“For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”
(1 Timothy 6:10)
Yet we know that folks of means were great benefactors and supporters of not only Jesus and the Twelve, but in the discipleship of many early Christians.
Do you get uncomfortable with some of the messages we receive? I know I do, messages like:
Sell your possessions and follow me’
‘It is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.’
What is wealth?
What is rich?
It is not as if we are provided with defined financial guidelines that tell us that above a certain dollar amount we have entered into the category of ‘rich’.
Or Again Are We?
‘but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.’
(1 Timothy 6:8)
Our expression of faith, through our liturgy, readings and lessons, poses questions for us to consider, regarding what our approach to life will be. What will our approach to life be as we attempt to live through the grey areas of life? Rather than simply/mindlessly comply with rigidly worded dictates.
Our guidance through these grey areas of life often comes to us through parables, such as today’s parable of the Rich man and Lazarus. Much has been written about Jesus’ use of parables as a teaching method. Do they make you think and consider?
When it comes to these parables, I sometimes feel as if I hear, but don’t completely understand. My hope and prayer is that as we reflect, we bring our heads and hearts closer together, as we experience these grey areas of life.
I am not a billionaire or millionaire. Based on any given yardstick, I am not rich, yet, I know I have bounty that many do not. I have food, clothing, shelter, and more. Sitting down to a home cooked meal, surrounded by those I love, I have thought, “I am living like a lord”.
In today’s parable Jesus describes a rich man who dresses in purple and fine linen. Purple was a very expensive dye for clothing, in that time. Jesus tells us that this man feasted sumptuously every day (not just on special occasions, but everyday). These features of Jesus’ description seem to emphasize the degree of this man’s richness.
At the gate of this rich man’s estate lay a poor man named Lazarus. Lazarus is described as being covered with sores, longing for the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table, and the dogs would come and lick his sores. I would imagine the dogs may also compete with Lazarus for those scraps that fell from the rich man’s table.
The social norms of the day were such that it was a reasonable expectation that those with more would offer something to those with less, regularly. There have been archaeological digs that have provided evidence that benches were regularly built into the walls of great estates, near the gates, where the less well off would sit and receive, those “scraps that fell from the table” of the rich.
So the rich man was very rich and Lazarus was very poor and not well. And the rich man consciously ignored Lazarus and his plight regularly, probably daily.
And upon the death of each of these men, their conditions changed. And when the rich man was told he would not receive relief from his torment and agony - he said then “Please, at least warn my brothers, so that they may avoid my fate.”
But father Abraham replies, “Your brothers have the teaching of Moses and the prophets to guide them. They should listen to them.”
The rich man says – “No, father Abraham - if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”
But father Abraham says, “No, No, if they are not able to hear the messages of Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced, even if someone rises from the dead.”
Some interesting features of this particular parable occurred to me, upon reflection;
First, Lazarus is named. So often, in parables, we do not have participants personally named; rather they are identified through description only:
And the rich man seems to continue to see and hold Lazarus as a servant or less than:
‘ have Lazarus dip his finger in the water and cool my tongue’ (Luke16:24)
‘have Lazarus go to my brothers and warn them’ (Luke 16:28)
The rich man seems to see the world and his participation in it, somewhat superficially:
There seems to have been no conversion in his sight, no internal conversion or insight to see he may have participated in the world differently.
This seems to be the point attempted to be made by father Abraham regarding the rich man’s brothers: “Everything your brothers need is provided to them through the teaching of Moses and the prophets.”
Are they open to hearing the message that guides them to participate in the world in a comforting manner?
On the face of it, the status of wealth can appear to exclude one from God or keep one distant from God.
Upon reflection, though, we are guided and shepherded toward God, regardless of our socioeconomic status.
Paul and Timothy are living in the real world, a world into which we bring nothing and in the end, take nothing. As the rich man and his brothers had Moses and the prophets, we have Jesus, Paul, and Timothy telling us, “and as for those, who in the present age, are rich, be not haughty or set your hopes on the uncertainty of riches; do good, be rich in good works, generous, ready to share.”
(1 Timothy 6:17-18)
And for all of us, “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.”
( 1 Timothy 6:11)
Our liturgy this week encourages us to consider where we are rich and wealthy? ;
to reflect upon, Where does our cup runneth over?
Does our pursuit or desire for richness keep us separate from God and those around us?
