Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Counting The Cost

Luke 14:25-33

This Sunday we came to the end of our summer survey of Jesus’ parables. The parables before us in Luke come up in the context of very sobering challenges to committed discipleship. In the passage as a whole Jesus says things that really set you back on your heels when you take them in. If they don’t set you back on your heels then you are not really hearing them with the force Jesus intended.

A disciple of Jesus must:

* hate father and mother
* hate his or her own life
* carry the cross
* give up all of his or her posessions

What does Jesus mean by all of this? Does the one who said love your neighbor as yourself really mean that one must embrace an asceticism that is equal to self-loathing in order to be a faithful disciple? Does the one who said that he did not come to contradict the law but fulfill it mean quite literally that one must hate one’s father and mother instead of honoring them? Is every person to take a vow of poverty in order to be Jesus’ disciple?

It is in the parables in this passage that we get some clues as to how to read rightly Jesus’ sobering challenges. New Testament scholar, T.E. Schmidt offers this helpful interpretive insight with regard to the parables before us and I paraphrase just a tad: ‘When trying to decide what Jesus means by counting the cost the crux of the issue does not lie in ‘counting the cost’ in order to make sure one has enough resources within oneself... the point is that no matter what calculus one uses, no matter what resources one believes one can bring to bear, those assets will be insufficient to secure one’s status before God. Alternative and decisive action is thus required for everyone....”

Schmidt’s insight is very helpful because he offers a framework whereby we can understand at once the seriousness of Jesus’ call to take up the cross and the fact that we cannot fulfill these demands without the grace that comes through “alternative and decisive action” (i.e. repentance).

So, when Jesus challenges his followers to renounce family, life itself, and possessions his goal is not so much to scare people away but to challenge people to move into a deeper and more genuine love of God through him. It is like a person who is so in love with another that they keep saying things like this to them: “I love you, I want to be with you forever, but I really wonder sometimes if you love me in the same way? I mean you seem like you love your family more than you love me; it seems like you love your stuff more than you love me; it seems like you want to keep your options open. When a lover says this to their lover, normally it is not to dissuade the beloved from committing. Rather, those hard words are said to them with the hope that they will respond in a deeper love that leaves no questions about the trajectory they want for the relationship.

Jesus says what he says here so that we understand what the stakes are in following him. To follow Jesus as a disciple we must learn to renounce idolatrous relationships to the things that this world offers us as identities to be assumed or as security to be clung to. Instead, we must look for our identity to be formed not according to what our culture offers us but according to what Jesus gives us as renewed human beings who belong to a new family and a new humanity.

What Jesus is saying is that we can relate ourselves to the resources that this life offers in such a way as to draw us away from a truly life-giving experience with Jesus by enslaving us to patterns of living that are ultimately idolatrous. Our relationships to family, material things, and “life itself” all offer plenty of opportunities for cheap substitutes for the life God wants for us. Let’s look at family first.

Jesus says unless you hate your family that you cannot be my disciple... well, what is going on here? In the social setting in which Luke recorded this strong teaching of Jesus, family ties were far more than sentimental connections that drew people together for holidays. Family honor was all important. One’s identity was drawn from one’s family. To walk away from family and to follow Jesus would have often been interpreted by the family and the friends of the family as an act of hating one’s family, particularly if the family did not approve of Jesus. The point is that even when the heart of the disciple has nothing but love for his or her family, the family might declare the disciple to be a hater of family and an embarrassment to the family, particularly if the family disapproved of Jesus.

Connections to biological family are still powerful in our socio-cultural setting. Let’s say that in your family growing up that the most important value in the family was to not upset the ‘honor’ of the family, even when the ‘honor’ was propped up at the expense of the truth. The power of this family dynamic may make it hard for you to even hear Jesus and the gospel when the gospel makes it clear that what is truly honorable in life is to confess that you have no honor apart from the honor bestowed on you as a forgiven sinner. In this way your relationship to your family’s honor may keep you from even being able to tell what Jesus is saying because you can’t imagine he would ask for that sort of honesty and humility. For example, the older son in the Story of the Prodigal Son cannot think of honor working in this way but the father points the way to how a true disciple thinks of family honor when he runs out to greet the son who had brought dishonor on the family.... talk about a different calculus at play.... the father in this story says, ‘I don’t care what the village thinks about honor’ - the father knew that true honor is when reconciliation happens no matter how dishonorable were the actions of the son.

