The Challenging Road Toward True Discipleship - Luke 14 : 25 - 33
Updated: Dec 19, 2022
In my hometown Bethlehem, Connecticut there’s a monastery called the Abbey of Regina Laudis. Benedictine nuns founded it in 1947 following the Second World War. They have many acres of farmland, and lots of animals and crops. And growing up in Bethlehem it wasn’t uncommon to see a woman dressed in a full nun’s habit driving a giant commercial tractor on the side of the road.
One of the nuns there is a woman named Delores Hart. Delores Hart was a Hollywood movie star in the late fifties and early sixties. She starred in many movies and was the first actress to share an on-screen kiss with Elvis Presley. She starred with Elvis in a couple of films and already had an amazing Hollywood career by the age of 24 when she stunned Hollywood and left to become a nun.
She’s now 83 and has lived at the Abbey for almost sixty years. With her help, the Abbey now hosts annual summer theatre productions. In 2011 a documentary was made about her life called “God is Bigger than Elvis,” and it was actually nominated for an Oscar. The story of Mother Delores Hart is inspiring to many. The story of a beautiful young actress who was on top of the world and gave it all up to follow Jesus.
We hear Jesus’ call to such renunciation in the Gospel reading today. Jesus has some very challenging words. It’s such a challenging teaching that even the most hardcore biblical literalists say it must be a metaphor or hyperbole. (It’s interesting how those types tend to take literal the passages that demand others to change, but take metaphorically the passages that demand themselves to change. But I digress.)
Now let’s wonder for a second. Did Jesus really mean what he said? After all, he sounds very clear and to the point. He’s telling his followers to count the cost like a king would before engaging in battle or a builder would before building a house. We humans count things. We assess the demands of any given situation. And Jesus is telling his listeners exactly what the cost of true discipleship is: everything. The cost is everything.
Jesus knows that in order to truly surrender to the divine flow, we must let go of all we have. Of all the stuff that’s in the way. Let go of our possessions. Let go of our family relationships. Let go our own identity and who we think we are. Anything we think of as our own needs to go if we want the fullness of God manifest in us.
Of course God can work through imperfect people too—there’ll just be a lot of stuff in the way that can cause problems. The more stuff there is, the more we block the divine flow. When there’s all these ideas of possessions and relationships and identity floating around, it’s difficult for us to hear God’s voice. When we have to balance God’s will with our own concerns, we’ll probably misunderstand a few things. So if we truly want to be disciples, we have to actively let go of all that stuff, and trust God’s will to lead us.
Jesus teaches that the path to the divine consciousness he wants to share with humanity is by giving up all our possessions. That’s the way to truly enter the divine flow. And I think that is literal fact. Not metaphor. Not hyperbole.
At the same time, scholars point out that, in Luke, Jesus sometimes says things like, “Take up your cross daily and follow me.” The inclusion of the word daily suggests that it is in fact a metaphor because we can obviously only be crucified once. So perhaps the meaning of giving up possessions and hating your family isn’t as literal and harsh as it sounds. Some Greek scholars suggest the word hate means “love less” rather than hate or despise. Others point out that renouncing possessions doesn’t mean not using any possessions; it just means not being attached to the idea that they’re yours—letting go of that sense of ownership.
I’m hesitant to even say these things because I want us to wrestle with this challenging teaching. And I think saying “It’s ok to have possessions as long as we understand they’re not really ours but gifts from God” gives us an easy out. It gives us permission to not take Jesus too seriously. It can even lead to a sense of divine entitlement thinking that because God entrusted us with these gifts, we’re worthy of deciding who we can share them with. And explaining away texts like this can be a way of excusing the selfishness many Christians have in politics and economics when we oppose policies for fear that we might share too much with the poor or financially insecure. Taking Jesus seriously would require a lot, maybe even reconsidering political or economic worldviews. So we all too often settle into comfortable interpretations of passages like this. Interpretations that don’t ask too much of us.
So what is the most faithful way to interpret these difficult teachings? Literally? Metaphorically? Seriously but still not literally? I think perhaps the most faithful way to understand what Jesus is calling us to do is to recognize it as the spiritual practice of detachment. Of letting go of possessions. Of not letting possessions possess us. Of letting go of attachments so that the possessions at our disposal are used for God’s will. Doing so requires constant vigilance and honest self-critique to make sure we’re not falling into the sin of thinking we own our possessions. If we choose to have possessions, we need to make it a serious spiritual discipline to not let them own us.
So I encourage you to consider your possessions and your sense of ownership with courageous self-honesty. Ask yourself if there’s any possession that possesses you. And ask God to help you recognize that all your possessions are God’s and everyone else’s. What would our world look like if every Christian really believed that and acted on it? If Christians really practiced the hard teachings of Jesus, the world would be a much different place.
But even if it’s nearly impossible for us to give up all our possessions, we can give up some things. Ask God to reveal what it is He wants you to let go of. It could be a possession, or a toxic relationship, or some proud idea about yourself. Make it into a spiritual practice. Pray about it and ask for the courage to be brutally honest with yourself about the things you should let go of. And invite God to remove, one by one, those things that get in your way of being fully devoted to Christ. Doing that, we can at least begin the journey toward being true disciples.
And never forget that it is not our ability to let go of possessions that sets us right with God. We are already set right with God because of the cross of Christ. Even though we may have all these problems with wealth and possessions we can’t let go of, Jesus still died for us. Even though we may still be stuck in all kinds of egocentric and self-serving patterns, even though we’re still caught in this sinful world with all its obstacles to living life as Jesus calls us, still Jesus died for us. Even though we’ve counted the cost and felt it’s too much, even though we may not be willing to take up our cross, Jesus took up his cross. Even though we’re stuck being possessed by our possessions, Jesus wasn’t possessed by anything but God’s love and acted only out of that to save the whole world.
Yes, Jesus calls us to live unselfish lives and give up our possessions. But it’s not doing that perfectly that earns us forgiveness and love. We already have forgiveness and love, and this challenging teaching is what we do because of God’s forgiveness and love—not something we do to earn it. Because of God’s love we are freed to live into this life. To be molded into true disciples. To be transformed into creatures who live in union with our Creator.
Jesus is not calling us to give up all our possessions in order to earn God’s love. He is calling us to give up all our possessions because that’s what fully mature human beings do. And Jesus is simply calling us to grow up, spiritually speaking. God already loves us. Even if we’re the most selfish, sinful person imaginable. And even if we’re the most self-giving, loving person imaginable, God still calls us to spiritual growth, to empty ourselves further and manifest the love of God completely.
And so I think in this text Jesus is describing a very mature spirituality. But if we’re unable to give up everything now, we can give up things little by little. We can take one step further. Gradually growing into the fullness of the divine image. To be sanctified by the love of God and transformed into participants in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), that is to surrender to the divine flow of the universe. Because that’s life in all its fullness. That’s what we were truly created for and what we are called to be.
So even if it sounds scary to give up all your possessions, trust that God is working in you to do just that. To give you that kind of selflessness, that kind of freedom. Not because it’s required to receive God’s forgiveness, but because that’s what growing up looks like. Trust the Holy Spirit to do this in you, to purify you and make you holy. So that you will one day, in this life or the next, be able to follow this challenging teaching effortlessly. Until then, the journey is a difficult road, and we are called to the challenging life of true discipleship.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Brian, 9/4/2022