Disciple... or not

Gospel: Luke 14:25-35

Now large crowds [many?] ὄχλοι πολλοί] were traveling 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 [ψυχὴν  soul?] 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 pile; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

Disciple... or not.

There never was a lone cowboy rode into town. There was always an invisible legion riding with him; brothers and uncles, even the father he never knew, and his mother, well armed. When I first took a laptop on a long solitary ride across the country, my dear father printed out every blog post for himself, and then reprinted the photos with varying degrees of success and mailed them to my sister already reading the blog in England. Why? Because he was riding with me. The journeying that is me, was him; he gave it to me; he taught me; he formed me. As a four year old I heard Jesus on the road as I was hiking alone; already my father had me travelling, and Jesus began to intrude into my family relationships at the same moment as he affirmed my travelling and searching.

It is not that we are for our families or against them, but something deeper. We are our families, or we are in reaction against them— which is to say: still formed by them in reaction!— and we are our hometown or suburb, and our nation. We can only be Jesus' person if we become somehow detached from these other entities; that is, if we hold to them lightly, and if we will not be subject to their commands and calls to arms as we become aware of them. We can only be Jesus' person if we filter the call and conditioning of family through his way of being human. Families will sometimes feel such detachment as hatred, and will hate us for it. For their existence and survival, and the survival of their members, depends on solidarity. It depends on faithfulness. It needs us for assurance, for support, and even for blood.

Malina and Rohrbaugh say

First-century Mediterranean persons were extremely group oriented. They learned that a meaningful human existence required total reliance on the group in which one found oneself embedded. This primarily meant the kinship group, the village, the neighborhood, and/or the groups one might join. In various ways these collectivities provided a person with a sense of self, a conscience, and a sense of awareness that was supported by others. Such persons always needed others to know who they were and to support or hinder their choices of behavior. (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels  Reading Scenarios: Luke 16:1-15)

We twenty-first century Australians and Americans think we are not like this. We think we are individuals.  In one sense, we are. We often live alone, or live far from our families of origin. It is much easier to appear to detach from family.  And we work with people who often mean little to us, and shift from job to job. We do our own thing...

until something turns on the magic light which activates and shows up the invisible ink of our formation— when some fear, perhaps, puts us off balance and we fall back onto our early learning. And there they all are, and have been: family and hometown, invisibly nudging and directing us, quietly moving us this way, and not that. 

Not only were we formed by the time and place into which we were born, but the people of that time and place, those also formed there, depend on us to maintain their status quo.  Our only escape from this demand is to find another group, another 'family' in which to be. And it too, will demand our allegiance. There is no other way; people who are isolated become ill. We are a social animal. The only question is which group will we choose to join.

There is a problem around all this.  It seems that Jesus calls us to hate. We are right to baulk at this. How can one love one's neighbour as oneself, and be neighbour to all people, while hating one's family? Malina and Rohrbaugh speak in terms of group attachment and disattachment as a more accurate way of understanding what Jesus meant by love and hate. In other words, what Jesus calls hatred towards family, is not a command that I express a deep personal animosity toward my family. In its time, it was a demand for detachment from my allegiance to family, and for an attachment to Jesus.

 'to love God with all one's heart ' means total attachment to the exclusion of other deities... [and] Since 'to hate' is the same as 'to disattach oneself from a group,' one can describe departure from one's family 'for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel' as 'hating' one's father, mother, wife, children, and so on (Luke 14:26).

But, as I have already said, this will often be felt— be experienced— as hatred in the deeply personal terms of our culture, and as betrayal. And possibly repaid. Whether we repay such retaliatory hatred will be a measure of our spirituality, and of the depth of our conversion.

The text follows incidents where Jesus has defeated the leader of a synagogue and a leader of the Pharisees in debate; the healing of the bent over woman and the man with dropsy has exposed the hypocrisy and shortcomings of the religious status quo. People are rejoicing and large crowds are following him, as a consequence. This is not the kind of detachment he is talking about, however. Discipleship is not merely to change sides and simply embrace another power structure, for that, too, will be a power, and can be just as destructive.

Jesus repeats the same phrase (οὐ δύναται εἶναί μου ⸃ μαθητής; lit., not able to be of me a disciple) three times as he speaks to the crowd: none of you "are able be my disciple" unless you 'hate' family, and hate even life [ψυχὴν  soul?] itself, and follow me and carry the cross, and give up all your possessions.