Those of us who did not learn or see the gospel in our families (none of us did perfectly anyway), may find it very hard to truly and strongly yearn to have our identity reconstructed in Christ’s new family. Until we do, we will find ourselves repeating destructive patterns with our partners, spouses, other family members, children, or closest friends.

With regard to material possessions:

Jesus wants us to know that an obsession with material possessions, an obsession with keeping what we have or getting more can often become the negative energy that keeps us distant from the riches of his kingdom. This is very tricky because you don’t have to have much to be distracted by material things. Just the obsessive desire to have more can draw our focus away from our need to use the life we have to bless others. Addiction to having more just brings so much static into our lives that we can’t listen to God because our passions are obsessed by wanting to have that handbag we really can’t afford or that car we can’t afford but is something we must have at any cost.... or the extra nights of partying that don’t fit in our budget.... etc. But there are still other, more subtle, ways to allow an inappropriate relationship to money to distract us from faithfully following Jesus. There are some who choose under-employment for all of the right reasons and as a result of a wise process of discernment. There are others who, in the name of a simple life, choose to not work much or choose radical under-employment; in so doing they have become a burden on those around them. For these folks, they have allowed their frustration with the materialism in our culture to lead them into a life-style they have called holy according to their own ethic of personal comfort instead of really asking Jesus how they should live and work.

What about lust? Well lust is especially tricky because Jesus makes it clear that the path that leads us to join our sexual desires with the kind of love that Jesus brings into our lives cannot be walked according to simply what we don’t do physically. We all remember his famous words about lust - you have heard it said that you must not commit adultery.... I say not to lust in your hearts. This teaching of Jesus shows us just how how easy it is to objectify others with our sexual passions without ever touching them; and a life consumed by such lusts - not interrupted by repentance - will, of course, lead us away from the life giving love of Jesus. Well, in those moments of life consuming lust, you turn to Jesus and say - give me your clothes - I repent of objectifying this person in my heart - I repent of wanting sex more than I want to be controlled by your life-giving love.

When we repent of our sins that relate to our desire for material things, when we repent of not breaking with certain family patterns that lead us away from the gospel, when we repent of the sort of lusts that lead us to a really unsatisfying and destructive life - when we repent in all of these areas we are kept on a journey of discipleship, a journey to wholeness... and a journey to human flourishing. In the end, probably the best way to talk about what Schmidt refers to above as “alternative and decisive action” is a life-style of thoughtful reflection upon the truth of one’s life, followed by regular repentance.

Questions for discussion:

1. Can you think of a pattern in your family of origin that has made it difficult for you to hear and live the gospel? Can you think of a pattern in your family of origin that has made it easier to hear and live the gospel?

2. Can you think of times when the desire for some experience that cost money kept you from something you should have been doing? For example, one thinks of Miroslav Volf’s simple observation that it requires effort for parents to make the time and resources to play with their kids and otherwise be good parents, given the plethora of adult distractions on offer in our culture.

3. If you had to put in a couple of non-prudish sentences why God cares about what people do sexually, what would you say? How would you inform your thoughts with the gospel - in other words, how would you say something about sex that could not be said simply according to the Old Testament?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

When Self-Righteousness Goes Unchecked

Luke 18:9-14
Jesus’ parables sometimes paint a picture of what sorts of practices will be welcomed and what sorts are not allowed in Jesus’ kingdom. In the parable at hand we meet a practice that has no place in Jesus’ kingdom: the practice of self-justification coupled with feelings of superiority and scorn for others. In this same parable Jesus holds up an example of what sort of religious practice is welcome in the kingdom. The practice of humility that comes from those who know they are poor in spirit, those who know they are sinners and admit their sin; those who ask for and receive mercy - this practice is welcome in Jesus’ kingdom because it makes for human flourishing.