In contrast to the many loud and dramatic messages of this world to focus on the accumulation of things, status, and wealth, our lessons encourage to be open to messages around us centered in goodness, our priorities ordered to favor faith, love, endurance, and gentleness.
We are urged to take it upon ourselves to be still and know God and navigate the grey areas of life with kindness to ourselves and to those around us.
You know, I retired from working for 40 years in the field of addiction recovery. My friends in Alcoholics Anonymous taught me this prayer. It attempts to guide us toward the spirit of doing good, being rich in good works, generous, ready to share.
God I offer myself to Thee - to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of Life. May I do Thy will always. - Amen
I need to start with some language commentary. You may have noticed that in our announcements about this sermon it was titled “Hebrew Scriptures”, with “Old Testament” following in parentheses. Our bulletin announcement, further, referred to the “First Testament”. What is this all about? Do these labels matter? Of course they do.
I don’t use the term “Old Testament”. I am not comfortable with its implications and connotations. The term “testament” comes from the Latin testamentum, which, in Latin, comes from the Hebrew word for “covenant”. The Church has traditionally held that God made the first covenant with Israel through Moses, and fulfilled (or some would say ) replaced that covenant in Jesus. This can easily lead to a way of thinking about Hebrew Scriptures as outdated, “Old”, less relevant because they have been superceded by the “New” covenant. I simply choose not to use language that might imply this. For me, “Hebrew Scriptures”, or even “First Covenant” are more helpful in conveying respect not only for this collection of texts, but also for the living religion of Judaism, for which these books are not old, but remain sacred in revealing the truth of humankind’s relationship with God.
So back to the topic at hand!
The word Bible comes from the Greek ta biblia, which means “the books”. It’s a plural noun. The Bible, both Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian scriptures of the New Testament, are more like a library than a book. And they’re an incredibly diverse library. The books of the Hebrew Scriptures also include an incredibly wide range of kinds of writing: they include narrative, poetry, prayer, law codes, mythological tales, prophecy, short stories, and more.
The books of the Hebrew Bible were recorded – a number of them taking written form after existing for generations in oral tradition – over the course of more than a thousand years. (The books of the New Testament, by contrast, were composed within a span of less than a hundred years!)
What is included in the Hebrew Scriptures, and how it is organized, is an awfully complicated matter. Understanding the fine print on the differences that exist between religious traditions isn’t important, but knowing THAT the differences exist IS important . Here’s an example. Along with other Protestant denominations, our Bibles in the Anglican tradition follow the Jewish practice of including only those books written in Hebrew (although a couple of them include brief passages in Aramaic). Roman Catholic Bibles also include, in their Old Testament, six more books that were written in Greek. We call these “the Apocrypha”.
Another example: You may hear that we have 40 books in Hebrew Scriptures but that there are 24 in a Hebrew Bible: the material is the same, but we divide into separate books a number of writings that Jewish Bibles treat as one as.
This minutia is interesting for academics, but really doesn’t matter in a faith context. What matters is that the writings of the Hebrew Scriptures express the many ways in which the people of Israel sought to capture and articulate what they understood about the God – the God with whom they were (and continue to be) in relationship. They did so through symbols and stories, through myths and memories whose purpose was to instruct and inspire and unify the Community of Israel. Over the course of more than a thousand year of history that included much more struggle and hardship than it did peace and prosperity, Israel sought to maintain faith and sustain hope; they failed at living into their covenants with God as least as often as they succeeded. The writings of Hebrew Scriptures are the written expression of that dramatic and complex story.
And it is terribly important to remember that Jesus was born into that story and lived, fully committed to the wisdom and the faith of the Hebrew Scriptures.
So - are you ready for a whirlwind tour? Probably the best way to survey the contents of the Hebrew Scriptures is look at the books’ contents as they reflect the story of the nation of Israel.
The first written materials in the Hebrew Bible probably didn’t take written form before Israel was united as a monarchy under King David around 1000 BCE. At that time the priests and scribes began recording ancestral stories that had been passed along orally within the community for about two centuries. The final form of the first biblical books didn’t exist until centuries later, but the first building blocks were taking shape under David.
The first five books of Hebrew Scriptures are a set, identified as the Five Books of Moses or, for Jews, the Torah (which means “Teaching” or “Instruction”).