Discipleship of Jesus involves a certain detachment even from our own lives. I love the person I am becoming. It is such a relief to be free of some of the hatreds and the scarrings of my childhood, and of earlier parish experiences. This is a precious place. But I must still hold this new life lightly. I need to embrace a certain indifference to my fate, for who I am is always transitional, always partial, and is someone seeking to be remade. If I cannot be indifferent to the being I have become, I make an idol of myself; I say that who I am now is the last word, and greater than other things Jesus may offer.

Jesus says in Luke 14

13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous,

In response to this text, I said in last Sunday's sermon

Ground your faith, and base your ministry and discipleship, in things no one can see or repay. That will keep you facing God instead of looking out to the audience for affirmation, which is not actually to be on [the] red carpet at all, but on a path to the spiritual wilderness.

I was trying to highlight how seductive status is as a distraction from the life Jesus offers us. Status is, of course, deeply interwoven with family.  When we laugh at the joke about the Etonian themed advent calendar— "where all the doors are opened for me by my dad's contacts"— we are laughing at ourselves; status is the human addiction, which the bible calls... idolatry.

Grounding our faith in things no one can see or repay already means we follow Jesus and carry the cross.  What that meant in his time was to publicly follow him at the time of humiliation, where the publicly declared criminal— he was innocent, but chosen by the crowd to carry the guilt of the crowd—

where the publicly declared criminal was humiliated by the crowds as (mostly) he  carried the instrument of his own execution to the killing ground. We cannot follow Jesus from the safety of a crowd. We can only follow him if we are willing to carry the cross, be separated from the crowd, and to be humiliated;  which means that we do not seek to justify ourselves, for that, too, is to claim status. It is to hold onto our selves, and to follow the crowd rather than follow Jesus. That is, if I can persuade the crowd that I am not guilty, I have persuaded them that I am like them, I have the status of belonging with them, and I am not like the Jesus they are crucifying.

In all this, of course, our possessions are a tool for safety. Not only do they provide us with the means to signify status but, in the end, having a house is a safer life than merely having a tent, or only a blanket. To be homeless in Australia changes everything. It will bring down the full punishment of CenterLink, that crowd endorsed scapegoater of the poor and outcast. But most of us quibble over our discipleship at the shallower end of things: paint colours, carpet, and suburb.

To give up our possessions sounds foolish; even to hold lightly to them seems ridiculous. How will we continue to live without them? These questions come from our western privilege. Millions of people face the loss of house and of life itself... if we will not face this, our faith is a pretence.

How is it possible then to face the challenge to give up our possessions without making it into a meaningless symbol that we don't really believe? If a rich person will find it harder to enter the kingdom than it is for a camel (or even a rope) to thread the eye of a needle, how can we bear it, or do it?  (eg Luke 18:25) Firstly, "Jesus replied, 'The things that are impossible for people are possible for God.'" And second, it will simply come to us. The farther we follow, the more we will be challenged to let go and to hold lightly; we can actually begin to practise in the smaller things of life, or not. All we can do, if the time comes, if there is  a moment when we can stay standing, or flee into the safety of the crowd, is trust that through this discipleship, we will be able to stand and then follow the cross.

There seem to be stray verses at the end of Chapter 14.

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!’

The lectionary leaves these verses out as though they have no real connection to the verses we have been reading, or the verses which begin what we now call Chapter 15. My sense of the literature is that it does not have disconnected comments 'stuck in here for want of a better place.' Luke sees a connection, a flow in the story of Jesus, and our task is to discern where the mind of the author is flowing.

Salt is flavour. It is also good for fertiliser, and was used as a catalyst in the dung stoves of ordinary houses.1 The saying is often taken to be referencing a sort of catalytic or flavouring role in the wider world for the beginnings of God's kingdom seen in the church. This comes from its use in Matthew 5:13. Here in Luke, it would be a change of subject to find the main meaning in that metaphor. Luke 14 is about being a disciple, or not.  People disapprove of the banquet of God and refuse to come. (14:15-24) The people in the Pharisees house remain silent about the truth they know. (14:4,6) And as we have seen, those who hold onto life and possessions "are not able to be my disciples." The salt saying is about risking being useless and so being discarded.