Some have observed that the two characters in this parable have two different images of God. “The Pharisee’s image presupposed a God who is impressed with pious acts and feelings of superiority towards others.” But the tax collector did not presuppose anything, so truly humble was he. Rather, he hoped for a God who met people with forgiveness when they sincerely asked for mercy.

What image of God do we project in our church or our community of friends, colleagues, or neighbors? In the way we approach our relationship to God and to others do we project an image of God that makes people feel as if church is a place where everyone has to have their act together, at least in a certain kind of way, in order to be welcomed and cared for? One commentator has suggested that the modern-day counterpart of the Pharisee would be welcomed into leadership in many churches today because of his outward piety, generosity with his money and reputation for clean living; no one would seriously evaluate whether or not the same person is unrepentantly prideful and scornful.

Clearly, the image of God that we should desire to project is the image of a merciful God who welcomes sinners, who exalts the humble, who meets us in the messiness and brokenness of our lives and grants life-giving mercy and forgiveness so that we can begin to be restored from our sin and brokenness and more conformed to the love of Christ.

So for you and for me this parable suggests that we should take stock of our approach to God and to others with regard to the sins of pride and scorn. Here are some questions for self-diagnosis:

* Do you find yourself taking a little bit - even if it is just a little bit - of satisfaction when you see someone suffering from the consequences of their bad choices, the consequences of their sin? Perhaps you had warned the same person of the likely consequences of their actions and now they are reaping the consequences.... do you feel compassion or a sense of self-satisfaction? If it is the latter, we must repent of our pride.
* Do you feel like no one has anything to teach you if they don’t know as much as you do about the scriptures or theology as you think you do? If so, we need to take stock and ask God to break us of our spiritual pride.
* Similarly, do you feel like no one has anything to teach you who does not have their life together according to how you define what it means for one to have their life put together? If so then you need to take stock and look at your spiritual pride and ask God to break you of that.
* Does your pursuit of God and the holiness of God lead you to want to push others away from you? Do you need to feel superior to certain sorts of people and distance yourself from a certain sort in order to feel safe and holy? Is so, you need to take stock of your spiritual pride.

In the abstract world of ideas perhaps self-justification can exist without the need to put others down. However, this parable and life in general teach us that self-justification needs comparisons to others like fish need water. If your security in your relationship with God depends on your feeling superior to others then your relationship with God is headed in the wrong direction. Our growth towards maturity can only happen in a community where we abandon the temptation to see ourselves as better than others and repent of that sort of pride if and when it rears its ugly head.

Now, it would be one thing if Jesus had made his point in the language of abstract theological argument but he did not. Instead, he put human faces on the two practices we have been talking about. Clearly, the forceful teaching of this parable is that one practice is welcomed in the kingdom and the other one not. However, it is important, with this parable and all parables, to read them in light of the entire Gospel message. The whole counsel of the Gospel reminds us that there is a little, or a lot, of the Pharisee in all of us and we realize that it would be wrong to demonize the Pharisee, while thanking God that we are not like him! Instead we should realize that the distance between the Pharisee from the tax collector in the temple is the measure of Christ’s cross; Jesus’ love is for them both and for all of us. May the image of God that we project at Grace Chicago Church be a portrait of a God who is truly welcoming of all people.

1. When you feel yourself moving in the direction of self-justification what is usually behind that movement? What prompts that temptation for you?

2. Can you think of an occasion where you learned something profound about God’s love or grace from someone who, in your estimation, knew very little about God in comparison to you? Was this humbling for you? Did you learn something good from that experience?

3. If you feel compelled to express concern to someone about their behavior because you love them and want them to experience growth and human flourishing what guidelines do you put in place to help you do it in a way that is humble and loving?

