Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
A Shocking Choice
Our Luke passage today is shocking and frankly, Christianity has spent hundreds of years trying to take the sting out of it.
“The Cost of Discipleship” is the title given to this passage in many versions of the Bible. It fits the experience of many early Christians of the era when the gospels were written down.
Choosing to follow Jesus was divisive: Jewish families would be split over theological issues and pagan families would be split as the Roman authorities grew to see Christianity as a kind of treason, punishable by death.
Our modern read on this is often one of relief that we don’t face those kinds of perils, at least not the “being thrown to lions” kind, although families do still end up deeply divided by religion.
Our relief is really about explaining to ourselves why this “cost of discipleship” passage doesn’t apply to us; why we are safe from it in our enlightened age.
But all of this is a distraction from the truly shocking things that Jesus said about hating your family. What Jesus said is offensive and it would have been even more offensive in first century Jewish culture which was structured around the family as the basic unit of society and of religious observance.
It was built right into the 5th commandment: “Honour your father and your mother”. Here Jesus is announcing the opposite; that you must hate your father and mother.
The family structure of Israel was like that found in most of the middle east. There was a father: the patriarch of the family and if he was successful there would be at least one wife, possibly more, as many as he could afford. Most of the time the patriarch’s word was law. He had to conform to God’s law but if anyone did anything wrong, they were brought to him for judgement.
The father would have authority over his wives, children and grandchildren, all of their servants and slaves. A rarely used law even permitted that a rebellious son should be stoned to death to ensure the stability of the family and the nation, because a rebellious son was guilty of treason against the man God placed as the governor of the family.
Today we know that, psychologically, our families have a powerful grip on our lives. The things we learn growing up go so deep that we often don’t even see them clearly let alone find ways to question or challenge them. Families can be sources of great love and strength or places of abuse and fear.
In Jesus’ day abuse was more open and it didn’t make much difference: families were considered the central building block of society and all family members were expected to be obedient because they were told it was God’s will.
Anyone who lived outside this structure was vulnerable, like the often-mentioned Widows and Orphans who could not own land except in some truly exceptional circumstances. They didn’t have the structure of the family to protect them, to feed them and shelter them.
We look back and see that this was sexist and ageist, where the women and the younger generations were treated like property, at least in legal terms.
Most of the time there was actual love. Patriarchs were not all selfish boors; most tried to be wise and loving, but they were living in a system that gave them a great deal of authority and they didn’t want to lose that.
Jesus spent at least part of his young life in a single-parent household, led by Mary. She had no legal standing but tried her best. The Bible tells of that occasion when Mary was told that Jesus was crazy because of his preaching and she showed up with his brothers and tried to capture him and take him home. That was how basic policing worked in those days, particularly for anyone identified as having a mental illness.
But really that was the job of the patriarch of the family; Mary was trying to keep her family together as best she could, following the rules of the day, even though those rules excluded her authority.
Jesus refused to play that game. On that occasion, Jesus publicly disowned his family, saying that the people who followed his teachings
were his real mother, and brothers and sisters: a personal application of today’s lesson.
Jesus is challenging us to question all the assumptions we have about how our society should work. Today we might say he’s sticking it to the Patriarchy and centuries of Christianity have tried to keep us from really examining that fact.
It has been convenient for those with authority to keep their authority –
starting with the men over their households – even to the point of women and children being seen as forms of property until recent years; and sermons have often supported this thinking.
To the people of Jesus’ day, there would be no question: this relationship would be seen as God’s commandment. Jesus had experienced life outside this patriarchal structure, and his group of followers includes James and John, who left their father and walked away from his boats, and their future. It included a number of women, some married, who left their families to travel as disciples, some of whom were wealthy enough to finance Jesus’ ministry.
There were so many outcasts following Jesus, so many people who either didn’t fit into the standard patriarchal system or who chose to walk away from it, that it’s breathtaking.
Jesus taught about God’s love, not hate; he taught the love we are called to have for each other. Jesus also used hyperbole: he said shocking things to make important points and to fix them in our memories.
The important thing here is that the call to follow God to live just lives, the call to make the first last and the last first, the call to embrace the outcast and love our enemies is more important than any social structures, more important, even, than family ties.
Jesus’ words are offensive because he is trying to shock us into doing something challenging at a deep level.
He is calling us to examine all our preconceptions; to consider all our relationships in the light of God’s standard for relationships where love overcomes all those all those assumptions, all those prejudices that allow us to dominate each other.
We are being called to take nothing for granted, but to let God’s love and justice be the standard for everything we do, every relationship we have in our whole lives.
We have let our social prejudices bury parts of this teaching for centuries. It’s about time we tried to apply Jesus’ offensive words in the transformative way he intended.