Those of us who understand that God's desire to save all people will not be thwarted by any of us, find something troublesome about being 'thrown away.' For myself, I am disinclined to think that the way we live now will not affect our future.

Andrew Prior (2019)

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!

Also on One Man's Web
Luke 14:25-33, Jeremiah 18:1-11 - In the hands of the Potter or the Politicians? - (2013)
Luke 14:25-33 - Losing the Land of the Free (2013)
Luke 14:25-33 - Love, Hate, Family and Faith (2010)


Footnote 1. Malina and Rohrbaugh:

Matthew 5:13 The "earth" is an outdoor, earthen oven (Job 28:5; Ps. 12:6) found near the house. The ideal householder had a house that surrounded a courtyard that contained (1) an earthen oven with (2) a double stove, (3) a millstone for grinding, (4) a dung heap, along with (5) chickens and (6) cattle (m. Baba Batra 3:5). The earthen oven used the dung as fuel. The dung heap was salted, and salt plates were used as a catalyst to make the dung burn. Salt loses its saltiness when the exhausted plates no longer serve to facilitate burning. Unlike Matthew, Luke specifies that salt without saltiness is "fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away" (Luke 14:34-35).

Salt can enrich a manure pile by converting the ammonia that would be released in gaseous form into two solid components, carbonate of soda and muriate of ammonia, both useful to plant growth. (Here)

25 Συνεπορεύοντο δὲ αὐτῷ ὄχλοι πολλοί, καὶ στραφεὶς εἶπεν πρὸς αὐτούς · 
26 Εἴ τις ἔρχεται πρός με καὶ οὐ μισεῖ τὸν πατέρα ἑαυτοῦ καὶ τὴν μητέρα καὶ τὴν γυναῖκα καὶ τὰ τέκνα καὶ τοὺς ἀδελφοὺς καὶ τὰς ἀδελφάς, ἔτι τε καὶ τὴν ψυχὴν ἑαυτοῦ, οὐ δύναται εἶναί μου μαθητής. 
27 ὅστις οὐ βαστάζει τὸν σταυρὸν ἑαυτοῦ καὶ ἔρχεται ὀπίσω μου, οὐ δύναται εἶναί μου μαθητής. 
28 τίς γὰρ ἐξ ὑμῶν θέλων πύργον οἰκοδομῆσαι οὐχὶ πρῶτον καθίσας ψηφίζει τὴν δαπάνην, εἰ ἔχει εἰς ἀπαρτισμόν; 
29 ἵνα μήποτε θέντος αὐτοῦ θεμέλιον καὶ μὴ ἰσχύοντος ἐκτελέσαι πάντες οἱ θεωροῦντες ἄρξωνται αὐτῷ ἐμπαίζειν ⸃ 
30 λέγοντες ὅτι Οὗτος ὁ ἄνθρωπος ἤρξατο οἰκοδομεῖν καὶ οὐκ ἴσχυσεν ἐκτελέσαι. 
31 ἢ τίς βασιλεὺς πορευόμενος ἑτέρῳ βασιλεῖ συμβαλεῖν ⸃ εἰς πόλεμον οὐχὶ καθίσας πρῶτον βουλεύσεται εἰ δυνατός ἐστιν ἐν δέκα χιλιάσιν ὑπαντῆσαι τῷ μετὰ εἴκοσι χιλιάδων ἐρχομένῳ ἐπ’ αὐτόν; 
32 εἰ δὲ μήγε, ἔτι αὐτοῦ πόρρω ⸃ ὄντος πρεσβείαν ἀποστείλας ἐρωτᾷ τὰ πρὸς εἰρήνην. 
33 οὕτως οὖν πᾶς ἐξ ὑμῶν ὃς οὐκ ἀποτάσσεται πᾶσιν τοῖς ἑαυτοῦ ὑπάρχουσιν οὐ δύναται εἶναί μου ⸃ μαθητής. 
34 Καλὸν οὖν τὸ ἅλας · ἐὰν δὲ καὶ τὸ ἅλας μωρανθῇ, ἐν τίνι ἀρτυθήσεται; 
35 οὔτε εἰς γῆν οὔτε εἰς κοπρίαν εὔθετόν ἐστιν · ἔξω βάλλουσιν αὐτό. ὁ ἔχων ὦτα ἀκούειν ἀκουέτω.
(SBL Greek Text)



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