Losing the Land of the Free

Week of Sunday September 8 – Pentecost 16  See also: Disciple or not (2019)
Gospel: Luke 14:25-33

25 Now large crowds were travelling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26‘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. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.” 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

34 ‘Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? 35It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure heap; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’

‘Whoever ... does not hate ... even life itself, cannot be my disciple.

The Land
We are in the last days of a federal election campaign in Australia. It is as dirty as any I can remember;  worse. Main North Road is lined with dozens of illegal unattributed anti -government election posters. The main road outside our church had the same posters yesterday. We have been subject to months of consistent lying about the state of the nation; lies which the rich American proprietor of the major "news" organisation in Australia, has bolstered with blatant press bias.

I consider both the main opposition party and the government to be morally bankrupt. I live somewhere between outrage, deep grief, and terror at what I see happening in the psyche of my nation. In the words of yesterday's prayers

O God...,
We have seen the pretenders to power—
the major parties—
proudly making injustice a central plank of their policies,
racing to outdo each other in the removal of mercy and love
from their platforms;
removing help from the poor,
proposing policies to embolden the rich and line their pockets,
piling lie upon lie...

and we as a nation have not been outraged—
the rich are smugly silent...

Forgive us our complicity.
Forgive us our silence.
Forgive us that Amos or Hosea would rage in our pulpits
finding us wanting,
and Jesus would weep...

 In the afternoon I guided my next door neighbours across country to a local nursery; a place that turns buying plants into an immersive consumer experience. It is spring, and we were buying fruit trees for their new house; we had promised some trees as a Christmas present when they moved in.

In this affluent, beautiful setting, there was no election campaign. There were no poor. There was no pain. It was the peaceful pillow of the Australian Dream, with carefully chosen hits of the seventies playing in the background, good coffee and desert, and excellent gelati for the children.

In the seventies, Francis Schaeffer used to warn about the great dangers to a people who desired "peace and personal affluence at any cost." I could not help but remember those words yesterday.

The large crowds at the nursery were lapping up the profits of personal affluence. But like the large crowds in this week's story of Jesus, if it is peace, affluence, and pretty plants that we want, we "cannot be his disciple."

The Crowd and the Disciples
... dunatai mou einai mathetes; lit: not able of me to be the disciple. This phrase is in the text three times! (although slightly NRSV obscures it in the translation of verse 33.) Although the word hate immediately startles us in this text, the words "cannot be my disciple" used of the large crowds which "were travelling with him" ought to confront us even more. The route taken by the crowd; that is, the path taken through life by most of the people travelling with Jesus is not the way to being a disciple!

In Luke chapter 14 until now, Jesus has warned us of the deadly effects of desiring social status. It can lead us to rejecting God's invitation to The Great Feast, which stands as a symbol of a fully realised life in relationship with God. Now he turns his attention to one of the great signifiers of social status; family and possessions. It could even be said that Jesus, warning about the dangers of family, reduces family to the level of mere possessions! (Which shines an interesting interpretation upon much domestic violence.)

You notice that as I have expressed it, there are not two things; family and possessions, but only one. Family and possessions, in this part of the gospel, are the two sides of the same coin which if desired more than Jesus, will separate us from him.

Our individualistic culture is less immediately dependent on family than the people of Jesus' time, but we are much more connected to our possessions, if only because we have so many. Viewed through the lense of social status, and security, family and possessions are more intimately connected than we first think.

Myself... and my place
What is it which makes me who I am? How can I find myself, and find a place to be?

Since childhood I have had a sense being "uncomfortable in life" and not fitting in. I've looked and longed for some kind of peace; something that would let me relax in life; something that would let me be comfortable and fit in. There have been five Great Myths on offer; get the right mix of these Stories of Life and you will be happy, Andrew!

The myths are Family, Status, Possessions, Discipleship, and the Lone Ranger. The Lone Ranger jettisons all the others and goes out on his own; self sufficient; his own man, rising above the pettiness of the world. We can't do that and be human. Even the Lone Ranger was not alone; he had Tonto.

In Australia we often subscribe to a deadly (according to Jesus in Luke 14) myth mix of Family and Possessions which provide us with a reason for being, and with our place of identity. We worship the myth of "Mum, Dad, and two kids with their good school and a four wheel drive.".

We rigorously pretend we do not have class in Australia, yet our family and possessions define our class and status.

The economics journalist Ross Gittins says

If you think the class war is over, you're not paying enough attention. The reason the well-off come down so hard on those who use class rhetoric is that they don't want anyone drawing attention to how the war's going.

All of them except Warren Buffett, the mega-rich American investor. ''There's class warfare, all right,'' he once said, ''but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning.''

Religion and Being Happy
When life does not add up, we try harder, buying more, investing more in family, or perhaps we turn to religion. Religion is not discipleship. Prosperity Gospel is more of the same old Australian Dream with family and possessions as its foundation. Prosperity Gospel is not just about money. It's variations allow us to continue pretty the much the same as always, except that Jesus or some other figure adds a level of comfort by letting us keep what we have and allowing us to do what we always do— with a few cosmetic changes— but makes us feel good.

