“Or 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? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.”
It’s been very difficult for me these past few days to think about these verses from today’s gospel reading and not reflect on what their meaning might be in the international debate that is swirling around the prospect of US intervention in the conflict in Syria. Certainly, on the surface, Jesus seems to be encouraging his listeners to consider the consequences of their actions. If they decide to take up their crosses, to follow him and be his disciples, what might that decision cost them?
Although that’s the setting in which Luke has these sayings or parables, they seem equally fitting today. What might the consequences be if we launch cruise missiles against Asad? Will it tip the balance in a vicious, and long-lasting civil war? Will it lead to more chaos, perhaps the ultimate victory of an equally reprehensible and brutal faction of Asad’s opponents? How will Iran respond? All of these questions make clear that th e situation is fraught with peril. But for many people, the prospect of doing nothing in the face of unspeakable horror is equally problematic.
In our context, Jesus’ question seems pointedly wrong—kings (dictators, presidents) seem to act without carefully considering the consequences or the chances of success. Often, their judgment is clouded by wishful thinking or bad advice.
In times like this, we often struggle to make sense of what seems to be the right thing to do. We want to do something—we want the international community to do something but it’s rarely clear exactly what is the best course. The same thing is true of our personal lives. Whether at work or at home among our families, the decisions we make often seem to lead in directions that are unclear.
And being serious about following Jesus Christ is what today’s gospel is all about. These sayings of Jesus are among the most difficult for us to hear. They seem to be absolutist—demanding total commitment and a total break with everything in our lives, down to the relationships we hold most dear: with our closest family members. Jesus doesn’t seem to be speaking only of priorities—of putting God first—but rather it’s all or nothing: “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.” This is one of those sayings of Jesus I always bring up when people start talking to me about “Christian family values,” by the way.
Jesus continues, linking his own journey to Jerusalem and his journey to the cross with the fate of those who would be his disciples: “whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
As I’ve pointed out when we’ve heard similar drastic statements of Jesus while reading the Gospel of Luke this summer, our tendency is often to disregard such statements. They seem so outlandish, so impossible, that to do what Jesus seems to be urging us to do is not simply hard, it seems out of the question. So, unless we’re mentally or religiously unbalanced, we let the words go in one ear and out the other. They can’t be meant for us, they can’t be meant to help us orient our lives in the twenty-first century. And the proof of that is the final sentence of today’s gospel: “So, therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
If we think of ourselves as Jesus’ disciples, we can’t imagine that sort of total commitment to following him. We can’t imagine giving everything up. Still, we know that in some places of the world, following Jesus does mean being willing to give everything up—possessions, loved ones, even one’s life. And so, we wonder, what might these words mean for us in 21st century America.
We might even think that such quandaries or struggles are new to us in the contemporary world. We imagine the lives of faithful Christians in previous centuries when life was simpler. We imagine those faithful Christians following Jesus’ words more closely than we can because their lives were so less complicated than ours, the struggles they had somehow less challenging than the ones we face.
But that’s not the case. Christians throughout the centuries have struggled just the way we do today to connect what they hear on Sunday with what they did the rest of the week. Indeed, we see something of that struggle played out already in the New Testament, for example in Paul’s letter to Philemon which was read in its entirety this morning. It’s unique among Paul’s letters in that it is written to an individual and it deals with single issue: the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon.
Now this letter is much discussed by scholars, in part because it deals with slavery, which we find abhorrent and which the letter seems to suggest Paul is comfortable with. There’s a great deal of mystery in the letter and in the context behind it. Was Onesimus, the slave, sent by his master to Paul, to take care of the Apostle while he languished in prison? Had Onesimus run away and come to Paul for protection? We don’t know; there are even scholars who argue the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus was not one of master and slave. Whatever the case, it’s clear that Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon, with this letter. The letter is Paul’s attempt to commend Onesimus, to underscore the depth of their relationship (Paul calls him brother and “heart”), and to somehow renegotiate the terms of the relationship between the two.
To us, Paul seems here, of all places to be wishy-washy, to be denying his own principles of the freedom we have in Christ, a freedom that breaks down the boundaries between slave and free, as he sends Onesimus back to his master. And our impressions are very much true. Slavery is abhorrent, and the notion that Paul could have condoned it, as he seems to do here, especially a Christian master keeping a Christian slave, is shocking.
But I would like to come back to my earlier point. In the gospel, we see Jesus making radical demands of his followers and of us. Many of us feel uncomfortable with those demands. We experience the world as messy, full of competing demands of work, family, self, and our faith. Paul clearly saw the world, at least in this case, in messy terms as well. Perhaps he didn’t make the decision he should have, that we would have wanted him to make, but it’s certainly the case that in making the decision he did, he was trying to follow his Lord.
The world is still messy. Whether it’s injustice here at home or the horrific violence taking place in Syria, we often feel impotent to act, or uncertain of just what to do. As a nation, as a world community, we are struggling right now to figure out how to respond to unspeakable evil. Lashing out with cruise missiles is easy but many of us worry about how much destruction and death those missiles will cause. We also worry about the cycle of violence that will only get worse. Sometimes the way forward is clear in the midst of this messy world; other times, there seems to be no right way to act. At the same time, we need to remember that Jesus preached a gospel of peace; that following him means abandoning violence.
We live in a messy world. We face all kinds of decisions in our lives that seem not to be clear-cut. We face choices at work that might seem the lesser of two evils; we wonder what it might mean to follow Jesus’ call. Whether the decisions are large or small, it’s about trying to be faithful day in, day out. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him. These words challenge us to follow him in all of our lives, in everything we do. They challenge us to get our priorities in line. They challenge us to see everything in light of the cross. Everything! All that we do, all of our values, our hopes and fears, the things we love most dearly lie in the shadow of the cross, by the love demonstrated by Christ’s outstretched arms, and by his call to follow him.