Who here has ever heard of an ear worm? I know. But it’s not as disgusting as it sounds. An ear worm is when a song gets stuck in your head. This happens to me all the time. I hear a song on the radio and then I sing the same two lines over and over and over. It also happens when I pick the hymns for worship (in Cable) I mean, last week I was constantly humming “Won’t You Let Me be Your Servant”. Does this ever happen to you?
Well, I think creating an ear worm of sorts is the intent of this passage. Luke wants us to come away from this text with a distinct understanding of what God requires of us. And he does this by being meticulous in how he orders events in his gospel. Discovering the meaning of each passage depends upon what comes before it and what follows it. And today’s passge is no exception. Standing alone it seems odd, out of place. But when we consider the immediate context, it begins to make sense.
So, let’s look at the context. The parable immediately before today’s passage is the story of the Great Banquet, the one we had last week. The crux of that teaching was about invitation; who’s invited to God’s table, or, in other words, who’s invited to become a disciple. And we concluded that everyone’s invited. Okay, easy enough. But today’s passage tells us about the cost of accepting that invitation. The Common English Bible calls it Discipleship’s Demands. And the third passage in this series, the one we will look at next week, is The Parable of the Lost Sheep. You remember that one. The Shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to seek the one that was lost. So, right away we can see a pattern emerge, can’t we? An invitation to follow Jesus, what it means to accept that invitation, and finally, becoming lost or the result of not accepting the invitation.
Interesting. But for now, for today, let’s look at the cost or demands of discipleship. Today’s narrative begins by telling us that a large crowd was traveling with Jesus. So, he decides to offer them a series of teachings about the cost of following him; a cost that involves making discipleship one’s first priority.
Now, Jesus begins by saying that one must hate their family and friends and even life itself if one is committed to being a disciple. You know, I heard a pastor preach on this passage when I was a twenty-something back in Illinois. And my conclusion was that this old man was off his nut! Was he really saying that in order to be a person of faith I had to hate my family? If that’s the case, no thanks. I’ll go fishing on Sunday morning instead. But after I calmed down, and spoke with a trusted elder in this church, and with Pastor Sandburg, a different meaning began to emerge. What he told me was that loving God first, most, would improve my other relationships. He said this because God’s love in unconditional, and if I understood that, I could then bring at least a portion of that unconditional love into my family relationships as well. Okay, for a twenty-something that was a satisfactory answer. And, as you can probably guess, I continued to spend my Sunday mornings in church. The fish would have to wait.
And this morning, I’m going to offer this as the first “ear worm” that Luke wants to plant in our brains. We should love God first because the gains that we will realize from feeling that unconditional love will improve how we love our family, our friends, indeed, life itself.
But I’m still troubled by the word “hate.” Anyone else with me here? We’re told over and over again to love, right? Love God, love your neighbor, love your enemy, love beyond all measure, love those who hate you because of your faith, love, love, love. So, what’s really going on? Why did Jesus use the word “hate.” Well, as we’ve seen before in the gospels, Jesus uses hyperbole, extreme exaggeration, to get his point across. Remember the camel going through the eye of the needle bit? Hyperbole. So, it makes perfect sense that Jesus uses hyperbolic language here to stress the seriousness of what it means to follow him.[I]
And if you’re still not convinced, consider the original language and the choices made when translating it to English. Remember the New Testament was written in Greek and the Greek word used for here is properly interpreted as “hate.” But we must also remember that Aramaic was the common or spoken language in Jesus’ day. And the word used for “hate” in Aramaic is actually what’s called a comparative verb. So, it literally means to “love much less than.”[ii] So, Jesus isn’t telling his audience to literally hate family, friends, or life itself; but rather to value those relationships “less than” one’s relationship with God. Which brings us back around to Pastor Sandburg’s idea of loving God so we can improve our love for family, friends, and life-itself.
Cool, but “hate” language isn’t the only counter cultural notion to fall upon our ears this morning. Jesus also says that to be his disciple one must carry “their own cross.” Now, that doesn’t sound like much fun to me. Doesn’t carrying one’s own cross lead to death? So, what’s going on here? Well, this is about humility. And, first of all, please understand that humility isn’t about becoming “life’s doormat” to be used and abused for others’ convenience or pleasure. Rather, carrying one’s own cross is a symbol of humility. It’s a picture of a life in which one uses one’s gifts and abilities on behalf of the community, accepting sacrifice and complexity and inconvenience as part of one’s own faith journey. [iii] Humility finally isn’t about being weak, it’s about being strong enough to put the good of the other, or the good of the collective, above one’s own self-interest.
And when you do that, my friends, I promise you, you will be better off. When I show compassion toward someone who’s suffering, remembering that compassion literally means “to suffer with,” my suffering becomes less. And I know, it seem counter-intuitive, but it really works that way. Why? Well, I think showing compassion, empathy, opens up something within us, within our hearts, and allows us to become more than the sum of our selfish desires. And if we open ourselves to the invitation, to the demands of discipleship, if we choose to take up our cross, it will require us to put the other before self; it will require us to have compassion for all of those present at God’s banquet table: the poor, the marginalized, the refugee, the asylum seekers, anyone who finds themselves on the outside looking in. It will require us to adopt a new identity.
And that’s the second “ear worm” that Luke seeks to install in our brains this morning: Accepting the invitation means becoming humble enough to adopt a new identity.
My friends, God is inviting us to become a people who exhibit an identity of love and compassion, who advocate for social justice, and who offer an extravagant welcome to all who darken our door. Why? Because God’s invitation to take up our cross comes to us through an intimate, covenantal relationship with God, which then expands into the wider community. And it’s finally through this expansion of God’s love that we find the roots of our faith; that we find meaning in this life. Loving oneself is very limiting, but loving beyond the limits of our imagination, that’s liberating; that’s true freedom; that’s a new identity worth adopting.
And this is where we’ll stop for today. Next week we’ll talk about what happens to us, both individually and as a people or a nation, when we refuse to accept the invitation. Stay tuned.