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Where do your loyalties lie?

If you were asked: ‘what is the most important thing in your life?’ most of us would say our family; our spouse/partner, children, grandchildren, brothers and sisters. After that you might talk about your home, may be a favourite place or possession.
If that’s the case, then the words we have heard on the lips of Jesus this morning come as something of a bomb shell: ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters -yes, even his own life -he cannot be my disciple.’ (Luke 14.26) When we come to words like this, we want to quickly move on. We say: ‘O Jesus was using hyperbole; exaggerated speech to make a point.’ That is true, but thinking like that can all too easily loose the force of what Jesus was saying and is saying to us, and miss the very point he was making.
The word hate in the English language is a tough word. If ever my mother caught me using it, she would caution me saying ‘you should think long and hard before saying that’. Today, we have the concept of ‘hate crime’ cemented into our law. It’s designed to stop people being hateful towards one another on account of religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation and the like.
So why does Jesus use such a strong word in this context? What is he trying to prove?
Jesus was challenging the loyalties of his hearers. Large crowds were following him at this point as he makes his way to Jerusalem and his crucifixion. But how many of those people would still be with him at the foot of the cross? Mary, his mother, John, some of the other women who followed him. Hardly a great crowd. How many of this crowd would be truly loyal to him and put him first in their lives? How many were prepared to carry their cross as well as Jesus?
When Jesus uses the word hate, he does not intend that people should be active in their hate, that they should practice hate for he had called them love God and their neighbours as themselves. Rather he was calling them to consider their allegiances and loyalties.
Many who followed him were Jews as indeed was Jesus himself. For them, family and land were everything. The Jewish people then as now were identified as Abraham’s, family or descendants; a single ethic unit to which God had given a covenant and the promised land by God. By the time of Jesus, more Jews lived away from that land than within it, but they all knew it was their real home. It was their ancestral possession and woe betide anyone who compromised it. (Wright, 2009) For many Jews today, that remains the case and is the cause of the ongoing tension of modern Israel.
But Jesus was announcing from God a new way of running things. He was ushering in the kingdom of God. Whereas in the old testament, God had defined his people through the special family of Abraham and the possession of the land, now it is about coming to Jesus, engaging in a relationship with him. It cannot be about family ties, land and possessions anymore. Just as you must leave the life raft behind when it is beached on the sand, so these would be Jewish followers of Jesus had to leave their attachments to the family tree that assured their Jewishness and their desire for the promised land and be prepared to follow the Son of Man who had nowhere to lay his head. (Luke 9.58) They had to count the personal cost just as if they wanted to build a tower or if they were a king working out the finances for his war effort. ‘In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.’ (Luke 14.33)
If that was the way in which the large crowd who followed Jesus with their Jewish identity heard it, how might we hear Jesus’ words today?
While we do not share their attachment to the promised land of the old testament, we can still become very wedded to our properties, the homes we live in whether we rent them of have purchased them. How we keep a roof over our heads is one of the biggest decisions we make in life. Estate agents and mortgage companies encourage us to the think that the ‘be all and end all’ of life is to have the home of our dreams. People will fight to protect and extend the value of their properties protesting against any near by development that may threaten their hard-won asset. But would be followers of Jesus are warned in these words against embracing those attitudes. ‘…any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14.33)
I don’t think Jesus is calling us to be irresponsible in our attitude to property. We need watertight secure housing living as we do in northern climes. But we should never see them as an end in themselves, the goal of our lives. If we desire to be a follower, a disciple of Jesus Christ, we should always count the cost knowing that if he called us to sell up and move on, we could do that.
And then there is family. Unlike the people in the crowd who first heard these words of Jesus, we are not of Jewish decent, physical children of Abraham, but we are all part of families. That is the part of the wonderful fabric of creation. At best, families provide us with love, warmth and affection. We can be supported through many of the threats we face in life by family members who are always there for us. But we also know that when family members fallout; a rift develops, a split in the family, it can one of the most painful things to bear. There is evidence in the gospel accounts that Jesus’ earthly family did not always understand him. This led Jesus on one occasion to say that his real family was his disciples. ‘Whoever does the will of my father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’. (Matthew 12.50)
Most strikingly in these verses today, Jesus calls upon his followers to put him first of all, yes above even family loyalties. Our love and devotion to the Lord Jesus should be so great that it makes our love for family appear less, even as hate in comparison. In most families, the attachment of some members to Jesus and his church will be tolerated or even applauded. In others it will be distrusted or questioned and, in some families, where there is fierce adherence to Islam or some other creed, there will indeed be hate. Jesus calls us to count the cost and put him first even if it upsets the family.
Yet, how good it is when the majority or all of a family are committed first and foremost to Jesus. Knowing that our first allegiance is to Jesus, to his calling and leading actually makes family life what it should be. In Christ, there is the understanding of forgiveness which enables a way to be found through the disagreements and issues which can so easily tear families apart. When everyone within a family gives their priority to a relationship with Jesus, other things fall into place less angst and pain. I am privileged to be part of family where for the majority, that is true.
In our old testament reading today, the Israelites are encouraged to choose life (Deuteronomy 30.19) Joshua later when coming to the end of his time in leadership gave the people a stark choice: either serve the idols; the gods of your ancestors or serve the living God. Joshua makes his own declaration: ‘…but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.’ (Joshua 24.15) Let us consider the choices we are making in life and the price we pay for them. Jesus is worth highest price. Let us give our lives in service to him and pray and work for our family members to share in the same commitments.
Trinity 12 08.09.2019

Rev Jonathan Smith

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