Christine Pohl is professor of social ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, and author of Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Eerdmans).
This article appeared in The Christian Century, August 15-22, 2001, p. 17. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Jesus proposes some very troubling conditions for discipleship. We are asked to “hate” our parents, spouse, children, siblings, even life itself. Jesus’ teaching must have surprised and confused the enthusiastic crowd, and quickly thinned out the ranks of his supporters.
In a culture that is deeply ambivalent about personal sacrifice, and often equates it with co-dependency or some other form of emotional dysfunction, Jesus’ challenge to "carry the cross" is difficult to hear. But then it probably did not sound appealing to the folks following him 2,000 years ago either.
In this passage from Luke, Jesus proposes some very troubling conditions for discipleship. We are asked to "hate" our parents, spouse, children, siblings, even life itself. How could One who had come to bring life offer such a deadly proposal? Jesus’ teaching must have surprised and confused the enthusiastic crowd, and quickly thinned out the ranks of his supporters.
Centuries earlier, Moses had stood with the children of Israel at the brink of crossing into the promised land and had challenged them to "choose life." Anticipating his own death, Moses instructed the Israelites in the choices that would bring them life and prosperity in a new land.
When the passages from Deuteronomy and Luke are juxtaposed, the intensity of their messages is heightened. Moses invites the people to "choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days." A vibrant relationship with God holds the promise of flourishing, prosperity and long life. By contrast, the future Jesus offers seems hard -- to follow him we must live as if we are anticipating crucifixion.
Is it possible to choose life and pick up the cross? Somehow both invitations are part of Christian discipleship. We worship a God of life, but mysteriously that life has costly sacrifice at its center. Choosing life is not necessarily about what feels good or makes us happy. And only in a very distant way is it about self-fulfillment. Faithful discipleship, according to Jesus, involves "hating" everything that gives us security in exchange for carrying a cross and following him.
Jesus is not talking about a literal hatred of family or life, but a transformed relationship to everything and everyone we depend on to define our identity. Discipleship involves a process by which we are re-formed within a different set of loyalties. Those new commitments can break the tight hold our prior loves and connections have over how we live.
Temptations to find our meaning and identity through family, self-fulfillment and possessions are strong. In an effort to counter destructive patterns in contemporary society, it is not difficult to turn the family into an idol. Past misunderstandings of the meaning of self-denial can result in an equally destructive focus on self-fulfillment. And it is very easy to allow possessions to dominate our lives.
The challenges to choose life, discipleship and the way of the cross are ultimately about where we place our allegiance. Moses warns of the dangers of idolatry, of the costs involved when we allow our hearts to be turned toward other gods that finally bring only death. We choose life when we love, obey and hold fast to God. Psalm 1 reminds us that those who delight in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night, are happy, blessed and fruitful. Their security is contrasted with those who, in turning away from the source of life, are as unstable as dust blown away by the wind.
But choosing life is difficult, and Jesus warns us to pay attention to the cost of discipleship. Short-lived enthusiasm lacks staying power. Counting the cost is an appropriate caution when we consider the number of people who begin important undertakings only to abandon them part way through. Whether buildings or wars, marriages or ministry projects, it is important to consider what we are getting ourselves into and the resources we can rely on. When we count the cost and still choose the path of life and discipleship, we are able to make a steady commitment that is then sustained by our connection with the source of life.
It might be easier if we could count the cost once, make the necessary sacrifice and get it over with. But the costs of discipleship are often ongoing, and faithfulness requires a tenacity that does not give up in the face of trouble and understands sacrifice in a larger picture that is richly life-affirming. While we might prefer to make a single dramatic sacrifice as an expression of our commitment, usually the way of faithfulness involves laying down our lives in little pieces, through small decisions and unremarkable acts of kindness and generosity.
As I write this, several friends come to mind. A love for life and a love for Christ characterize their lives. In response to a call to ministry, they have left security and close-knit family behind to work in parts of the world that are unstable and often dangerous. There, by word and deed, they share the word of life in surroundings of death. Clearly, they have heard and understood Jesus’ words.
Another friend has also responded to Jesus’ difficult call by leaving seminary to care for a mother who has Alzheimer’s disease. My friend had no idea how long her commitment would extend, but her mother’s short sojourns in nursing homes had not worked out well. My friend knew that loving God, caring for her mother, choosing life and accepting loss were all somehow wrapped up together. Her staying power has been remarkable; she has chosen life even as she acknowledges the substantial personal cost. The way of faithful discipleship sometimes leads us far from home, and in other cases leads us back home, into our closest relationships.
Jesus continues to call us to carry the cross and follow him -- a costly yet grace-filled invitation from the Crucified One who also offers us life.