Proper 18 (23), Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C
4 September 2022
In May of 2016 Jackie and I went on a trip to Spain we had not planned to take. Like Ireland and other places Spain had experienced a real-estate bubble and travelling around Andalusia we encountered a number of unfinished condominium towers. Our educated guess was that following the 2008 crash the financing had fallen apart. That was six years ago, by now investors may have picked up those ruins and finished the construction. But it illustrates what Jesus is talking about.
Besides, we have all taken up things that we did not finish, whether it is a book we started and did not finish, or a home renovation project, or plans to reconcile with someone and that reconciliation turned out to be too difficult.
Jesus uses strong language here. Jesus speaks in hyperbole. Knowing that Jesus does not actually want us to hate anyone (even when we would like to) should not make us assume that Jesus is not serious.
All of chapter 14 has been uncomfortable, at least for those to whom Jesus first spoke those words. It should not be easier for us either, even if we have heard these words before.
It begins with a dinner at the house of a faithful follower of the law, where Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, challenges his host about Sabbath observance, and then challenges the guests about their presumptuousness and status-seeking, and revealing their lack of humility.
Then follows the story of a banquet invitation which people choose to ignore, citing different priorities. It is not a surprise then that Jesus now addresses that which constitutes the re-ordering of the lives of those who seek to follow him, if there is anyone left who seeks to.
The truth is that there are many obstacles to following Jesus, and Jesus simply wants us to see the obstacles. And so the question Jesus wants us to ask is, what is it that keeps me from following Jesus? What are our attachments that hold us back? And that may relate to our attendance at worship, the time we spend in prayer, the way we cling to things or convictions, or try to let go of attachments, the way we attempt to have God’s Spirit permeate our Spirit.
Knowing the answer to the question will help us be faithful to the God who is faithful to us.
In a sermon on the story of the Good Samaritan, Stanley Hauerwas says that the story of the Good Samaritan has not been a good story for Christians, which may come as a bit of a shock to us who love the story. He says that it has not been a good story for Christians because it has come to mean for us that being a Christian means to serve our needy neighbour, in defiance of dogma and law – as represented by priest and Levite, which implicitly has made us think that religious law is bad (as well as those who attempt to live by it). 1
And so the simplification of what it means to be a follower of Jesus has thus become that being a follower of Jesus is really all about love, which is a malleable thing, and which does not have to cost us very much, maybe a donation here and a donation there, but no fundamental change.
But Jesus is asking more than some generic notion of love. Jesus is asking everything. Following Jesus ought to be more important than our family, because the company of those who follow Jesus is our family. That this is so Jesus showed us when he was told that his mother and brothers were wanting to see him and he answered, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”2
The examples of those who would build a tower and of those who would wage war without knowing whether they can finish illustrates the kind of commitment required for being a disciple. And when Jesus says, that those who do not take up their cross cannot be his disciples he is not thinking of the crosses we have come to think of when we hear this verse. Jesus is thinking of martyrdom, because that is the only meaning the cross had in the time of Jesus. Jesus invites us into that kind of commitment. Just being nice to people is not enough.
And yet I would like to return to the notion of love. Hauerwas is right when he criticizes the way we have come to treat the story of the Good Samaritan, as a general instruction of love and rejecting all faithful observance of God’s law as legalism. This misunderstands the law and it dismisses the people God loves and called out of Egypt. But Hauerwas goes further and it turns out that when the lawyer who had wanted to test Jesus gives the right answer, Jesus says, “Do this and you will live.” And so their exchange ceases to be an academic exercise and becomes existential, which is when Jesus begins to tell the story. Do this and you will live is what this is about.
In his exposition Hauerwas moves on to the story of the Rich Young Ruler, and says that ‘law is not the problem. Love is not the problem. The relation between love and law is not the problem. The problem is, Then come, follow me.’3
What Hauerwas points out is what we call Christology, which is the word we use to describe what we believe about Jesus. The Gospel is not about some general principles, like to be nice to one another, or do unto others what you would have them do unto you, but whatever we do as disciples of Jesus must be rooted in the love of Jesus. We don’t love for love’s sake but we love for Jesus’ sake because it is Jesus who has revealed the love of God to us and Jesus has revealed God. In the Gospel of John when Philip asks about the way to the Father, Jesus says to him that whoever has seen Jesus has seen the Father.
And if you asked me why I still use the old Trinitarian formula of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit instead of something more enlightened and less sexist, it is because our faith is not about some abstract principles but it depends on our relationship with the triune God.
But I want to return to love one last time. Love not in the sense of being nice, or doing a little bit of charity here or there, but love as a claim on our lives. Love is revealed to us on the cross. For God so loved the world.
Wendell Berry writes about love in a forthcoming book, “As a force and a way of being, love is never satisfied with partiality. It is compelled, by its own nature and logic, to be always trying to make itself whole. This is why the Sermon on the Mount tells us to love our enemies. That is an unconditional statement. It does not tell us to fight our enemies in order to improve them or convert them by our love.
In practice, this commandment seems to cancel or delete ‘enemy’ as a category of thought.”4
In perhaps a most clumsy way, Jesus is inviting us to follow, by reminding us that following him will upset our lives. The way Jesus speaks almost seems intent to discourage us, yet he also says, do this and you will live.
So if we want to live, as opposed to resembling the ruins of building we saw after the 2008 crash, then we want to follow Jesus. It is crazy, demanding, hard, and beautiful.
1The Good Samaritan: An Expository Sermon, in Stanley Hauerwas: Disrupting Time – Sermons, prayers, and Sundries, Cascade Books: 2004 Eugene, OR, p. 100ff
3Hauerwas page 103
4Wendell Berry, Can Love Take Sides?, Plough Magazine 31 August 2022, excerpt from The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice, Shoemaker + Company 2022