Ordinary XXIII: Counting the Cost
Today’s gospel is nestled between two of Luke’s great parables on grace: the banquet to which all are invited (14:15-24) and the parable of the prodigal son (15:11-32). All are invited to the banquet table: the poor, the crippled, the blind and lame. Even the son who was lost, the one who squandered his inheritance, even the fallen and outcast are welcome if they choose to come back home. God is loving, forgiving, inclusive, full of grace.
Today’s gospel sits uncomfortably between these easy-listening grace-filled passages: hate your family, embrace persecution, give up all your possessions. If our Lord was a politician, wanting to build up a following, a speech like this would not be the way to do it.
Bishop Tom Wright puts it like this in his commentary on Luke (Luke for Everyone, p. 180):
‘Want to be my disciple, do you? Well, in that case you have to learn to hate your family, give up your possessions, and get ready for a nasty death!’ Hardly the way, as we say, to win friends and influence people.
But wait a minute. Supposing, instead of a politician, we think of a great expedition, forging a way through a high dangerous mountain pass to bring urgent medical aid to villagers cut off from the rest of the world. ‘If you want to come any further,’ the leader says, ‘you’ll have to leave your pack behind. From here on the path is too steep to carry all that stuff. You probably won’t find it again. And you’d better send your last postcards home; this is a dangerous route and it’s very likely that several of us won’t make it back.’
Our Lord already has a crowd, we see that in the opening verse. They are following him to Jerusalem, convinced that he is the promised Messiah. Jesus is trying to get them to see sense, to count the cost. This is a hard road ahead. It’s not going to be easy.
When I was in my early twenties I spent six months in India. I met a young Hindu man who had converted to Christianity. His family quite literally hated him for it. His father tortured him, trying to get him to change his mind. He was genuinely afraid that his father was going to kill him. Eventually he was kicked out of home penniless. These were first-century realities too for many readers and hearers of Luke’s gospel.
Most of us have never had to face that level of persecution for our faith, but I imagine we have all experienced very real challenges along our Christian journey. It is more subtle perhaps, but there is still a high cost to being a Christian in Melbourne today. Bishop Tom’s metaphor of the formidable trek into the mountains resonates with me. We live in a post-Christendom era. The crowds who used to flock to churches in the 1950s now have Sunday shopping, Sunday sport, Death of God theology, and a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse as part of our landscape.
It is different from the first-century, but it is still a huge challenge to be Christian, and to build Christian community in today’s world. The old solutions don’t work any more. And it is easy to blame ourselves, or our leaders, for what is in reality a much broader societal and spiritual phenomenon.
In his book, Canoeing the Mountains (2015) American Presbyterian minister and author Ted Bolsinger draws on a similar mountaineering metaphor to Bishop Tom Wright. He retells the pioneering story of Captain Meriwether Lewis and his close friend Second Lieutenant William Clark, who were commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803 to lead a select group of US Army volunteers in finding what he hoped would become a trade route to the Pacific Ocean. Lewis and Clark were chosen because of their canoe skills. The plan was to canoe to the source of the Missouri river, cross over the pass, find a similar river, and then canoe down to the Pacific Ocean. The problem was, on arrival at the source, they discovered a very different landscape from the one they had envisaged. They discovered the Continental Divide and the great Rocky Mountains stretching as far as the eye could see, and beyond. They had not prepared for this terrain, and had to majorly reassess their strategy for reaching the ocean.
Being a Christian, and belonging to a Christian community in today’s world is a bit like that. We have to learn how to canoe the mountains. It is going to be a very different Church landscape in the 2020s from that of the 1950s or even the 2010s. Like all challenging expeditions into unknown territory, we need to be creative and courageous, finding new ways of traveling together. There will be fights, even mutinies, because we won’t always agree on the way forward. But if we are to succeed, if we are to give a flourishing St Peter’s church to the next generation, we must find ways of working through our differences, forgiving one another, working together on the common mission. And perhaps first of all we need to assess and reassess what our common mission is in this new landscape.
Like those seeking to build a tower, let’s first sit down together and estimate the cost. Like a king preparing for war, let’s count the cost, and perhaps decide to work towards peace instead.
The Lord be with you.