We have here one of the hard sayings of Jesus. Before we go into what the Gospel lesson for today has to say to us, it may be worthwhile first to define this phrase. The hard sayings refer to a teaching of Jesus that outrages, offends or alienates. They appear in each of the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
We may ask why. If he invites people to come to him, why does he seem often so intent on driving them away? Specifically, we may pose this question in connection with the second verse of our Gospel lesson: “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.”
“Wait. Let me be sure I understand.” You want me to hate those who are closest to me? How does this square with your command to love my neighbor as myself? If my neighbor is the one nearest to me, who is nearer to me than my spouse, my children, my mother and father? Isn’t there a contradiction here?”
Understandably, interpreters have been somewhat uncomfortable with these words. To assuage their discomfort, they explain to us how Semitic hyperbole works. Their reasoning goes something like this: Jesus is most worthy of our devotion, our love. The intensity or zeal of our love should be so great that lesser loves pale in comparison with it. In fact, they should appear as hate by contrast.
When these interpreters turn to a variation on this teaching in Matthew’s Gospel, they find that these lesser loves are allowed, but their proper order must be observed and maintained. There, Jesus says that anyone who loves his mother or father more than him, is not worthy of him (Matt. 10:37).
Does this interpretation have merit? I believe so. Do it remove the discomfort? Not entirely. It’s alright to feel a little suspicious about anything that serves to remove the sharp edges from this teaching so as to avoid offence.
We will be more faithful to the words as they stand if we resist the temptation to explain them with undue haste. Instead, we should remain as long as possible in the tension in which they leave us, so that they can do their work on us.
Let us remain in the tension, then, and, while we do, ask what this hard saying is meant to accomplish. Let me suggest that it accomplishes at least three purposes, which we will devote the rest of this brief meditation developing. The first is that they are meant to provoke a crisis. The second is that they are meant to arouse curiosity. And the third and final purpose is that they are meant to advance God’s claim.
There may be an event in our past that stands out. We refer to it as a “wake-up call”, or a “turning point”, or a “crisis.” The nature of the event is incidental. It may have been a major life event—the birth of a child, a broken engagement, a close brush with death, for example. Or it may have been a relatively minor or insignificant event, like a glance, a gesture, or even a sunset.
In any case, it’s what the event revealed to us about ourselves, about the direction we were going in life, that made it stand out. If it gave us new insight, new direction, it qualifies as the type of event we have in mind here.
About 20 years ago, my brother and I went on a warm autumn afternoon to a Saturday matinee in Chicago. His friend Michelle went with us. She had been diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer and was told she had only six months to live.
When she stepped out of the car and the glow of the autumnal sun illumined her blond hair, I somehow had an epiphany. I came to realize my own mortality in a way that I never had before. As a result of the experience, I did not feel like the same person as I was before. That is why this scene from my past is indelibly etched in my mind.
You see how this event qualifies. It changed how I saw myself and the world. I could say afterward “You know, I’ve never really looked at it that way before. I see things very differently now.”
Those “things” provoke a re-evaluation, which leads to a decision. Could it be that these words of Jesus are meant to do the same, to provoke a re-evaluation, demanding a decision?
Upon hearing these words, the would- be follower of Jesus may ask himself: “Is this really the Jesus I have come to know? He’s never really looked or sounded like this to me before. Could I have been mistaken about him? Maybe I should explore other options. Maybe I should chart a new course, set out in a new direction, find a new master to follow.”
Jesus certainly allows this is as an option. After all, that is precisely what the two parables that follow the hard saying are meant to convey. Jesus challenges the follower to consider carefully whether he is able and willing to continue what he began. Do I have enough to finish this tower whose foundation I have laid? Are the forces I can muster great enough to withstand the resistance I know I am going to face as a follower of Christ?
After careful consideration, the follower may conclude that indeed he is able and willing. Let us hope so. But this does not free him from his perplexity. He still has more questions. Only now they do not concern whether or not he is able to go the distance. Rather they concern the identity of the one who makes such outrageous statements. Who is he?
This leads us to our second consideration. The hard saying is meant to arouse curiosity. Jesus’ words confront us with terms of comparison. That is, what is implied in them is that regardless of how we construe the term “hate,” Jesus is claiming at the very least that he is more or greater or dearer than the dearest people in our lives.
If that does not turn us away, it will make us curious. And make no mistake, Jesus encourages curiosity. “Ask, seek, and knock. For everyone who asks, receives; all who seek, find; and to those who knock, the door will be opened,” according to Matthew 7:7-8.
Jesus never expects his followers to accept his claim at face value. Nor does he expect that they will be satisfied with superficial knowledge of him.