4. If you distance yourself from someone because of their sinful behavior how can you discern whether your self-distancing is for a good and wise reason or whether it is simply because you feel self-righteous towards that person?

In our post 9/11 world we find ourselves thinking a great deal more, perhaps than we used to, about being secure. In some instances when we feel very vulnerable we think we would like to feel secure at almost any cost. The answer to the question how much should we invest in our security for our families or our nation is not an easy one to answer. Just last night, for example, we had an intruder in our backyard; I called 911 and stayed in for a while just to be relatively sure the situation had become safer before I finished my cigar out back. All the while we kept our 4 year old away from the windows in case the intruder was being chased by armed gang members. Now there are padlocks on the gates.....

I thought about this theme of security with regard to our parable this week as I considered how many Muslims or people who look like Muslims have suffered various indignities and suffering since 9/11 - all because so many Americans are now afraid of Muslims. Here are some remarks by Miroslav Volf along this theme - good food for thought, in my opinion. The following is excerpted from his opening remarks given at a Yale conference entitled, “Are We Safe Enough?”

“As we observed these dimensions of the security situation in which we find
ourselves today across the broad spectrum of our life, we also, being at a
theological school, tried to take a look at religious faith and theological
traditions to see what they might have to say about security. And to our
surprise, we found very little reflection on such a fundamental issue as is
security. It’s not that we didn’t find primary religious statements on security in
the tradition and in the Scriptures in which our traditions are based. In the
Psalms of the Hebrew Bible (or as we Christians call it, the Old Testament),
for instance, the psalmist often prays to God, who is “my refuge.” What is the
talk of God as “refuge” other than relating security to God? Or take a look at the
very end of the Christian Bible—it ends with the image of the New Jerusalem.
And if you read carefully about this New Jerusalem, you find it is a city that is
utterly and completely secured that can never be undone.

Security is a very important theme in biblical traditions, but theologians have
slept through their reading of those portions of the Bible. They haven’t taken
up that issue of security, they have not reflected much on how what biblical
traditions say about security relates to our contemporary search for security.
So we thought it important for us first to reflect on our own about this theme
and then to consider what kind of contribution religious reflection might make
to the wider debate about security. That’s why security.

But why then vulnerability? Well, vulnerability is obviously the reason why we
pursue security. If we were not vulnerable, the question of security would never
arise. I’m a theologian, and presumably I can say with some degree of
confidence that God needs no security force to protect God’s throne. God is by
definition inviolable. Human beings are not by definition inviolable. We need to
have our existence and our well being secured. That is why those lights flash on
the buses when kids get on and off of them; that’s why we lock our homes at
night and sometimes also during the day; that’s why we have a police force,
and so on.

But vulnerability also touches on security in another way: human vulnerability
places a limit on the pursuit of security. It determines in part, or at least shapes
in part, the nature of what it means to be secure. For vulnerability is
fundamental to who we are as human beings. To be inviolable is to be divine; to
be human is to be, and I think is always to remain, vulnerable. You can almost
put it this way, that vulnerability is the essential condition of human life. No
vulnerability, no human life.

Now that has very important implications for what it means to pursue security
and, I think, places certain limits on security. We tend to think that the more
secure we are, the better off we will be. But can vulnerable persons ever be fully
secure? Can we ever create conditions of inviolability? Isn’t it the case that for
vulnerable creatures to be inviolable is a contradiction in terms? And if we could
create conditions in which we would be fully secure, would it be desirable to do
so? Would it be good to create a world of total security? What kind of world
would it be? What implications would it have for freedom and for
unpredictability, which is related fundamentally to our freedom? What
implications would inviolable security have for the interdependence of human
beings, which qualifies us as human beings? Wouldn’t inviolability be the
equivalent of being an individual fortress, a completely independent individual
or a nation? And given human nature, would we not as such precisely be a
danger for others? So these are some of the reasons we chose to deal with
vulnerability and the limits of security.