Three years on…
This 2022 post looks back to my First Impressions post on Luke 14 in 2019: Disciple… or not. This reflection will make much more sense if you read the initial post.
The last three years have deepened my understanding of family, its riches and its terrors. In this time, our family has weathered crises which have left me rejoicing in the rich resilience our family has given us. Yet, from another direction, we have been traumatised all over again. If there is any truth in my post of 2019, it is that we cannot be separate from our families, at least, not of ourselves. I said then, and now see even more clearly, that
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… (Disciple… or not)
I remember a conversation in a mental health ward. An amazing patient described tracking a certain abuse across generations of their family and said, "It stops with me." And we both knew that this courageous determination to be a disruptor of this family cycle was the reason we were having the conversation in a mental health unit. Even such separation from family as we can manage is brutally painful and costly, for family is a key factor in our formation as a person. To separate from them is to embark on undoing and remaking something built, reinforced, and practised for our whole lives until now. In calling us, Jesus offers us a path to that undoing and remaking.
Jesus does not call us to hate our family in the sense that we hear those words today.
Malina and Rohrbaugh [Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Reading Scenarios: Luke 16:1-15] 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). (Disciple… or not)
I concluded that
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… But… 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. (Disciple… or not)
But to "hate" one's family, "yes, and even life itself," and to give up one's possessions is impossible for us. Not only can we not separate ourselves from family, but this journey is to start out on the road to poverty and death. If we are attempting this as part of our attachment to Jesus, it will certainly be to carry the cross. The Greek has the definite article (τὸν σταυρὸν) attached to the word cross, it is not any cross, some private piety perhaps, but indicates a way, or discipline, of discipleship the community understood well. It was a life path risking being driven onto the road trodden by
the publicly declared criminal … 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… (Disciple… or not)
It struck me as I re-read Luke's text this year that large (or many) crowds were already following Jesus! (vv25) Luke is asking us, if we are part of the large crowds which clearly lack something, or if we are followers of another kind. Even if we discern a calling to a narrower, more difficult but richer path, we will often fail. To be a disciple is a grace-gift as much as it is a decision of our own.
Any serious attempt to follow Jesus in the spirit of Luke's passage will risk poverty and death, which are closely related. I have been reading Richard Beck's survey of William Stringfellow's[i] writing.
Poverty is vulnerability to death in its crudest forms. Poverty is the relentless daily attrition of contending with the most primitive concerns of human existence: food and cleanliness and cloths and heat and housing and rest and play and work…
What sophisticates the suffering of the poor is not innocence, nor extremity, nor loneliness, nor the fact that it is unknown or ignored by others; but, rather, the lucidity, the straightforwardness with which it bespeaks the power and presence of death among men in this world. The awful and the ubiquitous claim of death is not different for the poor than for others, or, for that matter, for nations or ideologies or other principalities or powers; but among the poor there are no grounds to rationalize the claim, no way to conceal the claim, no facile refutation of the claim, no place to escape or evade it...
...What sophisticates the suffering of the poor is only the proximity of their life to death every day...
...The awful vulnerability of the poor is, in fact, the common vulnerability of every man to the presence and power of death in the world
These quotations are from My People is the Enemy, and Beck comments that "Most of us, being affluent, are relatively immune to these struggles which creates the illusion that death isn't at work in our lives." Playing safe and staying in the crowd does nothing to avoid death beyond, perhaps, a postponement. Seen in this light, the terrifying cost for whoever "comes to me," (Luke 14:26) is suddenly a grace, for Jesus calls us away from a false safety which will always fail, into the reality of faith. "The real issues of faith have to do with how people are 'harassed by the premonition of death.'" (Beck) Yet, because of the Faith, also known as the Body of Christ,
The Christian goes about--wherever she be, which may be anywhere, whomever she is with, which may be anyone--edified and upheld by the sacramental community which is the Church in the congregation. The Christian is ready to face whatever is to be faced knowing that the only enemy is the power of death, whatever form or appearance death may take. The Christian is confident that the Word of God has already gone before us. Therefore the Christian can live and act, whatever the circumstances, without fear of or bondage to either our own death or the works of death in the world. The Christian is enabled and authorized by the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church and to each of us in baptism to expose all that death has done and can do, rejoicing in the freedom of God which liberates all people, all principalities, all things from bondage to death. (From Free in Obedience, quoted here.)
This is the freedom to which Jesus calls us. We will come to him formed by family, and may come to him bearing—indeed, stricken with—wounds from our family which are so deep they will not become healed and faded scars[ii] until the Last Day comes— with wounds which will weep until then. Yet there will be a freedom despite these wounds we carry.
The quotation above is the second last paragraph of Free in Obedience. The last paragraph says
That being so, the Christian is free to give his or her life to the world, to anybody at all, even to one who does not know about or acknowledge the gift, even to one whom the world would regard as unworthy of the gift. The Christian does so without reserve, compromise, hesitation, or prudence, but with modesty, assurance, truth, and serenity. That being so, the Christian is free, within the freedom of God, to be obedient unto his or her own death.
In his own book, The Slavery of Death, Beck often quotes Stringfellow, and also quotes John Chrysostom.
He who fears death is a slave and subjects himself to everything in order to avoid dying. . . . [But] he who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil. For indeed “man would give skin for skin, and all things for [the sake of] his life,” [Job 2:4] and if a man should decide to disregard this, whose slave is he then? He fears no one, is in terror of no one, is higher than everyone, and is freer than everyone. For he who disregards his own life disregards more so all other things. And when the devil finds such a soul, he can accomplish in it none of his works. Tell me, though, what can he threaten? The loss of money or honor? Or exile from one’s country? For these are small things to him “who counteth not even his life dear,” says blessed Paul [Acts 20:24].Do you see that in casting out the tyranny of death, He has dissolved the strength of the devil? (Richard Beck, The Slavery of Death, quoting Romanides, Ancestral Sin, pp168–69. The excerpt is from Homily IV of Chrysostom’s Homilies on Hebrews.)
This freedom from the slavery of death is the promise of the Faith. But as my friend John Peters would sometimes say after an inspiring sermon, "How, exactly, do we do that? How do we grab hold of the reality?" We begin by living it. Stringfellow wrote much about life among the poor. I suspect he experienced the truth of Matthew 25, where the Son of Man came unrecognised to both to the sheep and the goats as those who were poor. The people who came to the sheep and the goats were hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick and in prison, (vv35 et al) surely a picture of the poor and the outsiders of our time. It is in the small stepping outside the safety of our crowd, our mob, our tribe, that we see more clearly the threat of death, and yet paradoxically, in the practise of small deaths, find death losing its power because we have been in the presence of Jesus.
Luke 14:25-35, and similar passages, terrify me. I can only trust God's grace and forgiveness for my poor discipleship. Yet in the gift of beginning of resurrection life; that is, the gift of living with a still small freedom from the fear of death, I join the great journey that is Glory: God's completion and perfection of the Creation.
(Andrew Prior August 2022)
[i] I have retained the masculine language of Stringfellow and others as quoted by Beck.
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