Count the cost

8 September 2013
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 18C (RCL)
Jeremiah 18:1-11
Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17
Philemon 1-20
Luke 14:25-33

My preaching professor in seminary said if you have a text to preach on that you don’t like, you should begin with your text, depart from your text, and never return to your text — he was joking of course. This is one of those Gospel readings no one likes: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, cannot be my disciple.” Even Matthew didn’t like it — that Gospel changes this pronouncement to “Whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me.” How do we set the pronouncement about hating parents alongside the commandment to honor father and mother?

Commentators try to wiggle out of the shock of this saying. The word “hate” is a bad translation from the Aramaic into the Greek (unfortunately, there is no evidence that Q ever existed in Aramaic). It is intended to be hyperbole. One can find any number of attempts to skirt the difficulty of this saying. This pericope comes just after the parable of the king’s banquet: those invited declined, and so the servant compelled people to come in off the highways and byways. Jesus told that parable in response to someone’s exclamation, “Blessed is the one who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.” The parable suggests that the people eating bread in the kingdom aren’t who we might expect.

The meal context shifts, in the first verse of this passage, to the journey motif — Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem and his death. If it is the unexpected who will eat bread in the kingdom, then among the great crowds following him, not everyone will be so honored. Luke includes, among the material unique to that Gospel, the sending of the 70. If itinerancy is part of the christian vocation, then only those willing to leave all behind could undertake it. And, for Luke, that itinerary involved Jerusalem, and Jesus’ fate. Living after the pattern of Jesus meant being on the road, and the end of the road being the cross. Carrying the cross probably meant something like living for others. The seventy were to enter whatever house would have them, cure the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons and eat whatever was set before them, and then proclaim the kingdom. Not exactly the way to earn a parent’s respect (my son, the doctor).

I’m not sure whether it’s a good thing or not so good that being christian doesn’t cost us so much these days. I don’t think it even cost so much in Luke’s day — even then, there was a nostalgia for the “good old days.” There are places in the world where it does cost, but not very much here. The church grappled with the same issue when Constantine removed the penalty. It’s almost too easy.

I love Paul’s letter to Philemon. It is masterfully composed. Paul backs Philemon into a corner. He will be covered with shame if he does not receive and even free Onesimus. The letter is loaded with puns: Onesimus means “useful” and chrestos is a synonym. “He was once useless (achreston) to you, but now he is very useful (euchreston, which looks, not accidentally a lot like eucharist) both to you and to me. Here again, Philemon will have to accept a loss of status in the world’s eyes (freeing a runaway slave) in order not to be shamed in the christian community. Paul has laid before him a stark choice. Perhaps as a church, we demand too little.

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