Giving Up: SALT's Lectionary Commentary for Thirteenth Week after Pentecost
Thirteenth Week after Pentecost (Year C): Luke 14:25-33 and Jeremiah 18:1-11
1) Ordinary Time (which we’re in the midst of) is a six-month season of study and growth, and this week’s passage is one of the most controversial and difficult of them all. A disciple must hate her family? Hate life itself? Give up all possessions? Carry a cross?
2) As we saw last week, in this section of Luke, Jesus has been teaching in the style of a satirical, mischievous provocateur - and here he turns on the “large crowds” following him. They’ve been delighting in the comeuppance he’s been serving to the powers-that-be - but Be careful, he says. God’s dawning realm means everything will change, and not just for the powerful. The road to Easter morning runs through Golgotha…
3) In casting God as a potter, Jeremiah draws on a venerable tradition: God is often figured as a potter in the scriptural imagination, including at the very outset, where human beings are sculpted out of clay, ‘adam (“humanity”) out of ‘adamah (“earth”) (Gen 2:7).
1) First off, there’s that word: hate. It’s true that Jesus is engaged here in provocative, prophetic hyperbole, grabbing the crowd’s attention (and ours) with a colorful, outrageous claim. And it’s true that the ancients often spoke in dramatic, dialectical terms: life and death, last and first, blessing and woe, love and hate. But understanding Jesus here as “hyperbolic” or “dramatic” doesn’t let us off the hook. Poetry can be deadly serious, and this “count the cost” message is no joke.
2) Like building a tower or going into battle, Jesus warns, following him isn’t for the faint of heart. It means giving things up, even precious things, even the things we hold most dear. For Luke, Jesus’ journey to the cross has already begun; he has “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” down into the valley of the shadow of death (Luke 9:51). Any who follow him, then, must be willing to do likewise.
3) But what does “carrying a cross” mean in this context? A few pages earlier in Luke, Jesus has already used the image to mean not physical crucifixion but rather a life of intense, generous commitment to the divine mission - a willingness, as he puts it, to “lose one’s life in order to save it” (Luke 9:23-24). According to this ideal picture, following Jesus means transforming how you think about who is in your “family,” and giving up your possessions so they can be shared in community (see Acts 4:32-34, also written by Luke). In a word, discipleship means leaving conventional approaches to kinship and property behind, and that’s not a prospect to be taken lightly. Count the cost before you go. The good news of the Gospel may be for everyone - but discipleship isn’t.
4) That last point - that discipleship isn’t for everyone - may at first be counterintuitive for many Christians today. Isn’t the whole point of Christianity that anyone can become a disciple, and that the goal is to make as many as possible? Well, if Jesus thought so, he had a strange way of showing it. He encountered thousands of people during his ministry - but only called something like fourteen to be disciples. Nor did he send out the twelve disciples, and later the seventy “laborers,” to recruit and expand their ranks; rather, he expressly sent them out to heal and proclaim that “the kingdom of God has come near” (Luke 9:6; 10:9). Likewise, Jesus moved through the countryside feeding and healing and teaching the crowds, but not calling on them to follow him. For the overwhelming majority of the people he met, his signature sign-off wasn’t “Follow me,” but rather: “Your faith has made you well,” or “Return home and declare how much God has done for you,” or “Go on your way, and sin no more,” or “Go in peace.” In short, Jesus comes to save many (indeed the whole world!) - but as for disciples, he calls only a few.
1) The preacher and author Barbara Brown Taylor once began a sermon on this passage from Luke this way: “If any of you came here this morning believing that you were disciples of Jesus Christ, then I guess that you know better now.” Her point is that, if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us are less like “disciples” and more like “friends of the disciples.” God does raise up genuine disciples in every generation - Bonhoeffer and Teresa, Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero, Sojourner Truth and Francis of Assisi and the countless others whose names we may or may not ever know, people who actually did and do, in various ways, give up their families and possessions and lives for the sake of the Gospel. The rest of us are something a good deal more humble than “disciples” in this sense. At our best, Taylor contends, we’re “friends of the disciples” - and like friends, we may extol and support disciples where we can; and like friends, we may be inspired (or haunted, or driven) to follow their examples here and there, in fragments or moments or chapters of our lives.
2) And who knows? Each of us is still on the potter’s wheel, still in God’s hands - and as Jeremiah insists, what and whom we become is ultimately up to God. Will we find ourselves reshaped into something new? This week’s passage from the prophet can be understood as a call to repentance - and at the same time, it’s powerful testimony that even when we go astray, God doesn’t throw away the clay, but rather redeems and remakes us.
3) Generations of interpreters have struggled with this passage in Luke and others like it, and in broad strokes, those interpreters have fallen into two major camps. The first group has understood Jesus’ instructions to be not requirements but rather “counsels,” pieces of guidance aimed at a subset of Christians called to a more “all-in” version of the faith - say, in monastic orders, with their solemn vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The second camp interprets Jesus’ words as applying to all Christians, not just a subset, and so has tended to understand him as calling us to “give up” not family and possessions themselves, but rather undue attachments to family and possessions, the entanglements that can hinder us from living out the Gospel.
4) Barbara Brown Taylor’s interpretation opens up a third way: both candidly recognizing a real difference between “disciples” and “friends of the disciples,” and at the same time affirming that the latter group can do at least two things. First, we can keep alive the stories of disciples, learning them and passing them on to future generations; and second, in ways large and small, we can emulate disciples in particular aspects or episodes of our lives. In this way, Jesus’ call to discipleship is kept open and vibrant for all of us. On any given day, even words as challenging as these in Luke may indeed become a summons addressed to us. For after all, throughout our lives, we remain clay on the Potter’s wheel - so there’s no telling what kind of follower of Jesus we may yet become!