According to John’s Gospel, Nathaniel was content to call Jesus the Son of God and King of Israel because Jesus told him he saw him under a fig tree.
Incredulous, Jesus asked him: “you believe, because I saw you under a fig tree?” “Does that impress you, Nathaniel? You will see greater things than these. You will see heaven open and see angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:49-51).
Jesus wants to show his followers who he is. Nor does he want them to rest content with only a little. He invites them to see for themselves that there is no one or nothing that can compare with him.
Consider for a moment what he teaches in parables about the kingdom of God. Since, as the church father Origen famously defined him, Jesus is “auto-Basileia” or “kingdom in person” we may apply what is said of the kingdom to Jesus himself. Jesus is like a treasure in a field, which, once discovered, a man sold all he had to buy the field. Jesus is like a pearl of great value. When the merchant found it, he went away and sold everything he had to buy it.
In this light, the grave requirement that a follower must give up all his possessions to be a disciple is embraced with joy.
But not everyone will find these parables and what they convey compelling. The large crowds were drawn to Jesus, because of the miracles he performed, or even because of the authority of his teaching. But presumably they are not as enthusiastic about what Jesus is saying to them here.
This is a hard teaching, who can accept it? The scene brings to mind a similar one, recorded in John’s Gospel—the Bread of Life discourse in John 6, to be precise. After teaching a larger group of followers that he is the true bread come down from heaven, that one may eat and not die, many of them took offense. And from that time many of his followers turned back and no longer followed him.
This prompted Jesus to turn to his inner circle—the Twelve—and ask: “Do you also want to leave?” And, on behalf of the group, Peter steps forward and says: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).
The few who hang in there will go out and test what Jesus says about himself. The claims that Jesus makes for himself arouse their curiosity, which nothing but Jesus himself satisfies. In him they will find what they are seeking.
We have now to move to our third and final consideration. The hard saying is meant to advance God’s claim. To be more specific, we refer here to God’s claim on our lives. The great Swiss Reformed theologian of the last century Karl Barth never ceased to express his amazement at the cardinal truth of the Christian faith: that God from all eternity chose us in Jesus Christ and elected us as his covenant people in him.
This is not to imply that God coerces us. On the contrary, his purpose of election does not violate our freedom, rather it establishes it. We may resist and refuse, but is this freedom? We never feel so unfree as when we resist God’s purposes for our lives.
Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas wrote a book several years ago now with the striking title With the Grain of the Universe. To live in blatant contradiction to God’s will for our lives is to go against the grain. Again, we can, but it will not turn out well for us. This of course is spelled out clearly in Moses’ warning to the people as recorded for us in Deuteronomy 30:15. To forsake their God for other gods and thereby reject the covenant is adversity and death. But to hold fast to their God is life and prosperity.
Only God can make an absolute claim on us. If another human being, regardless of how significant he or she is to us, makes such a claim, it distorts the relationship, and damages both parties. This is to say that no wife or husband, son or daughter, mother or father, can make an absolute claim on our lives. Jesus can. Is this not, in the last analysis, what we are to learn from this hard saying? And if we accept his claim, it will ultimately go well for us.
In this connection, it is worth noting that Jesus’ promise to Peter, one of those disciples who insisted that he was willing and able to follow Jesus unconditionally. Jesus assures him with these words: “I tell you the truth, no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and, in the age to come, eternal life” (Luke 18:29-30).
We have thus remained in the tension as we have entertained the purposes that the hard saying of Jesus may intend to accomplish in us. But, if we are honest, we have to confess that these purposes by no means relieve the discomfort that lingers.
If we are sincere, if we are serious, if we want to number ourselves among the committed few, and not follow after the example of the large crowds, who could not accept the saying, we may ask how.
Before we despair of an answer, let us turn to our Old Testament lesson for insight.
God often points the prophets to an ordinary activity to illustrate the message that he wants to reveal to them and to his people Israel. In this case, God instructs Jeremiah to go to the potter’s house, where he’d find a potter working at his wheel.
There he sees a potter making a vessel of clay, but because of some imperfection, he reduces the vase or bowl or whatever it is he was fashioning to a lump, so as to refashion it.
This is how God is with his people, as God explains to Jeremiah. God’s word contains a power that creates, shapes, breaks and reshapes.
The words that Jesus speaks to us do not leave us as we are. They break us and reshape us, so that we can really hear and accept what he has to say about himself, what he has to say about what’s in store for us as his disciples.
Let then this hard saying of Jesus remain with us, however uncomfortable it may make us. Let it provoke in us a crisis, arouse our curiosity, and advance the claim of God on our lives. Amen.