One stark choice – life or death

And I thought that it was only Donald Trump who says things that we wish he hadn’t ! Today’s Gospel is what we call in the trade a ‘hard passage’. And to make it worse there’s little doubt that he actually said them – these are some of the most authentic words of Jesus in the whole Gospels, because who else would possibly invent them?  If Jesus didn’t actually say ‘hate your parents’  –  then why would anyone pretend he did?

Couldn’t he have been just a little bit softer – said it a bit differently?

Most Christians simply ignore this bit of Jesus’s teaching –  commentaries skip over the verses as if they are written in invisible ink –  and let’s be honest, if we were all to subject these words of Jesus to the same scrutiny that we put Islam or other religions through, then I think we might write Jesus off. Many universities warn students away from  ‘groups that encourage them to sever ties with close friends and family  …….   manipulative and extremely dangerous.” they are called.
So back to the invisible ink – do we just pretend the words are just not there, or that Jesus was having an off-day, or do we simply disobey them?  Jesus – even Jesus for goodness sake, is not going to get away with telling us to hate our families, our parents, our partners, our children – we’re just not going to do it – even for him.

For those who do try to struggle with these words, there are many attempts to get round the text. Some have claimed that the word ‘sane’ in Hebrew doesn’t mean ‘hate’ at all but means ‘not to prefer’  – in the Old Testament we read that Jacob loved his second wife but hated his first, and that God loved Jacob but hated Esau – but Jacob didn’t actually hate Leah, of course, and God doesn’t hate anyone.   But – you know – the Hebrew word sane does mean hate, with all the same rich meanings as the English word ‘hate’ – literal, metaphorical, dramatic : from hating evil, to hating sprouts.

Perhaps the one really good thing about this passage for us these days is that it dispels any misguided idea that the Bible is to be ‘read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain sense’  – a phrase much beloved by religious conservatives.

Even way back in the 5th century Cyril the Bishop of Alexandria adds his own subjective interpretation to this plain saying of Jesus:   it is plain  – he writes – that God permits us to love our families, but not more than we love God. – he adds –  For God demands ….. our chief affection;   – hate – he creatively says –  really means love just a little bit less – which works nicely for Luke 14: verse 25 but doesn’t work very well for evil or for sprouts.

And what really bugs me in all this, is that if Jesus meant to say ‘prefer over’, then why didn’t he say it?  Why did he use the word hate, if he didn’t mean it?

And so in my mind at least Jesus is intentionally trying to shock– and shock he did.  Just imagine –  if you will –  faithful Jews hearing these words:  ‘‘whoever comes to me and does not hate father, and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters cannot be my disciples   – here is a direct attack not only on the Law, the Torah – on the distinction between clan and tribe and race and nation and gentile, and the very structure of family life and human society, but on the Ten Commandments themselves:  Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.  That was shocking stuff when it was first said.  It’s amazing they didn’t pick up stones and try to stone him there and then.

But I don’t think Jesus is trying to shock merely for the sake of it – playing to the press gallery as it were  – to the large crowds who were traveling with him.  I think he is trying to shock because he wanted to set before us nothing less than life and death itself, and he wants us to get the choice right and choose life.

He wants us to see that the choice for life over death is always a stark choice:  there is no part of the fence on which we can sit – or perhaps even more uncomfortably for us 21st century consumers, there is no smooth grassy mountainside amphitheatre where we can sit and watch and listen without having to commit ourselves fully and be wholeheartedly involved.   When faced with climate change for example – there is only one stark choice for our world – life or death.  The world will live or it will die.   When faced with war there is only one stark choice – life or death. So let’s not pretend otherwise.   When faced with poverty, injustice, greed there is only one stark choice – life or death.  For poverty, injustice and greed kill.  There is no other way.

Jesus is trying to challenge us away from imagining that we can somehow be spectators to all these things:  there are no spectators in life – he says – either you are my disciples or you are not, – there is no middle alternative for the faint of heart.

That’s why, I believe, he uses the ultimate strong language of hating.  That’s why he went on to talk about taking up a cross – that bloody and most despised instrument of execution of the time. And that’s why he told parables about the cost of building a tower and even of going to war. Take up your cross and follow me – and he could have added – or go home and cook dinner instead.  “See, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants my live.”

In 1928 an 18 year old Albanian nun chose discipleship and life and joined a convent in Ireland.  Her story is famous – she went on to teach girls in a convent school in Kolkata and before long she had her famous ‘call within a call’ and founded the Missionaries of Charity to minister to the poorest and the dying on the streets of Kolkata.

Today, 4th September 2016 at her canonization mass at St Peter’s in Rome, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta will become St Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

“By blood, I am Albanian.  – she said – By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus.

I see God in every human being. When I wash the leper’s wounds, I feel I am nursing the Lord himself. Is it not a beautiful experience? A life not lived for others is not a life.”

The cost was extraordinary.  She had to leave her family, she had to leave her country, she had to leave her religious order, she had to leave behind all material comforts as she chose discipleship.  When met at the airport and asked if someone could collect her suitcase from baggage reclaim, she once remarked that she carried all her possessions in her pockets.

But she was not without criticism – and she was not without her own crisis of faith.  50 years of doubt, not in her mission but in the very existence of God. In one of her letters she wrote:

I call,— and there is no One to answer —No One. — Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness —I have no Faith. So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them.  When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.

These words also are shocking from the pen of such a remarkable person.

Rowan Williams, in a rather remarkable lecture on prayer entitled ‘when the going gets rough” put it this way: God wants to be God, because God is God, and God can’t just co-exist with the funny little pictures we have of God in our own minds.  Sooner or later, one of them has to go: either the real God settles in and pushes away those strange little myths and images we have of God, or we let those myths and images blossom and flourish and push the real God out.  but in that process, of course, there’s a lot of pain, a lot of uncertainty involved.   If there is even the smallest corner in my own soul that is open to the real God, then that reality is gradually going to squeeze out the falsehood, the idols that we have.”

I think this is a part of what Jesus means when he describes discipleship as costing even life itself, and this is what only truly great disciples – saints – such as St Mother of Teresa of Calcutta know in their own souls.

None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up .. all.

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