Giving Up All Our Possessions!? (Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33)
So, therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
Really? All of them? Is that the way it really is? In the early 1960’s a punctuation mark that was a superimposition of the question mark and the exclamation mark came to be called the “interrobang.” The mark was used for a question asked with passion. When many Christian people read Luke’s words put in Jesus’ mouth here as the climactic statement of this passage, at least the hint of the interrobang comes into things
In reality, this saying is made worse by a kind of reading that isolates passages in the Bible from their wider contexts, and reads sentences as absolute statements that don’t depend on those contexts. has infected Bible reading for centuries. Such reading as this would get us nowhere in normal reading, and it really gets us nowhere in reading the Bible either. To read the Bible well, we’ve got to read what is said in context. We’ll come back to Luke 14 in a bit, but I want to start with Deuteronomy 30, since it lays a foundation for what we’ll find in Luke.
These verses are the conclusion to Moses’ third, and last, address in Deuteronomy, and bring the main part of the book to an end. Deuteronomy took the idea of the covenant between God and Israel, which was worked out in Torah, God’s teaching, which was originally (so the story goes) given at Mt. Sinai in what we call “the law.” Deuteronomy’s version of the law, however, was a re-working of that original Torah that we find in Exodus, especially.
Deuteronomy is a complex product that purports to be three sermons given by Moses the Lawgiver on the Plains of Moab before the Israelites went into to settle in Canaan. That’s the story-line. The Book of Deuteronomy is actually a product that began to be written in 621 when a book was discovered in Temple repairs in the time of Josiah king of Judah (see 2 Kings 22). The present form of the text is, further, the product of the period of the exile of Judah in which further re-working was accomplished. The point is that Torah is not carved in stone once and for all time, but is re-understood in the light of the present moments of life. For example, back in Deuteronomy 5, Moses had said:
Hear, O Israel, the statutes and ordinances that I am addressing to you today; you shall learn them and observe them diligently. The LORD our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. Not with our ancestors did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today.
The author who put these words in Moses’ mouth was not intending to be understood either “literally,” as we sometimes say, or “historically,” as might be better. For the historical fact is that it was with the ancestors, the parents, and grandparents, of these people in the story who were now, after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, ready to go into Canaan at last. This was also true, centuries later, in the period in which the story of Deuteronomy came into the form in which we have it. In that time, the remnant of Israel was but a shadow of its former self, and had mistakenly thought that God had, as I said earlier, carved all those words of the Torah in stone centuries before and that was it. It was assumed that the job of faithful people was simply to repeat old words. By the words, “Not with our parents…but with us,” Deuteronomy takes issue with such carved-in-stone orthodoxy. It does not allow faithful people simply to repeat old words, even hallowed words, but to find and hallow new words that are faithful to the principles of the old ones. They will be new words that will describe faithful living in this day, not the days of old. Rethinking, retooling, re-visioning what it means to be faithful to God and one another today is the constant work of those who would be God’s people. This is why the various what we might call laws in Deuteronomy are different than those in Exodus, and why Leviticus or Numbers are different again. “Not with our parents…but with us.” Read the old words in their wider context of life in the world today.
In the Deuteronomy 30 passage we have a summary of the end product of living in a covenant with God and one another…or not. The words are life and death. There are two ways, one that leads, literally to that which is helpful (the Hebrew word for “good”), and one that leads to that which is harmful (the Hebrew word for “evil”). Finding helpful ways is dependent upon finding and doing what is good in the present, not simply depending on old words. So, Deuteronomy says, “choose life.” Doesn’t seem like rocket science! Live creatively. The duty of people of faith is to translate old words and traditions into faithful new words and traditions, and make new contexts of meaning in the contemporary world. That’s an incredible gift of Deuteronomy.
When we come back to the Gospel lesson and that pesky verse about giving up all our possessions, we need to understand it both in the context of Luke’s Gospel and in the context of meaning in that time. We tend to read that verse about giving up all our possessions in a modern capitalist sense of the “things” we have. In fact, in ancient Mediterranean life, it would not have been so, for very few had very many of these. Furthermore, the literal translation is something like: “none of you who does not say good-bye to all that they have is able to be my disciple.” The statement is more inclusive than things, and, as I say, in that culture things would have been a minor consideration. They would be minor especially in comparison to giving up cultural habits of exclusion of others based on rank, privilege, and even family. The context of Luke 14 is really about having an open table, which would have been radical in a time when one ate and had table fellowship only with those who were equal to them and like them in every way. In the paragraphs that lead up to our passage Jesus is teaching that it’s important to take lower places at dinners so we can only gain honour. He is teaching that it’s important not to invite those who will be obligated (and able to) pay you back with what you have done, for that only entrenches a closed table to strangers.