The first book, Genesis, explains beginnings, including the creation of the world (through two very different stories) and the primordial myths of the Flood and the Tower of Babel. The bulk of the book provides the narrative of God’s original outreach and covenant with the ancestors of the Jewish people. In the stories of Genesis, Abraham and Sarah and their offspring had quite a series of adventures, knew some moments of great faith and made at least as many bad decisions, but nonetheless survived their trials and tribulations with God’s help.
Exodus, Genesis’ sequel, picks up with the people of Israel thrust into slavery in Egypt and it narrates the call of Moses and his actions (with siblings Aaron and Miriam and, of course God’s frequent intervention) in leading the community out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and to Mount Sinai where Moses received, from God, the Law, the full terms of the Covenant between God and the people.
The rest of the Five Books of Moses – Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – lay out in great detail the regulations that govern the life and practices for God’s people (including instructions for religious and domestic obligations of the community), as well as the further travels and trials of the people before their entry into the Promised Land, and Moses’ farewell addresses before his death.
The second section of Hebrew Scriptures contains historical narrative. The set begins with the books of Joshua and Judges, which together cover the conquest and division of Canaan and the years during which Israel functioned as a Tribal Confederacy before the establishment of the Hebrew Monarchy. These books tell about generations of repeated bloody conflicts with neighboring groups, followed by deliverance through God’s intervention, usually through the raising up of heroic leaders such as Deborah and Samson.
After the tribal period, Israel eventually established a monarchy during which, while the nation was not without continuing challenges and ongoing threats from other nations, there was at least a period of relatively greater peace and prosperity. The books of 1 and 2 Samuel recount the (largely troubled) reign of King Saul (accompanied by the prophet Samuel) and the ascendancy and early triumphs of King David, followed by his downfall as a result of his own wrongdoing.
1 and 2 Kings continue the saga, covering the succession of Solomon, David’s son, to the throne, and the significant accomplishments of his reign., including, the construction of the First Temple in Jerusalem.
These historical books continue and elaborate on a theme that began in the stories of Israel’s wilderness wanderings both before and after establishment of the Law at Mount Sinai. The theme is that of a cycle that the storytellers report that Israel lived out over and over again: it consisted of unfaithfulness – either because of the people’s anxiety and doubt, or by the people falling away from the covenant with God through inattention or selfishness – followed by hardship, followed by deliverance by God, resulting in renewed faith and commitment, after a period of which they would again fall away into unfaithfulness.
The most significant hardships in Israel’s story began as Solomon’s reign ended and the united nation split into two. The truth of “United we stand, divided we fall” was borne out for the people of Israel over the course of the 350 or so years while they lived as two separate states, Israel in the North and Judah in the south, under a series of kings. During this time, recounted in 1 and 2 Kings, the people repeatedly continued to fall away from their faithfulness to the Law, including turning to worship of other gods, and their conflicts with surrounding nations were escalating.
As the leaders and people turned from the covenant, prophets arose, repeatedly calling the people to return, as we remember in our eucharistic prayers. Elijah and Elisha’s stories are told in great detail in 2 Kings. Despite the prophets’ entreaties, Israel was brutally conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BCE. (The descendants of the northern kingdom, you’ll remember, are the Samaritans who feature repeatedly in the New Testament.) Less than 150 years later, in 586, the Kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians with the conquest of Jerusalem.
When Jerusalem fell, the leadership and priestly classes of the Hebrew people were taken prisoner and forced into exile in Babylon, a time remembered painfully in Psalm 137:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.
The period of monarchy from David through the divided kingdom and Exile is summarized and recounted, again, in the books of 1 and 2 Chronicles. These are the last of the biblical texts specifically devoted to the community’s history, though the brief books of Ezrah and Nehemiah, which follow Chronicles, provide some details of the eventual restoration of the Jewish people to Jerusalem the surrounding lands of Judah. After the restoration, after the Babylonian Exile, the people of Israel were never again self-governed (until modern times). Assyrian and Babylonian rule were followed by the Persians, and later, the Hellenists and the Roman Empire.
Having told the story of the political fortunes and misfortunes of the people of Israel in the historic books, the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures include a variety of writings. In the order in which they appear:
The final collection of books in the Hebrew Scriptures are the teachings of the prophets, interrupted by three other brief texts:
In this last section of Hebrew Scriptures we hear from the prophets, including the major prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and “the twelve” minor prophets. They preached before and during the Exile, interpreting to the people of Israel, often in God’s name and in God’s voice, the meaning of the events happening to the community, and foretelling what was to come.