But "discipleship means a relationship of learning and growth with Jesus as the teacher and God as God, not family." So says Bill Loader. "... many, according to Jesus, will claim to have associated themselves with Jesus' teaching both at the table and on the road, but their fundamental allegiances will not have been altered. Such persons cannot be identified as disciples." Green The Gospel of Luke p. 565, quoted by Brian Stoffregen.

TS Eliot might describe discipleship as "costing not less than everything." Little Gidding

Are we disciple to Jesus (or some other Prophet of God) or are we disciple to the lesser gods of family, possessions, and status?

The Family
Brian Stoffregen quotes The Five Gospels to help understand the role of family in Jesus' time.

The severity of this saying can only be understood in the context of the primacy of filial relationships. Individuals had no real existence apart from their ties to blood relatives, especially parents. If one did not belong to a family, one had no real social existence [like widows and orphans?]. (pp236)

We dare not let this undoubted difference between the families of Jesus' time and our own individualistic age let us think we can ignore the danger to discipleship which is posed by family. This becomes obvious when we read paragraphs such as the one below from Bill Loader.

 People today can recite a range of experiences about family demonics. Sometimes it is blatant abuse, whether by parent of child or among siblings or in marriage. Sometimes the destructiveness is more ‘innocent’: the peace and ‘goodness’ of family has suppressed self exploration and generation of self worth to the point where long after their passing the parents, internalised, continue to dictate terms and only with careful therapy can the soul find release. Sometimes it is much bigger than personal freedom and manifests itself in closed minds, eyes trained not to see, ears not to hear, lives self-preoccupied with often a kind of private goodness but no heart for compassion and justice in the world. Sometimes family has simply been one player in a social conspiracy which has written a gendered script which waits to be torn up. Dethroning such gods brings trauma for all concerned; it means giving up what has been ‘one’s own life’ in order to find oneself (and find others).

Even the best of families have their wounding. And even a truly good family, and its conditioning, is not us. We only become ourselves when we deny the comfort of that good family and pay the cost of re-identifying ourselves in Jesus. The very word my-self implies an ownership. I can only truly be my self when I have cut loose from my family, and from money, and from status, and truly given myself to the way of the Christ. (Here, the old hymn sings true: Make me a captive Lord, and then I shall be free.)

You will notice that I have said "truly given myself to the way of Christ." I am not talking about notional identification or affiliation. It is about an active living out of his way of living. This turns mere religion into discipleship.

The Cost
For the poor people (mostly) to whom Jesus spoke, the great almost unimaginable cost, of this way of living was to cut loose from family; to dethrone it from its place of power in their lives. Without family they were nothing. Cutting loose and become them-self!? How could that be done? Without family, who would they be?

Our side of the coin is also a great almost unimaginable cost. We have to cut loose from possessions, and to dethrone them from their place of power in our lives. It is not that the marvellous Virgina Nursery is an evil idol standing between us and God. It is not that possessions, as such, are evil; indeed, I am slowly developing a blog on spiritual living based around my garden!

It is that greed for possessions, aka filthy lucre, (1 Tim 3:3) separates us from God. ‘Whoever ... does not hate ... even life itself, cannot be my disciple, says Jesus. How do I do this? How do I be my-self, cut loose from possessions? Without my possessions, who will I be?

The Land
If life consists of the inseparable nexus of possessions, family and status we cannot be a disciple.

If the we affirm that that the babies of rich people are worth more money than the babies of poor people, we cannot be a disciple. (Liberal policy)

If we spurn the widow and the orphan and the stranger, and leave them to drown—  or put them in indefinite detention, we cannot be a disciple. (This is the basic structure of both major parties' refugee policy)

If we say we the rich are poor and therefore we must take away from the poor; (eg, lower the tax-free threshold to "drag more than one million low-income earners back into the tax system," or give "16,000 high-income earners with superannuation savings in excess of $2 million will get a tax cut while 3.6 million workers earning less than $37,000 will pay more than $4 billion extra in tax on their super over the next four years," we cannot be a disciple. (Liberal policy)

If we agree with the Labor government "in its unforgiveable shame" in "repeatedly refus[ing] to increase the poverty level rate of the dole," because it might affect us, we cannot be a disciple.

In the prayer from yesterday, I began like this:

O God,
we understand the immense complexity of running a country;
how it is almost impossible to get it all right.

Yet we confess we have seen more than a lapse in judgement,
and more than inability to manage the whole complexity.

We have seen the pretenders to power—
the major parties—
proudly making injustice a central plank of their policies...

Our injustice is a matter of deliberation. It is a deliberate strategy which political parties are confident will get them elected! It is a judgment upon us if we vote for them!

Jesus said, "None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."

If our possessions, or our family, stand before Christ, they are vile gain. They remove us from the list of disciples.

I cannot see how I do not stand condemned. If I easily fall back on the forgiving grace of God, I have not seen how impossible our discipleship is, nor have I seen how shameful and vile is our material gain compared to rest of the world. If I want to continue to travel with Jesus (Luke 14:25) and not fall among the thorns of Luke 8, my possessions must constantly be lessened. I cannot vote for oppression

4As for [that seed which falls] among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. (Luke 8:4)

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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