A Lectionary Reflection on Luke 14:25-33 for Proper 18C
We love the stories both before and after the Gospel reading for this week. The parable of the wedding feast, which precedes this short teaching, and in which all the outcasts and marginalised people are welcomed speaks of a grace that is extravagant and abundant. Following the words of Jesus in today’s text, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin have brought comfort to many of us who have known the loneliness and grief of rejection and neglect. When the grace of God is proclaimed in images like these it sounds so inviting, so inclusive, so forgiving and so attractive.
So, why did Luke have to go and mess it up by sticking a sermon about hating loved ones and counting the cost in the middle of it? Quite simply, because without these words, we haven’t yet understood the grace which these parables describe.
I have often heard people respond with offense to Jesus’ words that we are to hate our loved ones. These words seem to contradict the Gospel of loving God and loving our neighbours, and they sound most unChristlike unless we grasp their significance. As almost all commentators will explain, Jesus’ instruction to “hate” is not literal, but is relative. As the New Living Translation puts it: “you must hate everyone else by comparison”. In other words, our love for Jesus – or rather for the mission and message of the Reign of God which he proclaimed and lived – must be our primary and all-consuming love to such an extent that all other loves pale into insignificance.
So far so good. But, isn’t Jesus being a tad narcissistic? What’s wrong with loving our families and friends? Here is where we need to understand the power and the challenge of God’s Reign. The truth is that, without following the way of Jesus, we really don’t know how to love. What we call love is usually deeply flawed. It is tainted with our own neediness, our desire to control those we love, our pride at believing we know what’s best for our loved ones, and our greed to be the centre of their attention even as we resist giving ourselves fully to them. Our love is often big on our need and desire, and small on sacrifice, self-giving, selflessness and service. Sometimes what we call love even becomes deeply destructive. For example, I was shocked to hear recently that in some of South Africa’s more broken communities it is common to hear people claim that “if he doesn’t hit you, he doesn’t love you”!
But, the love that Jesus proclaimed and lived – the love that is the essence of the Reign of God – is sacrificial, unconditional, selfless and self-denying. It is a love that truly puts the other person first, and that willingly lays down life for the sake of the beloved. And the only way we can learn to love like this is to love loving like this more than anything else. That’s why we need to love God’s Reign beyond anything. We can only love our loved ones as they deserve if we love God’s Reign – God’s way of loving – so much more that we transcend the inadequate thing that we usually call love. Think about this for a while.
It doesn’t take much to recognise that learning to love like this is going to be costly. Such selfless, sacrificial love is destined to destroy our pride, greed, power-hunger, aggression, need to be served, and anything else that would put our own needs and desires in competition with those of others. When we love like this we are going to give until it hurts and then keep on giving. We are going to serve until we have lost any remnant of pride, and we are going to continue to seek the best for others, even when they have long stopped considering us, loving us, or relating to us. It’s going to mean that we love even when the other has turned against us to such an extent that they see us as the enemy. It means that we will continue to love even as we hang from the cross and speak forgiveness.
To follow Jesus, thinking that his way is the path to personal security, comfort and entitlement is to miss the point of his call to discipleship. To follow Jesus and fail to recognise the cost is like starting a building project without ensuring that we have the necessary materials. It is like going to war without checking that we have the capacity for the conflict.
Make no mistake, God’s love is so gracious and all-encompassing that we are loved like this without any requirement on our part. We do not learn to love in order to earn God’s love. But, unless we are willing to embrace the cost of love, we will never experience for ourselves the depth and height and breadth and length of love, and we will never really know what it is to experience God’s Reign – that realm of true liberation, healing, equality, peace and provision for all. It is only when we are willing to give everything in order to love as Jesus did that we discover what love can really be. And only then will those around us know what it is to be truly and completely loved by us. Once we have touched love like this – even for a moment – anything else hardly feels worthy of the name.