Imagine a politician standing on a soap-box addressing a crowd. ‘If you’re going to vote for me,’ he says, ‘you’re voting to lose your homes and families; you’re asking for higher taxes and lower wages; you’re deciding in favour of losing all you love best! So come on – who’s on my side?’
I reckon the crowd wouldn’t even bother heckling him, or throwing eggs at him. They’d just be puzzled. Why on earth would anyone try to advertise himself in that way? But isn’t that what Jesus is doing in this astonishing passage? ‘Want to be my disciple, do you? Well, in that case you have to learn to hate your family, give up your possessions, and get ready for a nasty death!’ Hardly the way, as we say, to win friends and influence people.
But wait a minute. Supposing, instead of a politician, we think of the leader of a great expedition, forging a way through a high and dangerous mountain pass to bring urgent medical aid to villagers cut off from the rest of the world. ‘If you want to come any further,’ the leader says, ‘you’ll have to leave your packs behind. From here on the path is too steep to carry all that stuff. You probably won’t find it again. And you’d better send your last postcards home; this is a dangerous route and it’s very likely that several of us won’t make it back?’ I suspect many of us can understand that a bit more. We may not like the sound of it, but we can see why it would make sense. And I think we can then see, therefore, that Jesus is more like the leader of the expedition than the politician.
Since Christianity has often, rightly or wrongly, been associated with what are called ‘family values’, it comes as a shock to many folk to be told to ‘hate’ your parents, wife and children, and siblings; but when the instruction goes one step further, that one must hate one’s own self, and be prepared for shameful death (‘take up your cross’ wasn’t simply a figure of speech in Jesus’ world), then we begin to see what’s going on. Jesus is not denying the importance of close family, and the propriety of living in supportive harmony with them. But when there’s an urgent task to be done, as there now is, then everything else, including one’s own life, must be put at risk for the sake of the kingdom.
The same is true of possessions. Many of Jesus’ followers, then and now, have owned houses and lands, and have not felt compelled to abandon them. But being prepared to do so is the sign that one has understood the seriousness of the call to follow Jesus. Any of us, at any time, might be summoned to give up everything quite literally and respond to a new emergency situation. If we’re not ready for that, we are like the tower-builder or warmonger who haven’t thought through what they are really about.
These two pictures, the tower and the battle, themselves carried a cryptic warning in Jesus’ day. The most important building project of his time was of course the Temple in Jerusalem. Herod the Great had begun a massive programme of rebuilding and beautifying it, and his sons and heirs were carrying on the work. But what was it all for? Would it ever be completed? Jesus has already warned that God had abandoned his house. Herod’s Temple would shortly be left a smouldering ruin, its folly plain for all to see.
This is not unconnected to the second warning. If Jesus’ contemporaries had fighting in mind, the chief enemy against whom they were longing to go to war was Rome. They probably only had a vague idea of who exactly the Romans were and what sort of forces they had at their command; otherwise, long before they came to blows, they would have taken the wise course and found a way to peace. But Jesus’ warnings, and his urgings towards peace, were falling on deaf ears. His listeners, too concerned to hang on to their ancestral possessions, were eager for a war that would set them and their land free at last. Jesus was confronting them with a true emergency, and they were unable to see it and respond appropriately.
The last warning, therefore, comes with renewed force. Israel is supposed to be the salt of the earth, the people through whom God’s world is kept wholesome and made tasty. But if Israel loses her particular ability and flavour, what is left? The warning backs up the cryptic sayings about the tower and the battle, and brings us back to the all-or-nothing challenge. Jesus is facing his contemporaries with a moment of crisis in which they must either be Israel indeed, through following him, or they must face the ruin of the tower and the devastation of the lost battle.
It’s not difficult, and Luke may already have had this in mind, to reapply these hard sayings to the ongoing life of the church. At every stage of its life the church has faced the challenge, not only of living up to Jesus’ demands, but of placing them before the world. Where are the towers, and where are the wars, that our world is hell-bent on building and fighting? How can we summon the human race once more to costly obedience? The challenge is there in our own lives, and in our church, as it is in our community and our world.
I’m going tend by reading some verses by Harriet de Beer:
Although it is heavy and seems unfair
All have been given our own cross to bear
Some call them burdens; a thorn in the side
Some call them mountains or storms to abide
We don’t understand this purposeful weight
So we beg and we plead for the load to abate
And when it’s not lifted we think there’s no care
We become distraught, we begin to despair
For a time our vision is blurred by our tears
And our minds can’t think beyond all the fears
Then a voice from above we cannot see
Says “take up your cross and come follow me”
And deep within the core of our being
We know we can trust this voice though unseen
So gently and slowly we take our first stride
Faithfully trusting that he’ll be our guide
And so we begin to carry this cross
Apprehension and fear to the winds we toss
What once we saw as a cumbersome chore
Instead brings wisdom and so much more
As time goes by we soon realise
That the weight of the cross was not our demise
As time passes by we learn something new
The weight brings strength and wisdom too
So take up the cross that’s yours to bear
Now hear the voice that speaks with care
In carrying this burden don’t fail to see
That He added the words “come follow me”