When I was a kid I was fascinated by the contents of my dad’s shed - I don’t suppose there’s anyone here like my dad - who used to store things away because you never know when you’re going to need them?? The point is, possessions can be like magnets - they don’t let go of us easily! Every time you move it gets a bit harder packing up, and all the things you can’t let go of just keep piling up. Apparently in the UK they’ve made a reality TV show out of this phenomenon - now I’m not a great fan of Big Brother etc - the thing about reality TV is that the situations people are placed in are manufactured but the emotions all too often distressingly real - too much like emotional voyeurism for my taste - anyway on this show they called Life Laundry, every week two so-called “experts” come in to declutter someone’s life by moving all their possessions and furniture out onto the footpath - and not letting very much of it back inside again - apparently the joy of watching this lies in seeing the owner come face to face with some old memories, some happy ones and some painful ones – memories that might have been hidden away for years – being confronted by and then being made to let go of the past – apparently this is what counts as transformational TV.
Today’s gospel reading starts straight after Jesus’ story about the slap-up dinner party that none of the invited guests wanted to come to so the host has to scour the countryside to find some last-minute replacements – the point of that story I guess being that God is just so desperately, so foolishly in love with us that he (or she) is prepared to search the whole world over for us – except oddly enough in the sequence of the story as Luke tells it Jesus is now on his last long journey to Jerusalem, and he seems to have exactly the opposite problem - far too many people tagging along just to hear what he’s going to say next. In terms of making his message relevant and entertaining, Jesus must have been hitting just the right spot. Remember, this is back in the first century when a wandering half-starved prophet had the sort of charisma and entertainment value in the villages and back lanes of Galilee that we tend to associate these days more with celebrities and rock stars. Jesus is attracting hangers-on, maybe in the same way that churches do today when they come up with just the right blend of pop music and big screens and inspiring preachers. You’d think he’d be pleased, but apparently quite the opposite because he looks at them and more or less tells them they haven’t got what it takes – sorry, but you can’t afford the entry price of discipleship. And indeed, after today’s effort it seems the crowds do seem to thin out remarkably. The conditions Jesus seems to be putting on discipleship are a bit off-putting, to say the least.
Hate your families. This is where the message starts to get a bit tough. Actually, forget the crowds following Jesus hoping for a bit of free entertainment, this sort of thing also tends to throw preachers into an absolute tailspin. We tend to think there might be a bit of a problem in taking Jesus literally here. In fact, a lot of ink has been wasted over the years in arguing that in Aramaic ‘hate’ doesn’t really mean hate, it just means you put something else in first place.
There’s some validity to this approach - working out the linguistic context - but in the end we have to admit that what Jesus is saying is actually disturbing - it’s meant to be provocative. At the very least, Jesus is setting the bar way too high for comfort - telling us not to bother unless we’re prepared to put God first in our lives – letting go of all the ways in which our families and our social contexts shape our lives and our sense of self, and allowing God to be the only thing at the centre of our lives. Letting go, perhaps, of the safety net of social relationships and mutual obligations that, especially for first century peasants, represented the only really tangible sort of security they could expect in life, and look instead for security in the intangible and invisible spirit that as Jesus himself tells us, blows wherever it feels like?
And then Jesus tells two stories that, to be quite frank, don’t seem to justify the extraordinary demand he’s just made. You don’t start a major building project, he tells them, unless you’ve got enough money to finish the job – you don’t go to war against a more powerful enemy unless you’ve got a pretty good plan for how you’re going to win – well, actually if the first analogy was strictly accurate we wouldn’t be seeing two cathedrals in our own city half-renovated with signs out the front appealing for donations – but effectively what Jesus is telling would-be disciples to do is to sit down and have a serious think. Count the cost. Is this actually what you want, and are you prepared to pay the price because rest assured, there is a substantial one? See, this is a cheery little episode, today. You can just imagine the crowds thinning down a bit, at this point. ‘Oh, and before I forget’, Jesus tells them, just before they leave. ‘You’re not allowed to own anything’.
You know what, there’s no explaining this one away. According to Luke, who also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, this is what the idealised Christian community looks like, everyone pooling their resources and nobody owning any private property. Jesus, particularly the way he is represented in Luke’s gospel, is pretty clear that money and discipleship don’t mix – in fact, after today’s encouraging little chat the very next person who seriously wants to be a disciple, in chapter 18, is the rich young man who Jesus tells, ‘sure – just as soon as you sell the BMW and give it all to St Vinnies’.
Are you feeling uncomfortable? I know I am, when I read this, even though I don’t have a BMW. There are some parts of my life, let’s face it, that I haven’t opened up to the demands of the gospel. I guess it means I haven’t really sat down to have a serious think about what it’s going to cost me to be a disciple. If I do think about it, like the curious and the easily impressed people following Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, I might discover the cost is more than I ever dreamed.
What is the cost of discipleship for us, in the here and now? Jesus’ hard teaching on family still has some bite to it for us. Family can actually be a comfortable retreat from thinking about the needs of others in our community, or the bigger issues of the world we live in. The expression you sometimes hear, ‘charity begins at home’, can actually just be a cop-out. We are as Christians challenged to put our legitimate concerns and our love for those nearest to us within the context of compassion for all of God’s creation. For other people, family can be a destructive place, a place of abuse or more subtly, unhealthy families can become places where freedom and self-worth are eroded. So as Christians we’re called to place our family relationships within a wider context of life-giving relationships in Church and community, as Jesus puts it in Mark’s gospel, to widen our understanding of who we have a family obligation to. [‘Who are my mother and my brothers?] And in exactly the same way we’re called to re-assess our use of money within the context of the needs of others not only in our immediate family but in our wider community and the world we live in. The balancing act isn’t easy, and the cost of discipleship is high.
The flip side of the choice to be a disciple, in other words, is that we get to do a ‘life laundry’, to de-clutter our lives. We get to bring out of our houses everything that we own and everything that we invest ourselves in, and examine it in the light of the challenge that Jesus confronts us with - what are we attached to, what are we so involved with and so wrapped up in that we lose sight of where God is in our lives? What possessions and what relationships keep us from hearing and responding to God’s invitation to be the people God has created us to be? What are we so tangled up in that we’re unable to see God in those around us, what are the things that we’re so attached to that we’re unable to live compassionately? What are the things that we need to let go of, or to reorient, to line up differently so that God is at the centre?
Halfway along the road to Jerusalem, where deep down we already know what is waiting for him when he gets there, Jesus turns around and confronts us with a challenge. ‘Are you really following me, or are you just tagging along out of habit or curiosity? It’s a real question for us.
What’s the answer?