Sunday, September 5, 2004

Fourteenth Sunday in Pentecost
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

And he shall be like a tree planted by the streams of water, That bringeth forth its fruit in its season, Whose leaf also doth not wither; And whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.

The word “hate” is defined in Webster’s as “intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury, extreme dislike or antipathy, loathing.” If it is used as a verb, it means, “to feel extreme enmity toward, have a strong aversion to, find very distasteful.” Imagine the shock Jesus must have provoked with His comments in today’s lesson. We are to hate our mother and father?

Actually, as with all language, the meaning of what Jesus was saying in this passage has little to do with extreme disgust, anger or loathing. It has nothing to do with making our family our enemies, and yet as we read these words we think that is what Jesus has been telling us. Unfortunately, this perspective has been used and abused throughout history to make people turn their backs on their family and reject everything to follow someone claiming to be a representative of God.

“Hate,” as it is understood in ancient Israel, has to do with our priorities. To hate something meant to turn your back on it, to separate yourself from it. Jacob loved Rachel but hated Leah. Obviously he did not feel a strong aversion to her since they created several children together. This passage simply means that Jacob put Rachel first, turning his back on Leah for Rachel’s sake. When Jesus calls us to hate our mothers and fathers, our wives and our children, He is not telling us to abandon them or treat them as enemies. He is simply calling us to put Him first, setting aside everything and everybody else for His sake.

The LORD lays it on the line with Israel in today’s Old Testament lesson. “See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil.” The kind of life we will live is dependent on the way we walk in this world. If we love God and walk in His ways, we will see the blessings of obedience which is life and prosperity. “But if thy heart turn away, and thou wilt not hear, but shalt be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them; I denounce unto you this day, that ye shall surely perish; ye shall not prolong your days in the land, whither thou passest over the Jordan to go in to possess it.” If we turn away from God, in essence “hate” Him, we will suffer the consequences.

The consequences are not God’s wrath: He does not destroy those who are disobedient. In reality, we destroy ourselves by turning our hearts away from God. He does not leave us, we leave Him. Either we love Him, or we hate Him. There is no in between. Love means putting Him first, “hating everything else including life itself.” The benefits of this transaction are life and blessings. The consequences are death and curses.

This is very strong language, but Jesus makes it even stronger. In the Old Testament passage, there was a very real possibility that the people would turn to foreign gods. As a matter of fact, throughout the history of Israel, they turned from God many times to worship at the altars of the Baals. Jesus brings the problem closer to home. The gods are not just those things we worship in temples, it is the flesh of our flesh. Our mothers and fathers gave us life. We become one flesh with our spouses. Our children came forth from our loins.

While human flesh obviously played a part in the creation of the generations of people since Adam and Eve, none of us can give life. The breath of life can come only from the Creator, our God. Yet, we put so much emphasis on our relationships with one another, as if life would not exist without us. We feel we owe our parents or children our lives and we put them before everything else. It is by God’s command that we become one with our spouses. How could it be wrong to love them? The problem is not that we love, honor and serve them. The problem is that we put them ahead of God. They become our gods.

Life with Christ means putting Him first. It means doing His will even when it will go against the will of our families and the society in which we live. It means being obedient to God when the world around us expects something else of us.

Take the slave owner Philemon in today’s epistle lesson. His slave, Onesimus, ran away. In all likelihood, Onesimus also broke other laws. We don’t know the whole story. We don’t know how Onesimus became a friend of Paul or what help he was to the apostle. We only know that Paul decided it would be best to send this escaped slave back into the hands of his master in the hope that Philemon would put Christ first.

Paul himself was a prisoner – having been arrested for his work for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. According to this letter, Philemon was living a life of faithful service for the Lord. Paul commends him for all he has done, boasting about his love for the other Christians. Philemon’s faith gave Paul such joy, even in his imprisonment. With such faith, it would be easy to assume Philemon would receive Onesimus, who had heard the Gospel and been saved, as a brother in Christ.

