Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 8 September 2013
Wisdom 9:13-18b; Psalm 90:3-6, 12-17;Philemon 9-10, 12-17; Luke 14:25-33
This is one of the ‘hard sayings’ of Jesus: hate your family, renounce all your possessions. My instant reaction is – ‘Jesus couldn’t possibly mean this, especially the ‘hate’ part.’ I then search around desperately for an interpretation that can sit more comfortably with my picture of Jesus and what he ought to be saying. That sense of disorientation is something Jesus followers felt all too frequently, more often than we do, now that we’ve had a couple of millennia to smooth out and tame his teachings. But today we’re reminded again that Jesus’ call is to something radical, something shocking, something that turns the world on its head.
What does it mean to ‘hate’ one’s family? We can safely assume that Jesus did not mean for us to be violently antagonistic toward our family or to actively seek their ill. Since Jesus is telling us that this is what is required to follow him, it is helpful to ask in what way Jesus hated his own family. Jesus was the eldest son of a widowed mother. And yet, at the age of about thirty, he left his family to become a wandering teacher and healer. We know from Mark’s Gospel that his family were worried that he had gone a bit mad and tried to bring him home. Here is the account:
“ When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” … Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:21, 31-35).
Jesus has moved outside of the conventional family circle to embrace a larger community. Conventional kinship is about insiders and outsiders. The counterpart of love of family in this sense is the exclusion of the outsider. Jesus’ rejection of family here isn’t a diminishment of loving relationship, but an expansion of it. Those who follow Jesus do not love less, but more. They do not allow kinship ties to tell them who to love and who to hate. We see some of this at work in the story behind the Epistle reading. Paul writes to Philemon to ask him to take back Onesimus, a runaway slave, and to welcome him as a brother in Christ. If Philemon is to act in the best interests of his family, then he couldn’t do that. To welcome back a runaway slave as a beloved member of the community would be to begin to undo the fabric of a society that privileged Philemon’s family. Paul is prompting Philemon to expand his notion of community in Christ, to love more and not less. But he can’t do it unless he is willing to undermine the privileges to which his own children were born.
To love our family in a conventional sense is to be caught up in those ties that bind. Particularly in a strongly patriarchal culture, it means to seek the honour of our parents and the stability and prosperity of the family unit at all costs. That can prevent us from following the radically counter-cultural teachings of Jesus. We have to be willing to detach from those obligations. That is something that many people, in the Western world anyway, seem all too happy to do. People cut off their parents, leave marriages and children because it seems to them that the road to personal fulfillment requires that they leave behind that baggage. But Jesus also says to hate our own life (this is getting worse and worse!). If we act against what appears to be the best interests of our family as a whole simply in order to act in our own best interests, we’re still miles away from following Jesus. We have to be willing to renounce the hold that our own desires and wishes have on us too. That’s not all. Jesus tells us to renounce all our possessions. To hold on to nothing, and simply to take up our cross and to follow him. And he was on his way to Jerusalem where he would be put to death. No wonder that many people found Jesus’ teaching too hard, and decided to leave off following him, though many probably still admired him from a distance. No wonder the people of God today spend so much time finding ways to make what Jesus says into something different, something easier.
The sage describes our need for God-given wisdom in this uncertain life of ours. But when God’s Wisdom walks the dusty roads of first century Palestine, he is taken for a fool. His radical message is still written off as crazy. We don’t really believe that in order to have the resources to live life well we need to renounce acquisitiveness. We think that if we are to build the tower or win the war (whatever that looks like in our particular life journey) we need to have more. Jesus tells us to let it go and to follow him.
Here is the reading from the book of Wisdom, which isn’t found in all Bibles:
Who can know God’s counsel,
or who can conceive what the LORD intends?
For the deliberations of mortals are timid,
and unsure are our plans.
For the corruptible body burdens the soul
and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns.
And scarce do we guess the things on earth,
and what is within our grasp we find with difficulty;
but when things are in heaven, who can search them out?
Or who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom
and sent your holy spirit from on high?
And thus were the paths of those on earth made straight.