenty thousand coming against him? And if he didn’t think he could win, he would send a representative to discuss terms of peace while his enemy was still a long way off. In the same way, none of you who are unwilling to give up all of your possessions can be my disciple.

My elementary school had three playgrounds. 

The first, and newest, was plastic. Bright colors, great playspace. It had a zipline. It was glorious. If more than one grade had recess at the same time, it was reserved for the youngest students. 

The second was metal. From October to March, it was perfectly fine. A bit rusty around the rivets, but you could really get some speed on the slides. Lots of fun. But at the beginning and end of the school year, when temps were still warm and the sun rose early, those metal slides and ladders got HOT. We weren’t allowed on that playground until second grade, when we could be trusted to stay away from the slides on hot days, and the burns that resulted. 

The third playground was wood. And old. It was way back away from the building, and only fifth graders—those wisest, most mature, most advanced of students were allowed on it, and then of course only when the other two were in use. You had to play… delicately… on the wooden playground. Only the bravest and wildest and most foolish of us really attempted it. The rest of us sat on the sidelines, making up stories or throwing rocks around. Because playing on the wooden playground meant splinters. Lots and lots and lots of splinters. 

And splinters are the worst. 

Now maybe some of you are more stoic about this, but I haaaate splinters. As a child, they sent me into total meltdown mode. My mom was the only person I allowed to take my splinters out, and even then I had to be heavily distracted with Disney movies.

I think of today’s scripture like a splinter. Here I was just having a fun time reading my Bible, and these words come and stab me right through. I’m ready to moan and scream and fuss about it. A lot. 

I’m not alone. When the Planting Team was studying the lectionary scriptures in preparation for the season, our conversation was lively, hopeful. Until we got to Luke 14:26: “Whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate father and mother, spouse and children, and brothers and sisters—yes, even one’s own life—cannot be my disciple.”

The room got kind of quiet. Then someone asked “do you think the youth would do two youth Sundays so we can skip this one?”

I called my mom this week and told her I was struggling with my sermon. Now my mom is an uberPresbyterian. Elder, Sunday School teacher, youth leader, PNC chair. She even memorized one of the catechisms for confirmation as a teenager. She knows her stuff.

“What’s the sermon on?” she asked. 

“That time Jesus told us we all have to hate our families,” I replied. 

“It doesn’t say that,” she said. 

“Luke 14:26,” I responded, and waited while she googled.

There was a long pause, and finally, “that’s horrible! don’t preach on that!”

I suspect many of you agree with my mom. This is horrible stuff. Hate our families? Hate ourselves? This doesn’t sound like the Jesus we know and love. Who would want to be a disciple of such a callous, demanding guy?

Now, if it helps there’s a bunch of ways scholars interpret these words. I’ll try to sum them as briefly as I can, and you can see which you like. 

One: A pastor at my Bible study this week suggested that maybe Jesus never said this. Some interpreter or editor snuck it into his words in a late draft of the gospel of Luke. Now, that’s possible, but that’s possible for literally any phrase in scripture, not just the ones we don’t like. So that’s tricky.

Two: Some interpreters say that Jesus did say this, but didn’t really mean it—he was just trying to scare off anyone in the crowd who was following him out of sycophancy or self-interest. Maybe.

Three: Historians suggest maybe Jesus did say it, and did mean it, but that it only applied for his literal first-century followers, who would have had to leave their families in order to go with him to Jerusalem, and face down execution by a hostile government for their beliefs. We have evidence from later centuries that Christians often were forced to choose between families and faith, so perhaps, the historical argument goes, this is more a description than a demand. 

Four: By far the most common move by commentators is to suggest that Jesus was engaging in a form of Hebrew rhetoric, where to love one thing and hate another means to strongly prefer or prioritize the first, more than to bear ill-will towards the second. Certainly Matthew, when writing his gospel, softened Jesus’ words more towards this meaning: Jesus says, whoever loves his family more than me is not worthy of me. 

And five: the final way to understand this scripture is to, if not ignore it completely, put it in its proper perspective within the whole of the Bible. There are certainly places where scripture advocates hatred, division, and martyrdom; but they are vastly, vastly overshadowed by commandments towards love, reconciliation, and joy. All the way back in the fourth century, Augustine called this “the rule of love.” In On Christian Doctrine, he wrote: “Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.” (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 1.36.40)

By Augustine’s rule, this teaching is “out of character” for the Bible, and so even if we can’t fully rip the page out of the Good Book, we also don’t have to obsess over it to the detriment of all the thousands of other scriptures where we are called more obviously to love of neighbor and self. 