However, Onesimus was not an equal in society. Whatever the reason for his slavery, there were rules about how he should be treated. A master was expected to be fair and to treat his slaves with kindness. If Onesimus were treated as a brother, what would that mean for the rest of the slaves? Would they also be freed for the sake of fairness? What about the other slave owners? How might Philemon’s compassion on Onesimus adversely affect their own property? The law gave Philemon the authority to punish disobedient slaves. It would be unjust and disruptive to the society in which he lived to do otherwise.

Paul does not seek to change the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus. He is not charging the master to set the slave free. This is a letter about forgiveness and reconciliation. “If then thou countest me a partner, receive him as myself.” The Gospel has not changed the vocation to which Onesimus has been called, but it raises his status from slave to brother. Paul even offers to pay any outstanding debt to ensure that there is nothing left to stand between the two. In Christ, Philemon and Onesimus can live in a new relationship and serve God together in love.

Paul writes, “For perhaps he was therefore parted from thee for a season, that thou shouldest have him for ever; no longer as a servant, but more than a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much rather to thee, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

Slaves were not slaves forever. They served for a time and then were set free. If the slave was married when he went to a master, his wife was also set free. However, if he married and had children while serving a master, the wife and children belonged to the master. The slave could decide to stay with the master, choose to be with him forever for the sake of his wife and children. “But if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free: then his master shall bring him unto God, and shall bring him to the door, or unto the door-post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for ever.”

When a slave chose to stay with a master, he was nailed through his ear to the doorpost as a witness to his willingness to be a servant forever. Perhaps this was what Paul was referring to in this letter when he said that Philemon would have him forever. Onesimus, in his new found faith and trust in the Lord, willingly returned to the life of servanthood for the sake of the Gospel of love. For him, it was the cost of discipleship. He turned away from freedom to live reconciled to his brother in Christ and master, Philemon.

Now Paul was writing to Philemon to encourage him to receive Onesimus, to grant forgiveness and be reconciled to him in Christian love. It went against everything he knew about business and society, but for him it was the cost of discipleship. To be a follower of Jesus means more than just words and even good deeds. It means more than giving up the easy things like immoral behavior. It means hating your very life – turning your back on everything for the sake of Christ.

This message of hate in today’s Gospel is harsh and hard. Jesus not only asks it of us, but demands it of those who want to be disciples. In this passage, He was being followed by large crowds – a mob of people. Most of them believed in Jesus, at least to a point. They believed that He could do great things and that He was a charismatic and credible speaker. He had an authority they had not seen in any men of God in the temple or synagogues. He turned to them and told them what it meant to be a disciple. It meant putting Him first.

The people in the crowds had not given themselves fully to Jesus. They could leave at any moment, to go home to care for the needs of home and family. They believed, some may have even had faith that Jesus was the Christ for whom they waited, but they had not committed themselves to Him.

Then He told them two parables – one about a builder and the other about a warrior king. He asked what would happen if they did not count the cost of their projects. The builder would be seen as a fool when his foundation lay undeveloped, the king would be routed by the enemy. The builder and the king had to count the cost so that they knew if they could succeed. The cost of discipleship is great – it means giving up everything for the sake of Christ. Jesus wants the crowds to consider whether or not they want to be followers or disciples. It is much harder to be a disciple. “So therefore whosoever he be of you that renounceth not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.”

I don’t know if it is possible to truly become a disciple of Jesus Christ, though there are some throughout the history of the church that have come close. I can’t imagine giving up everything I own and everyone I love and to turn my back completely on the society in which I live, to follow Jesus wherever He might lead. I praise God for the incredible blessings I have in my family, my home, my work in this world. Perhaps this is an impossible request from Jesus.

And yet, when we consider the servant who has had his ear pierced on the door jam of his master’s house, did he live in want? No, as the master’s servant he had everything he needed – a home, food, work, clothes, family and friends. This message is not about having nothing or living as a penniless wanderer. It is about giving up even your very life for the sake of Jesus Christ to be more than a follower. He is calling us to be disciples, putting Him first and sharing the Gospel of love with the world.

It might not be easy; the blessings that come from such a life are great. The psalmist writes, “And he shall be like a tree planted by the streams of water, That bringeth forth its fruit in its season, Whose leaf also doth not wither; And whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.” Just as it is heard in the lesson from Deuteronomy, those who love the Lord and put Him above all else will know the blessedness of living in His promises. Thanks be to God.

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