They pronounced bitter and searing condemnation of the people’s sins and abandonment of their responsibility to their covenant with God. They passionately declared God’s displeasure and God’s readiness to abandon the people to the suffering their transgressions deserved. The prophets did not leave condemnation and despair as the final word, however. They reiterated God’s love and reaffirmed God’s mercy, promising restoration for those who return to God’s covenant.
The words and stories and images of these scriptures sustained the people of Israel through generations of turbulent history. They rescued the people from despair by providing a vision of a higher calling. They offered insight, direction, and hope, often doing so in absolutely gorgeous language.
The Hebrew Scriptures are the foundation of our own faith. Let us cherish them and let us continue to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” all they have to offer.
Special Teaching Sermon on The Middle East: On a Flight From Cairo to New York With Isaac and Ishmael
I’ve been teaching, working, and traveling, with students and adults, in the Middle East for forty-five years. My experience has included working in churches in Jerusalem and Cairo, travel and study in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, teaching Arabic, and translating materials from Arabic into English, including a full length book by an Iraqi human rights lawyer on the concept of tolerance in Islamic thought.
In a moment I’ll describe an encounter I experienced with the sons of Abraham - Isaac and Ishmael - on a flight from Cairo to New York nearly twenty years ago. Of course, I don’t mean the actual sons of Abraham, but the eponymous ones: Abraham’s spiritual descendants: Isaac for Jews and Christians and Ishmael for Muslims. By the way, Ishmael’s name in the Qur’an is Ismail, a popular name for Muslim males.
We know from Genesis that both Isaac and Ishmael were sons of Abraham: Ishmael by a slave woman named Hagar, and Isaac by Abraham’s wife Sarah. Isaac, of course, outranked Ishmael because his mother was Abraham’s legal wife while Hagar was only a slave. Ishmael and Hagar were eventually banished. Tradition says they wandered in the Arabian peninsula and wound up in Mecca where their descendant Muhammad would many centuries later introduce the world to the religion of Islam.
And so was born the rivalry between the monotheistic religions that comes down to us to this day, a rivalry not only of religion, but also importantly a rivalry over the lands and resources of the Middle East. And, as Nine-Eleven reminded us, it’s a rivalry that has spread to include much of the rest of the world, even a flight from Cairo to New York nearly twenty years ago.
So, what about that flight from Cairo to New York? In the spring of 2004, I took a group of students to Cairo to participate in a Model United Nations conference. Model UN is an international organization that brings students together from all over the world. In 2004, the conference was held in Cairo. I’ve also led my students to Model UN conferences in Amman, Doha, and Lisbon. And, I’ve taken students to Istanbul to meet and discuss international affairs with Turkish students.
The Cairo trip began with sightseeing at the pyramids, the medieval Islamic monuments and markets in the Old City, visits to museums, and a boat ride on the Nile, all of this before the conference itself where my students debated the big international issues of the times with their peers from all over the world.
When it was over and we’d boarded the plane for the twelve-hour flight back to New York, I was looking forward to a very long nap in the air. While my group was seated together several rows up from me, my seat was in the middle of a row in Coach between two strangers.
It quickly became clear there would be no napping on that flight. I discovered I was shoulder to shoulder between two men whom I silently nicknamed “Ishmael” and “Isaac,” not those rival sons of Abraham in the Book of Genesis, but the Ishmael and Isaac of the religious conflict of our own times.
“Ishmael” was an Egyptian Muslim from Alexandria and “Isaac” was an American Jew from New York City. These were men whose hatred for one another quickly became loudly apparent. And so, there I was, shoulder-to-shoulder between two of the world’s oldest and most deeply entrenched hatreds.
When “Ishmael” and “Isaac” discovered who one another was, a shouting match erupted. Muslim Ishmael, leaning across me, yelled at Jewish Isaac, “I hate Jews; I’ve always hated Jews.” I asked him why he hated Jews. He yelled, “Because my father hates Jews and all my brothers hate Jews.”
The New York version of “Isaac” hurled similar epithets across me at his Muslim enemy on my left. I helped calm them down. However, no minds were changed that day. Isaac got up and moved away to an empty seat behind us. Ishmael and I didn’t speak for the rest of the flight. My attempts to foster at least some reconciliation and understanding that day ended in failure. Needless to say, I didn’t get the nap I’d hoped for.