If any of those explanations fully satisfy you, I am thrilled. But I have to admit that they all feel a bit like easy outs to me, ways to make our scripture slicker, brighter, less challenging. Like we are trying to exchange Jesus’ heavy wooden cross for a nice light plastic one. 

Perhaps, rather than trying to find a perfect explanation, it would be more faithful to admit to failure. 

At the least, failure to accurately convey Jesus’ words and meaning through centuries of recopied manuscripts and translations; more deeply, failure to understand what Jesus truly meant; scarier still, failure to do whatever it is that Jesus wants us to do. 

This is a hard thing for a professional preacher to do, but here I stand: I do not understand why Jesus said these words. I do not know what we are supposed to do with them. 

Failure is frightening. Fear of failure grips us. Most of us are filled with thick shame at the thought of our failures, past or possible.

The traditional interpretation of the rest of this scripture, once you can get past the whole hate your family bit, is that Jesus is warning us off of failure. We should count the cost of discipleship before we decide to follow Jesus, because how horrible if we fail! 

But Jesus tells two stories about failure, and the more I read them this week, the more I wondered if there’s not a joke in all this gloom and doom. The first parable of failure talks about a man who built a tower and ran out of money before he could finish. He is mocked. And… so? Haven’t we all been ridiculed for something or other? Is a half-finished project really the end of the world? 

The second parable is even more of a puzzler. Jesus talks about a king who realizes he doesn’t have enough soldiers to win a war. So he rides out early and negotiates a treaty. His great failure is… making peace? 

I think there is a wink somewhere in this passage. Jesus is demanding much of us—our attention, our devotion, our possessions, our whole life, in fact—but these examples of failure do not exactly have me quaking in my boots. In fact, it sounds like failure is an expected and ordinary part of life—uncomfortable sure, but not always devastating and perhaps sometimes, even a gift all its own. 

Next week the Planting Team is launching a three week adult Sunday School class on the book Flunking Sainthood by local author Jana Reiss. Jana set out to write a lighthearted book on various spiritual practices. She found, instead, that she had written a book on failure. Twelve spiritual practices, twelve months to go deeper into the life of faith, hew more closely to the path of Christ, and she either abandoned the practices, or found she had succeeded for the wrong reasons. 

“I’ve often heard the maxim that ‘good is the enemy of perfect,’” she writes in her conclusion; “in other words, when people of faith aim for anything short of godliness we miss the mark. I’ve learned the reverse is true: perfect is the enemy of good. I may have spent a year flunking sainthood, but along the way I’ve had unexpected epiphanies and wild glimpses of the holy.” (Jana Reiss, Flunking Sainthood, epilogue)

Even her failures, she realized, were shaping her more towards holiness. More towards Christlikeness. More towards love, for herself, and for others who were failures too.

I said at the beginning of this sermon that this particular scripture, with its strange and heavy demands, greets me like a splinter, painful and unwelcome. But I think that I need that. 

Splinter scriptures, these verses that upset or annoy or even disgust me, remind me that I do fail, to understand, to act, to live up to all Jesus needs me to be. They are uncomfortable, and they force me to ask for help. They spur me to ask questions that go against the grain of what society says, questions like “do I privilege my biological family too much over my family in Christ around the world” and “have I been too self-centered with my choices and time” and “am I really giving this faith thing my all?” The answers might be yes or no or anywhere in between on any given day, but these irksome splinter questions remind me that I am carrying a cross, a real one, no cheap toy substitute. They remind me that fully following Jesus is only for the wildest and bravest and most foolish among us, and that I will not get through this life of discipleship without a mark on me. 

I have come to value these challenging scriptures, not because I like them, but because they do not leave me with any pretension that I can succeed at Christianity on my own. Each day I am marked with a hundred thousand failures. 

That still doesn’t mean I enjoy these metaphorical splinters, or want to leave them to fester too long, any more than the literal ones. My mom, though, knew the secret to taking splinters out, to lessening the pain, to letting healing begin. Before she even tried to remove them, she would soak our hands or feet in water, so that the skin would be soft.

Jesus knew this secret too. He knew that the world has built wooden crosses for all who follow him, rough and splintered. He knew that his demands were steep. And so he soaks us in the waters of grace, again and again and again. 

In a few moments we will take the cup, the new covenant sealed in Christ’s blood for our forgiveness. And so I am not too worried that I do not entirely understand his words recorded in the gospel of Luke, chapter 14, verse 26. If I have failed Christ, failed as a disciple, failed as a preacher, failed in any and every way, the cup is still held out to me, forgiveness as fresh as the day it was poured, and I will gratefully drink it deep. 


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