Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 8, 2019
Luke 14:25-33 Commentary
Some while ago on TV I saw a news profile of megachurch pastor Joel Osteen. Peppered throughout the interview with this pastor were brief video clips showing him preaching to his vast congregation that numbers into the tens of thousands. The people of the congregation stretch out before this pastor like a vast sea of humanity with the people seated the farthest from the pulpit mere specks in the distance—a good pair of binoculars would not allow the pastor to pick out the features of anyone’s face so far from him. (As the image below shows, you’d need powerful binoculars even to see the big video screen from many locations in the “auditorium”!!)
The ministry this man built started from far more humble beginnings. But in America, there is no better sign of his “success” than the size of the crowd that gathers to hear him preach each Sunday. “Nothing succeeds in America like success” they say.
Large congregations may or may not be a true indicator of faithfulness to the gospel: sometimes they are, sometimes they are not. Sometimes big crowds can even be a result of gospel unfaithfulness. But if the gospels make one thing clear, it is that Jesus never regarded a large following as necessarily a good sign. In fact, he seemed intent on a regular basis to thin out the crowds that followed him. To Jesus’ mind, a large following probably meant that a lot of those folks did not know what they were doing in hitching their wagons to his particular star.
The closing verses of Luke 14 are a classic example. Notice how Luke structures the narrative. We are told in verse 25 that “large crowds were traveling with Jesus” only to have Jesus immediately turn to that same throng of people to say some things that seemed calculated to turn people off. Luke does not directly tell us that Jesus said what he did because the crowds were so large, but that is clearly the implication.
What’s more, it is clear that Jesus says something so radical, he must have known it would be both puzzling and also finally a turn-off to many people. The call to hate father, mother, spouse, and children is a tad on the harsh side and surely did not fail to make at least a few folks—and perhaps more than a few folks—turn away.
That was curious enough. But Jesus then goes on to tell two quasi parables (they are really more like analogies) that talk about counting the cost and doing prudent calculations in advance of undertaking major projects. The upshot of these two analogies is easy enough to discern. But the way Jesus told them seems to be a left-handed rebuke to the crowd. It’s almost as though Jesus is chiding the many people who were following him for not having a clue as to what they were doing in that they were the ones who had in fact not counted the cost ahead of time. They were the people who had to abandon a building project before it was finished because they ran out of money. They were the people who had gone to war against a superior opponent due to lack of prudent advance work as to the strength of the enemy.
Twice Jesus says that you have to give up everything and take up a cross if you are going to follow him. The implication is that these people had not done that but had found it altogether too easy to fall into line behind Jesus.
For those of us who preach, this passage has a lot of relevance. After all, how many of us in the church today are not there in large part because we were raised in the church? Yes, at some point most of us made some kind of conscious decision to be a follower of Jesus: we willingly went through confirmation, we initiated our own profession of faith, we underwent the sacrament of baptism, etc. But do those formal, “typical” ways of growing up into church membership rise to the level of thoughtful seriousness and astute calculations that Jesus talks about in Luke 14?
In short, do we find it altogether too easy to fall into line behind Jesus? Especially in America, is it relatively painless to join the vast throngs that crowd into the more popular churches in the land? Many churches have in recent years and decades done all in their power to make it convenient to be a member of the church: they have established excellent parking lot flow patterns, they have greeters and Information Booths and excellent latte and family-friendly programming for every conceivable need for every possible age group along with sermons guaranteed to provide advice for things like “Five Ways to Grow Your Business” and “Seven Ways to a Healthy Marriage” and “Four Ways to Raise Successful Children.” (Good Advice has eclipsed—or supplanted—Good News in many pulpits.)
With programming like this, it seems unlikely that once people enter into these churches that they will hear pastors saying things that appear calculated to make them walk right back out the door. Indeed, a well-known pastor of a large church in Minneapolis once had over 1,000 members leave his church after he shared some political thoughts that the pastor knew up front would not sit well with his congregation but that he believed were true to the gospel message he was charged to preach truthfully. The spectacle of a pastor willingly sacrificing some members was so rare, it made headlines all around the nation, including on the front page of the New York Times.
The relative rarity of that kind of thing makes news. And that kind of makes you wonder . . .
What can account for Jesus’ call for us to hate our families? To understand this, we need to see this saying in a wider biblical context from both the Old and New Testaments. As F.F. Bruce pointed out in his book The Hard Sayings of Jesus, there is throughout the Bible a tendency to use the word “hate” when what is really meant is a secondary form of love. So when in Deuteronomy 21:15 there are regulations for a man with two wives (one of who is loved and one of whom is hated) the meaning is not that there is literal, visceral hatred per se of the second wife but more that the second wife is less preferred than the first. Similarly when God says things like “Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated,” the meaning is not that God literally hates Esau or his kin in the colloquial use of that word but rather that Jacob was preferred over Esau and that Esau, therefore, received love but a love that was perhaps a bit less in intensity or scope.
Bruce also points out that this idea of “hate” meaning a lesser form of love is backed up by the parallel to Luke 14 in Matthew 10:37 when Matthew makes it explicit that what Jesus is getting at here are those who love father or mother more than they love their Savior and Lord.
Across the year 2008 the late Rev. Ed Dobson decided he was going to “live like Jesus.” Among the things Rev. Dobson did that year was read through all four gospels over and over and over again on a regular basis. He also did his best to live out Jesus’ words and principles in as literal and careful a way as he could as he tried to let the gospel shape his life in ways more intentional than is probably true for even the more devout among us.
He knew going in that this could create problems for him but even after counting the cost, he wanted to do this. But 2008 was also an election year in the United States—indeed, it was one of the most hotly contested elections in a long while. And through much prayer and discernment, Dobson felt led as a follower of Jesus to vote—on that particular occasion at least—for the Democrat candidate, Barack Obama. As news of this choice spread, the man who tried for a year to live like Jesus received some Jesus-level persecution and criticism from his right-leaning Christian friends, colleagues, and former parishioners.
Whether one regards Dobson’s political choice as correct or incorrect, he surely did suffer to a degree for that choice. But what is striking about that experience is that it is somewhat unusual. Many Christian people today are very sure they have it all figured out when it comes to voting, lifestyle, childrearing, and the like and so long as everyone sticks to the same playbook, following Jesus comes with very little by way of cost or hardship. Most of us don’t have to make hard choices like leaving friends and family behind if that’s what is required to follow Jesus as best we can. We don’t so much “count the cost” as just accept the asking price, which seems pretty low most of the time.
And that itself may be something worth pondering.
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