Jesus then gets serious about teaching by telling a story about a banquet in which, although guests were invited to come, and had accepted the invitation, when they found out who else was coming, they reneged. In Jesus’ day it was common for invited guests to accept and, then, find out whether the other guests would enhance their honour and reputation, and go if they did and renege if they didn’t. They all began to make excuses. Jesus is driving at the fact that the other guests didn’t measure up. So the host went out and found those who needed to eat. The hosts them them in the town square where poor folks hung out. The host also went out into the countryside where those who didn’t want to come into town were and invited them as well. The way it is at God’s banquet, where God’s authority reigns, where Jesus is, is that the table is open to everyone. This is why we have an open Lord’s Table at First Baptist. We do not set the rules of who is good enough, or “in” enough, or respectable enough to be invited. Jesus ended his story with “Not one of those who were originally invited will taste my dinner.” Not because they weren’t invited, but because they thought themselves too good to attend with those “others.” That, in the words of Deuteronomy, is choosing death.
Now, at last, we get to the section of Luke we read this morning. It begins by saying that Jesus spoke the following words to the large crowd, not just the “in crowd” of disciples. The image of the large crowd is based on that inclusive group of folks that were invited to the banquet. And Jesus sets out a number of things that makes discipleship impossible. The first disqualifier is embracing only those who are in our “family,” that is, those who are related by blood, status, etc. This is where Jesus says that unless you hate your father and mother you can’t be his disciple. To love and hate in Jesus’ day had little or nothing to do with emotion, but with actions that embrace or shun. To shun everyone but your family will never work. Jesus says you must be willing to be inclusive in whom you treat with love, respect, and service. It has nothing to do with rank, status, identity, race, or other dividers.
Jesus taught that refusal to carry the cross makes it impossible to be his disciple. If discipleship is simply agreement to a list of beliefs, and doesn’t extend to service and self-giving, while it may make one smart, will not allow one to be a disciple.
Jesus, then makes a couple of points by parables. Jesus’ says that we need to be sure that we’ve got what it takes to be a disciple. We don’t want to be like the one who starts to build and runs out of funds and can’t finish. What he is driving at is, understand that discipleship, cross-carrying, inclusive discipleship actually is very costly in his culture and ours. It costs everything. Make sure you have what it takes. The other little story about the warring king, says “make sure you can finish what you start.” These two are similar points that this call to discipleship is not for those who are afraid of doing things that are counter-cultural.
Now, we get to the place where Jesus says, “You have to say good-bye to all that exclusivity and closedness, you have to say good-bye to everything that gets in the way of that which is inclusive, represented in Jesus’ day (and in ours) by open tables. Here, and out there and at Monday’s Meal, and at Centro-Latino, and the Legal Clinic, and with New Horizons.
The little Epistle to Philemon offers a case study, of what Jesus taught. In it Paul wrote to Philemon, a slave owner, about his slave Onesimus who ran away and came to Paul in Rome. This could have been a capital offense. Paul was not granted to see the “big picture,” that would come about as people, one day, would see that the whole institution of slavery was contrary to what Jesus taught and who God was. Rather, Paul, said “Treat Onesimus as a person (which a slave wasn’t). That doomed slavery anyway over the long haul.
One principle in this case study is that the social roles and status that are so culturally important were not to be the determining factors in the choices we make about other people. That principle stands, even if we don’t use the language of slaves and masters from another era. Treating others as co-human before God is determinative of all our human relationships under God. God had transformed Onesimus’ heart and, so, made him useful to both Philemon and to the work of God. It is crucial for us to be willing to see those “others” out there who are so unlike us in so many ways as those who bear God’s image. If God is willing to see usefulness in the ones we tend to think of as useless, shouldn’t we?
This is just one little example of what reading the Bible in context means, and the model that Deuteronomy sets us. Treat social conventions that divide people into “us” and “them” as unimportant, and embrace those “others” as family within God’s new covenant in Christ. We are simply doing for others what God in Christ has done for us. Were we to take this one thing seriously, it could make an important difference in our living here in our communities. The power of transformative grace is powerful.
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.