After returning home, I tried to make sense out of that experience. I was drawn back to the Book of Genesis and to my first trip to the Middle East in 1979. On that trip, I’d visited the Palestinian West Bank town of Hebron, which Palestinian Arabs call al-Khalil. Traditions in all three faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) say that Abraham, Sarah, and other patriarchs and matriarchs from Genesis are buried there in a cave called Machpelah. In the first century, King Herod the Great built a shrine over the cave.
When Abraham died, Genesis 25 says that both Ishmael and Isaac returned to the Machpelah Cave to bury their father – together!
Sadly, that spirit of mutuality was short-lived. Today, Israeli soldiers guard the tomb because there have been serious disturbances there, the worst, in February, 1994 when, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, an Israeli-American physician opened fire on early morning Muslim worshippers inside the shrine killing twenty-nine and wounding 125. This incident typifies tribalistic animosities that seem bent on blotting out the memory of what happened there three thousand years ago when two brothers, who had become patriarchs in their own right, buried their differences long enough so that they could come together and bury their father. The Machpelah of Genesis was sadly as far away as I’ve ever felt it on that trip home from Cairo.
So, is religion part of the problem in the Middle East? History is, after all, full of holy wars, crusades, and jihads. Is religion responsible for these divisions? To the extent that religious extremists feel free to exploit and amplify the differences between peoples in the region as they compete for land and resources, then, yes, religion is part of the problem.
The late Israeli-American Rabbi David Hartman thinks monotheistic religions deserve a big share of the blame for the animosity and violence between people who really do have more in common than they acknowledge. He used to say, "The one god of monotheism is an indicator not of unity but of division between and among people. The message throughout monotheism is sometimes one of intolerance. When occupation and ownership of land become linked to monotheistic religion, the message seems to be, ‘There's only enough for one.'”
This is especially the case, Rabbi Hartman says, in the Bible. In the Old Testament in particular there is a deep sense of scarcity. Adam has two sons: Cain and Abel. Abel gets his father’s blessing; Cain doesn’t. Abraham has two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Isaac gets the blessing, Ishmael doesn't. Isaac has two sons, Jacob and Esau. Jacob gets the blessing, Esau doesn't." There never seems to be enough for everyone (in the Old Testament at least).
Rabbi Hartman argues that if pluralism and inclusivism don’t replace exclusivism in the Middle East, then everything is going to be lost for everybody. Sadly, a portion of the exclusivism in the Middle East is being practiced by Americans, like my seat partner Isaac on that flight from Cairo: he belongs to that faction of evangelical Jews and Christians who believe that the Messiah will not come until Israel is a secure Jewish state and all challenges to Israeli sovereignty over all of Palestine are removed.
But, while religion may be part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution. To the extent that religion encourages people to bury their differences, as Isaac and Ishmael did when they buried father Abraham, it can be a powerful force for hope and change in the world. For every vengeful soul in the Middle East who chooses violence (and in spite of what we see in the media, the number is actually quite small) there are many more who have chosen the way of peace and are working hard to make peace happen. Ishmael and Isaac saw their pasts come together and intertwine at that cave south of Jerusalem. As their pasts intertwined, my hope is that eventually so, too, will their futures.
There are good reasons for holding onto that hope. Historically, Middle Eastern adherents of all three monotheistic sects have for the most part been good neighbors with one another: for millennia, they’ve attended one another’s worship services in the synagogues, churches, and mosques, and celebrated one another’s weddings, funerals, and other religious festivals together with mutual joy and good will.
I’ve worshiped in a synagogue in Jerusalem made up of an interfaith Jewish and Christian congregation.
I’ve known Muslims who routinely attend services or prayers of all three faiths: they go to mosques on Fridays, synagogues on Saturdays, and churches on Sundays.
During a sabbatical year in Cairo, I served on the clergy staff of the Anglican All Saints Cathedral under Egyptian Bishop Ghais Abdel Malik and his Provost, The Very Reverend Philip Cousins, now retired and living in his hometown of York, England.. Services were held in both English and Arabic. On Pentecost, to honor the many tongues spoken on the first Pentecost day, scripture readings were both in Arabic and English. Meetings of the clergy staff with both Egyptian and non-Egyptian clergy together, opened with all of us reciting the Lord’s Prayer in both English and Arabic.
