We could soften Jesus’ words with some reinterpretation. We could assume our English language doesn’t have an adequate translation for the word Jesus uses for “hate,” as he seems to tell us we cannot fully love him and are not fully devoted disciples unless we “hate” the members of our immediate family, even “hate” life itself, and give up all our possessions.
We could speculate that we have only the two options: love or hate. If I were presented with chocolate ice cream and vanilla ice cream, I’d have to choose chocolate as my preference. If I were to have to answer a survey question on the terms presented in our Gospel lesson: Which do you love? Which do you hate? My survey answer would indicate that I love chocolate and hate vanilla. Yet, that is not true.
If instead, I were presented with Rocky Road ice cream – a sinful and irresistible combination of chocolate ice cream implanted with dark chocolate bits, nuts, and marshmallows, my desire for the Rocky Road concoction would be so far superior to the vanilla choice, that my desire for the vanilla could not even come close; my taste for the vanilla could not be described with the same words. There would be an indescribable vast chasm between my love for the Rocky Road and my ho-hum acceptance of the vanilla as a consolation. My love for the Rocky Road is so enormous that it would gather my full devotion making it seem that I hate vanilla in comparison.
Still, I don’t hate vanilla, and the truth is, the chocolate starts out as vanilla. Ah, then, there is a third answer. I can love the vanilla along with the Rocky Road; the vanilla is part of the Rocky Road.
So, do we pass off the harshness of the surface interpretation of Jesus’ words with the excuse of lack of adequate translation over the 2,000 years? Or, perhaps, there is such an extreme chasm between the spiritual self-sacrificing love of true discipleship – the self-sacrificing love we share as spiritual brothers and sisters within the Body of Christ – and the love we experience with earthly family members that the same word cannot be used to describe both emotions. The scriptures speak in the extreme. God’s love for us expressed in the redemption of all creation through the life and works and Jesus Christ is extreme, so beyond human words and interpretation, the explanation leaves many vast chasms in our ability to articulate.
Or, is there a third way of reading this text – an answer that exists in the ambiguity? Certainly, our love of family and our love of life take on new meaning – a reinterpretation – when we commit our lives to Jesus Christ, when we become true disciples. As true disciples, we incorporate all that is earthly into all that is sacred. Our earthly family becomes our spiritual family as do all with whom we share the Body of Christ. Our earthly possessions become sacred as they are devoted to God’s will – devoted toward the furtherance of God’s kingdom.
Oh, well. Our Gospel lesson is another one of those passages that we spend our life deciphering; it will be clear to us in eternity. For now, we live with the ambiguity. Mostly, rather than getting mired down in literal murky interpretations, we turn our focus to the crystal clear message: Jesus, our Savior, goes to the extreme to be sure we understand that the journey of discipleship is not a primrose path.
Jesus wants us to know that our discipleship is on a vastly different plain than our earthly familial relationships and our tangible earthly possessions. We should be prepared to walk away from any of those bonds that inhibit our discipleship. As with any investment that promises a worthy return, our sacrifice is significant and should be recognized and affirmed at the outset.
The cost of discipleship is dear; the cost of the Cross is earthly life. The reward is the empty tomb – victory over death; the reward is eternal life. How can we possibly explain, except to strive to live in the presence of Jesus Christ, always open to the “third” way, often the less obvious answers – answers that require our constant discernment – our being constantly in the presence of Christ?
In our lesson from Deuteronomy, we read the words of God spoken by Moses to God’s wayward people, in this case the Israelites. If we walk in God’s ways, we will be blessed. Conversely, if we stray, we will perish.
Prior to the time of Moses, God had destroyed creation through the flood, reserving only the remnant of Noah and his family. From that time until now, humans have continued to waver in faithfulness to God’s law. Would God go on destroying his creation every time humankind reached the red line of faithlessness?
But, if God didn’t enforce his laws through the threat of perishing, would we humans, per our human nature, ever be faithful to God’s laws? Do we perish for our sinfulness as God promises? Or, do we live on faithlessly and recklessly thumbing our noses in the face of God’s empty threat?
Or, is there a third answer? Our Father God, creator, is above all creative. God would send the Son to redeem us of our faithlessness, to pay the price to rescue us from the grave, to save us from perishing. The cost of our faithlessness would indeed be paid. God, in the person of Jesus Christ, would die to pay the cost of our sins; God, in the person of Jesus Christ, would overcome death and rise again to insure that we would never perish but have everlasting life. Only God could suggest this “third way” out of our predicament.
The Apostle Paul provides a learning example: Paul, from prison, begs for the freedom of his brother in Christ, Onesimus. Onesimus is a slave, owned by Paul’s friend Philemon. Together with others, Paul and Philemon had established a church house. Onesimus has run away or been sent away; the letter leaves these conditions unclear. In either case, Onesimus has broken free of his bondage and come to Paul, giving Paul aid in prison. The portion of the letter that we read today is written by Paul from prison; it is a plea to his friend Philemon for Onesimus’ freedom.
We do not learn the outcome of Paul’s request. Is Onesimus punished and taken back into slavery upon his return to Philemon? Is he released, essentially abandoned, to fend for himself? Or, is there a third answer – as Paul requests? Is Onesimus received by Philemon as a brother in Christ – an equal in the household of God?
Whether it is Rocky Road ice cream, or the reception into the Body of Christ of Onesimus, or our salvation by grace through faith, as disciples of Christ, we are called to live with the endless possibilities, the difficult questions, the ambiguity of life in the presence of Jesus Christ. We are called to maintain the non-anxious presence in the face of crisis and chaos. Love/hate, life/death, freedom/bondage: is it one or the other or something different, entirely unimaginable?
God is a god of endless possibilities. Remain constantly in the presence of Jesus Christ our Savior. There, you will discover the “third way” – the endless possibilities of true discipleship – the endless possibilities of the life and works of Jesus Christ brought forth in us.