This blog continues to follow Luke’ Gospel. Other reflections can be found on my other website: xtremejesus.co
25 Large crowds were traveling along with Yeshua. Turning, he said to them, 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father, his mother, his wife, his children, his brothers and his sisters, yes, and his own life besides, he cannot be my disciple.27 Whoever does not carry his own execution-stake and come after me cannot be my disciple.
28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Don’t you sit down and estimate the cost, to see if you have enough capital to complete it? 29 If you don’t, then when you have laid the foundation but can’t finish, all the onlookers start making fun of you 30 and say, ‘This is the man who began to build, but couldn’t finish!’
31 “Or again, suppose one king is going out to wage war with another king. Doesn’t he first sit down and consider whether he, with his ten thousand troops, has enough strength to meet the other one, who is coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he hasn’t, then while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation to inquire about terms for peace.
33 “So every one of you who doesn’t renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. 34 Salt is excellent. But if even the salt becomes tasteless, what can be used to season it? 35 It is fit for neither soil nor manure — people throw it out. Those who have ears that can hear, let them hear!”
This is the kind of thing that puts people off religion. Extravagant demands are made which place the believer in an extreme condition in which he/she has betrayed normal human loyalties and may therefore feel ready to take extreme actions. Jihadis of all sorts, who are recruiting for Holy Wars use this technique, which is especially persuasive amongst relatively pampered people who have never been asked to make sacrifices. Young British Muslims for example, meeting with the extreme demands of Daesh propaganda, are drawn to something that at one stroke cuts through burdensome family and social responsibilities, and liberates them to be committed to Holy War. Doubtless the same sort of appeal was made in Jesus’ day by the Zealots, who were recruiting for Holy War against the Romans.
So what was Jesus doing, issuing this kind of demand?
We can note first of all a crucial difference: Jesus was not asking his disciples to do any kind of harm, but rather to announce God’s goodness and to demonstrate it by acts of kindness and healing. Nor was he wanting to exercise any power over anyone. He proclaimed the rule of God, but showed no enthusiasm for the role of God’s messiah and utterly rejected the Holy War expected of such a figure.
So we are faced with a paradox. Here is a leader who employed the rhetoric of jihad for purposes which are exclusively non-violent and kindly, as if one should say, “Be ready to put your life on the line to help this old lady to cross the street.” But since I once met people who during the slaughter in Bosnia did precisely that, and were shot while helping a neighbour get to the shops, I am disinclined to think that such acts are trivial. They were done by stubborn people who refused to allow vicious Christian holy warriors determine their lives and limit their humanity; feeling compelled to witness to ordinary goodness in the face of fanatical brutality.
I am not suggesting that Jesus’ cause can be simply described as ordinary goodness but it includes it: it may be more than ordinary goodness but it is not less. When he told his disciples that their goodness had to exceed that of the Pharisees he was not pointing to supernatural virtues but to a more persistent kindness extended to enemies as well as friends. For him the holy war against the Adversary is waged by people who can see their neighbour in the clothes of a foreigner, who can oppose brutality with humour, who can do good quietly, who can forgive seventy times seven. He believed that God ruled through such people; and it was for the sake of that Rule that he demanded total commitment from his disciples.
But why did he think that loyalty to family might limit that commitment?
We should be aware how many ideologies appeal to our sense of family responsibility.
We are encouraged to see our family in the class of deserving families as opposed to undeserving ones. We are tempted to see society as a harsh, vicious struggle for success and survival and to look after our own. We are pushed to define ourselves as civilised compared with savages from other nations or with different skin colour.There are actions we might not take for our personal interest or safety that we can be persuaded are necessary to protect our families. Jesus wanted his disciples to steel themselves against those siren voices.
But more. He was asking them to “take up the execution stake”, that is, for the sake of God’s kindly justice, to oppose the the religious and political rulers of his society, and to risk their threats. They would not need to be told that they were putting their families at risk. Jesus soberly asked them therefore to estimate the cost of discipleship. If they were not ready to pay it, they should withdraw. The word “hate” which Jesus used should not be softened to mitigate its offence, but we should recognise that those who “hate” their families and even their own lives in this sense are acting on behalf of ordinary goodness for all families and all lives.They are like salt for society.
Those who prattle about “Christian family values” should read their bibles.