The cathedral sexton was an Egyptian Muslim named Mustapha. His is one of the most revered nicknames of the Prophet Muhammad in the Qur’an: it means “the chosen one.” Mustapha put all of us to shame because he’d memorized the entire Eucharistic service and other large portions of the Anglican prayer book. What some might call doctrinally incorrect behavior included Muslim Mustapha coming to the rail and crossing himself before receiving the bread and wine. I’m reminded of those services in Cairo each time Heather or Molly says just before communion is distributed, “No exceptions!”
There are many examples of people of all faiths who as I speak are working tirelessly for peace in the Middle East. But, let me close by mentioning a personal and somewhat unusual experience. I spent two summers working on the archaeological dig at Tel Miqne, the site of the ancient city of Ekron, a Philistine city mentioned in First Samuel 17 in the story of David and Goliath. I made friends on that dig with a Palestinian Muslim college student named Talal Nasrallah. Talal lived in Gaza, just a few miles away.
To pass the time, Talal and I discovered we liked to sing rock ‘n’ roll oldies (in my late teens, I played in a rock band on the Eastern Shore of Delaware and Maryland. I still occasionally do public gigs with another veteran of ‘60s era rock bands). One of Talal’s favorite American groups was the Beach Boys. Never in my life did I expect a bond would be forged between an American Episcopal Priest and a Palestinian through singing Beach Boys songs together, but that’s what happened: “Isaac” and “Ishmael” singing rock ‘n’roll songs together while digging up biblical history on steamy hot summer days in Israel/Palestine! Go figure! God works in mysterious ways.
In today’s New York Times, British author Karen Armstrong says her understanding of religion has been influenced by the renowned medieval Muslim scholar and mystic Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240). He says in his Fusus al-Hikam (“The Seals of Wisdom”) that he felt at home in all places of worship because no faith has a monopoly on truth:
He wrote, “Do not praise your own faith so exclusively that you disbelieve all the rest. If you do this, you will fail to recognize the real truth of the matter. God, the omnipresent and omnipotent, cannot be confined to any one creed, for he says, ‘Wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah.’ (Qur’an 2:115).”
And with that, I want to close with a traditional Arabic blessing. It goes,
السلام عليكم ورحمة الله وبركاته
As-salaamu alaikum wa rahmatu Allahi wa Barakatuhu!
May the Peace, Mercy, and Blessings of God be upon you!
Yet, with this captive audience, Jesus actually does the opposite. He attempts to convince the crowd of the price they will pay if they choose to become followers on the Way of Love. While it might sound odd, I think there is some comfort to be found in such explicit honesty. After all, it is incredibly rare to encounter such complete transparency and truth. It provides the necessary components to build an abiding trust.
Who are the truth tellers in your life? It is not always easy to hear what they have to say, but we often know we can trust their sense of things.
Jesus is our truth teller. Both in this gospel story, and in our lives today, we can trust the truth he conveys: there is a price to joining this movement.
That price may look and feel different for us than it did for the early Church. And what feels costly to one of us, may not feel as costly to another. Yet as we continue to think about what it means to be the Church today, it is worth spending a little time unpacking that price.
So, what is the price of joining this movement?
In essence, Jesus tells the crowd: Joining this movement may cost you your priorities, your primary relationships, your possessions, plans, and pride. I imagine this list is not exhaustive, but it does serve as a warning that this movement is not one to be taken lightly. It is the real deal, and the price may feel too steep for some.
Jesus is not trying to pull some sleazy sales move. Rather, he is drawing the crowd's attention to the fine print, and offering them a magnifying glass so the actual cost does not go unnoticed. He compares the decision to when a landowner questions whether they are actually in a position to build a new tower or a king is in a position to wage a war. These particular comparisons also let us know that within the crowd were several influential and affluent individuals - as the vast majority of folks in antiquity were not facing decisions of such economic scale. Jesus is telling the crowd: Know what you are getting yourselves into.
The text tells us his speech to the crowd began:
“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. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26-27)
For most of us - this passage can be more than a little troubling. At first glance, his instruction to hate some of the most important people in our lives seems to contradict his overarching message. Yet after some reflection, we might find the meaning underneath these harsh words. Jesus may be trying to tell his listeners that - being a part of this movement will change our priorities.
We generally tend to be concerned with our own self-preservation or that of our family’s. If we are particularly generous, we might care about the preservation of the wider community. Yet God’s dream goes beyond any individual, family, community, or nation. If we join this movement, we are embracing God’s priorities in lieu of our own. Is that a price we are willing to pay?
