Now large crowds were traveling with [Jesus]; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”Luke 14:25-26
Well, here we are, taking time from a holiday weekend (in our country) to come to church and worship our Lord, and what do we hear in today’s gospel reading (Luke 14:25-33)? We hear that if we really want to follow Jesus, we must do more. We must do more than come to church. And we know that. But it is what Jesus asks us to do in this reading that is so hard to hear. We must hate our family, Jesus says, and hate even life itself. We must be willing to give up all our possessions. And we must take up our cross. Or we cannot be his disciple.
Now, in truth, the ‘more’ that we are called to do is never ‘more’ than what Jesus did, for us. He never asks us to do anything that he was not willing to do himself. And he not only did it: He did it for us.
But, still, wouldn’t it be nice to come today and simply be thanked for being here at all? Rather than or on the lake, or on a golf course, or just sitting on our porch with a cup of coffee? But we are here, I suspect, not to be thanked. We are to be thankful. We are here because we love Jesus, and we want to follow him, and learn from him, and grow in what it means to be a disciple.
We are here not just to hear the easy things that Jesus teaches, but the hard things, too. We want to hear it all. And today just happens to be one of those hard teachings from Jesus.
When I come across a difficult teaching of Jesus, what I try to do is, first, figure out what Jesus really meant. And, second, figure out why it is important enough to be included in the gospels. So, that’s what I am going to do with today’s difficult teachings.
And when we are trying to figure out what Jesus really meant, it is always good to notice the context, the circumstances that prompted this particular teaching. And today’s passage is a great example of why this is important.
Travel With Jesus or Follow Him?
Today’s gospel reading starts out by telling us that “large crowds were traveling with Jesus.” They have made the choice to travel with him. But have they made the choice to follow Jesus? That’s a little different, isn’t it?
When we travel with someone, we are still in control, right? We can still decide whether to take that next step, whether to go to that next destination. It is a pretty casual way of being with someone. There is not a lot of commitment there.
Jesus didn’t give up his divinity and come to earth to have people travel with him. He came to die for us, and to invite us to follow him. And if we are going to follow him, it won’t always be easy. We won’t be in control anymore. Jesus will. Our priorities will have to change. And Jesus makes that very clear in this reading.
That is the context for today’s passage; and it’s important to remember it when we get to his teachings. Jesus is inviting the crowds to make a choice – travel with him, until they get bored or frustrated or disappointed; or, follow him, all the way to the cross and the tomb. Which will it be, travel with Jesus, or follow him?
It is a life-changing decision, and Jesus knows it. He wants to make sure that those who follow him have considered the cost. Before building a tower, make sure you have enough money to complete it. Before going to war, make sure you have enough soldiers to win the victory. And before following Jesus, make sure you are willing to do everything he asks.
Being a Christian, Jesus reminds us today, is not a hobby. It isn’t something we can do just when we want to, or feel like it. We are either all in, or we’re not. And so, for the crowds traveling with Jesus, it’s time to decide. Do they want to travel with him? Or do they want to follow him? And that same question comes to us today, and actually comes to us over and over again in our lives.
We are here, in church today. But are we here because we want to travel with Jesus? Or are we here because we have made the choice to take up our cross and follow him? And if we are ready to follow him, then he must come first. Nothing else can be more important to us than Jesus. Not our families. Not our possessions. Not even our life.
But with that said, let’s figure out what Jesus meant by these specific teachings, and try to discern why they are important enough to be included in the gospels, and in today’s reading.
Hate Our Family?
Jesus tells us that to follow him we must hate our father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters. What exactly does he mean by this? The word Jesus uses for hate here, in Greek, is miseo. In Greek, this word is not describing an emotion, which is the way we typically use the word.
A good way to think about what Jesus means by hate is to think about what Jesus means by love. We know, for example, that for Jesus, love is not an emotion. Jesus commands us to love one another. And you can’t command an emotion. Instead, love is an action, based on a decision to put that person first.
That is what love means to Jesus. And hate for Jesus is simply the opposite of that. To hate something is simply to refuse to put it first. When we hate something in this way, we have made a decision not to put it first in our life. That is really what it means to hate it, in the language of the New Testament.
So, when Jesus tells us that we must hate our families in order to follow him, he simply means that we can’t put our families first. He must come first. It is a question of priorities. Which comes first, Jesus or our family? It can’t be both. To follow Jesus, everything else must take a back seat to this first priority.
Perhaps Jesus knew that there would always be times when people would be tempted to make family their god. When family would be put first, above everything else, even God. When that happens, family can become toxic, unhealthy. Jesus is simply reminding us that family cannot come first if we want him to come first.
But this does not mean that we shouldn’t love our families! Putting Jesus first means doing what Jesus commands. And what he commands, above all else, is to love one another. To put others before ourselves. And that obviously includes our family.
To put Jesus first often means to love our family. Of course, if your family wants you to spend Sunday morning somewhere other than in worship, then putting Jesus first might mean disappointing them. It still comes down to priorities, in other words. And if we want to be a follower of Jesus, then he must come first. Not our families. But most of the time, for most of us, that means loving our families.
Give Up Our Possessions?
So, what about our possessions? Jesus tells us that none of us can be his disciple if we do not give up all our possessions. What does Jesus mean here, and why is this important? Again, I think that Jesus is trying to get us to focus on our priorities. What comes first? Our possessions or Jesus? Which are we really following?
The Greek word that Jesus uses here literally means to renounce our possessions. It doesn’t mean that we should put all our possessions in our front yard with a sign that says, “Free.” It means to renounce their power over us. To live in such a way that our possessions no longer have any control over us. It is kind of like at a baptism, when we renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God. When we renounce the devil, we are saying that he no longer has any power over us. And that is what we do when we renounce our possessions, too.
It comes down, once again, to our priorities. If we want to follow Jesus, we must put him first. It is easy to get so completely focused on paying our bills, or putting our kids through college, or planning for retirement, or on just having fun, that we put Jesus second. But if any of these things come first, then we’re not really following him. We’re just traveling with him. If we want to be a follower of Jesus, then he must come first. Not our possessions. Not our families. Jesus.
We can travel with Jesus without doing all of this. But we can’t follow him. We can’t be his disciple. It’s a challenging message today. And if you are wondering where the good news is in all of this, I believe it is in the very invitation that he gives: to follow him.
Jesus doesn’t send us away from him with these challenging teachings. He invites us to follow him. And that means two very important things: That Jesus will lead the way; and that he will always be with us.
When you think about it, Jesus is really only asking us to do what he has already done. He put serving God and saving us before caring for his earthly family. He gave up his possessions for us, and even emptied himself of his divinity for us. He took up his cross. And, of course, he gave up his life for us. Jesus did all that to be our Savior. To save us from our selfish, sinful lives, and to help us to dedicate our lives to serving our God.
Jesus’ very last promise to us, before he returned to Heaven, was to always be with us, to the end of the age. And when we follow him, he is. He is with us. Helping us to carry our cross, and to live our lives for him. Forgiving us when we fall short. And inviting us, over and over again, to follow him. And isn’t that someone you want to put first in your life? So let’s put everything else in our lives, and in this world, behind our decision to follow Jesus. And let’s follow him faithfully until He calls us home. To the glory of God. Amen.