Families tend to share priorities, and when they don’t, tension and conflict may begin to breed. While it may be a very simple example, we lived through this family tension when I was ordained and began parish ministry. When I entered the ordination process, it was with the loving and enthusiastic support of our large extended family. While most of the family was from a different branch of the Jesus Movement - our core values of faith were largely the same. Maybe it was because of this, that I did not anticipate the tension that arose.
As I began to need to be present at worship on Sunday mornings and on high holy days like Christmas and Easter, the reality began to set in. It meant we moved away from our extended family, and we began to attend less family events - as most were on Saturday night's and took place several hours away. Nor did we partake in the long standing traditions of the large Christmas gathering or Easter morning brunch.
Our priorities were to spend these sacred days, and most Sundays, with our faith community, and we joined in large family events as we were able. Our faith led our priorities elsewhere, and while it was understood by all on a practical, intellectual level - it was not always understood on an emotional one. On an emotional level it was disappointing for some that we had chosen these priorities, and it has caused some uncomfortable conversations over the years. Even as we all love one another deeply, and want one another to be happy. We each do our best to try and understand where the other is coming from, and are intentional about enjoying the time that we do spend together.
When we choose priorities that differ from our family - whether it be from our faith or some other reason - there will naturally be tension and it may lead to more challenging conflicts and broken relationships. Many of us have experienced this fracture when it comes to social justice issues. When our faith leads us to change our practices to address climate change, there are other loved ones who may mock this choice because they do not believe climate change exists. There are countless ways for these divisions to bubble up in our primary relationships.
Jesus wants the crowd to understand that - being a part of this movement will change your priorities, which will lead to a change in your primary relationships. That change may be barely perceptible, or it might be acutely painful. Is that a price we are willing to pay?
Jesus then takes his point one step further by telling the crowd:
“...none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."
Remember, he has just compared their need to carefully consider the cost of joining this movement to that of a landowner questioning whether they are actually in a position to build a new tower or whether a king is in a position to wage a war. There are several affluent and influential people in the crowd. And he has just told them that the price of joining this movement is giving up all their possessions. I imagine this message was startling to say the least.
Yet, underneath his blunt message, is an astute and important truth. Jesus is telling the crowd - your possessions cost you more than you know. Our possessions hold power over us. In order to walk the Way of Love, we need to be ready to give up those possessions and release ourselves of the power they hold over us. This doesn’t mean you quite literally need to give up all your possessions - it means you constantly need to be examining your relationship to your possessions.
So, what do we possess?
Well, we possess money. We store it in our purses, in jars in our cupboards, maybe underneath our mattresses, and in our bank accounts, 401ks, stock investments, and other assets. The more money we have, the more we may be tempted to protect that money. Or if we have lived with scarcity our whole lives, what little money we do have we cling to with dear life. If we are not mindful of our relationship to money, we can find ourselves serving our money, instead of focusing on God’s priorities on the Way of Love.
We also possess a lot of physical stuff. As Americans, we are particularly prone to owning a ridiculous amount of stuff. This stuff fills and clutters our homes. Businesses use advertisements to convince us that all our problems will be solved if we simply buy this one product or subscribe to this one service. So we do it. We buy more stuff, which requires more of our time to use the stuff, more of our attention to take care of the stuff, and more of our money to maintain the stuff. And I would argue, all that physical stuff cluttering our lives reflects the internal clutter we carry around inside our souls. In other words, without an intentional relationship with our physical stuff, we may find ourselves serving our stuff, and lose sight of God’s priorities on the Way of Love.
We also possess things like plans and pride. Plans are beautiful and wonderful, but the more tightly we hold them, the more our pride can get in the way, which in turn distracts us from God’s priorities. I think this is something the Church can really struggle with. We get stuck on a particular idea of how we believe things should be and we hold onto it tightly - refusing to genuinely consider other possibilities we might hear if we listened to the still, small voice of God. And all of this draws our energy and resources away from God’s dream. Given one of our jobs as the Church is to work in concert with God and one another to help bring about God’s dream for creation - that is deeply troubling.
Jesus wants the crowd to understand that - being a part of this movement will require you examine your relationship with possessions and be willing to give them up - again, and again, and again. Is that a price we are willing to pay?
This week, what if we reflected on the price of being a part of the Way of Love, and asked ourselves:
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