Sunday, September 09, 2007

Jesus' Legal Fine Print

Proper 18 – Year C
(Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost)

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-20; Luke 14:25-33
Sunday, September 9, 2007 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

In our litigation-happy society, we are inundated with legal fine print. It pervades virtually every aspect of our lives, notifying us of what we are entitled to and what we are not entitled to, and making us aware of our responsibilities. You can find such fine print in legal documents for such major purchases as a house or a car. When you go to the doctor’s office, you are required to read and sign legal documents that acknowledge your rights and responsibilities, while waiving other rights. Now a days, even things we don’t necessarily think of as legal documents contain fine print. Next time you go to the grocery store and use a coupon for 25 cents off the price of a can of tuna, take a look at the coupon. There is fine print that says the coupon has no inherent cash value, that it can only be used on the specified brand and size of the product, and that you only get the savings if you use it by a particular date. Many products that you purchase even have legal fine print. Because of the increase among people who have allergic reactions to nuts, you often find a statement on many product labels that the product was processed using equipment that was also used to manufacture foods containing peanuts or other tree nuts. Some of the legal fine print we encounter may even seem a little over the top, stating the obvious. A number of years ago, a woman successfully sued MacDonald’s when she was burned by a cup of coffee. Now, cups of coffee purchased at MacDonald’s contain a statement that the cup contains hot liquid – Duh!

Yes, legal fine print is nearly everywhere. You might, therefore, not be surprised that the Church is no exception. When you’re baptized, you agree to the Baptismal Covenant which outlines your rights and responsibilities as a member of the Body of Christ. If you’re married, you took certain vows that define what is expected of you and what your responsibilities are in relating to your spouse. There are parts of Scripture that are, for all intents and purposes, entirely legal fine print, such as the Ten Commandments, not to mention such Old Testament books as Leviticus and Deuteronomy, which contain much of the Jewish Law. These are all sort of obvious. But what many people don’t realize is that Jesus imparted his own legal fine print on would-be followers. And that’s what we hear in today’s Gospel lesson from Luke – the legal fine print that Jesus says we must agree to in order to be his followers.

Let’s take a look. In this passage, Jesus lays out three explicit requirements for would-be followers. The first is that “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (v. 26). This is a pretty harsh requirement, particularly coming from a man often referred to as the Prince of Peace, a man who preached a message of love. Jesus’ ethic of love makes it unthinkable that anyone should hate his or her own family. So how, then, can Jesus require such a thing? Biblical scholar Alan Culpepper gives us a little bit of a reprieve on this one, although not much. Culpepper notes that this appears to be a case of “Semitic hyperbole that exaggerates a contrast so that it can be seen more clearly. [The term translated as] ‘Hate’ does not mean anger or hostility. [Rather] it indicates that if there is a conflict, one’s response to the demands of discipleship must take precedence over even the most sacred of human relationships” (Culpepper, 292). This interpretation is corroborated by examining the comparable passage in Matthew (10:37), where Jesus speaks of loving him more than one’s family. While this interpretation does soften the tone a bit, Jesus’ message is undeniable. There is no greater duty than commitment to Jesus and to being one of his followers. Commitment to following Jesus trumps one’s sense of obligation to one’s own family, even one’s own sense of self-preservation. This does not mean that you have to give up your family. But if you chose to follow Jesus, and if a situation requires that you choose between family or Jesus, Jesus wins out. Are we willing to make that kind of commitment?

The second condition Jesus places on would-be followers is that “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (v. 27). In everyday life, use of the term “taking up your cross” or someone having “a cross to bear” generally means having some sort of personal burden or private suffering – one that generally is carried and endured against one’s will, but also which is generally done privately, silently, without complaint. In the context of Jesus’ legal fine print, bearing a cross has nothing to do with illness, physical condition, economic hardship, etc. It is rather what we voluntarily do as a consequence of our commitment to Christ – deliberate sacrifice, exposure to risk. Placed in the context of Jesus life, this section of Scripture occurs as Jesus has already set his face toward Jerusalem, to his death on the cross. Put quite bluntly, this condition means that the would-be follower of Jesus must be willing to suffer the same fate as he did. Now a days, not too many people are put to death because of their faith. But there are certainly still times and places in our society where a crucifixion of sorts does occur. People are still belittled, jeered at, mocked, even physically attacked, because of their faith. Even in the absence of such conditions, taking up one’s cross means living as Jesus lived – bearing the pain and suffering of the world, and doing what one can to alleviate that pain and suffering. Namely, this takes the form of acts of charity, working to house the homeless, clothe the naked, free the prisoner, and working for justice and mercy among those who are downtrodden by our society. Are we willing to endure potential injury and insult, or at least a little inconvenience by going out of our way to help the other, so that we might be able to call ourselves Jesus’ followers?

The third condition Jesus places on would-be followers is that “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (v. 33). Now that’s a biggy! Sure, being willing to giving up your family and being willing to take up your cross to follow Jesus are massive requirements. But as we’ve just established, the first two conditions are not 100 percent certain. What Jesus appears to have been saying is that you don’t have to give up family or take up the cross right off the bat, but rather need to be prepared to do those things if push comes to shove, if your discipleship comes into conflict with other obligations or with the ways of the world. But giving up all your possessions?

That is certainly not an easy requirement to live with. But I don’t think Jesus was asking us to live in a state of poverty, either. I think this piece of legal fine print has some wiggle room in it, just like the other two conditions. According to Biblical scholar Gail O’Day, what Jesus is really saying is that “one must be willing to say farewell to everything that stands as an obstacle to full and faithful discipleship” (O’Day, 43). The reality is that in our contemporary society, it is very hard to get along without any possessions – not impossible, but certainly not easy. Based on the intent of the first two conditions, I would tend to agree with O’Day’s interpretation. We must be willing to set aside those things, no matter what they are, that interfere with our carrying out our calling to be faithful disciples. If you can do it while retaining your possessions, more power to you. But when the care and maintenance of possessions takes priority over the work that Jesus has called us to, then all bets are off. At that point, maybe it’s time to revisit the provisions of the third condition. Are we willing, even able, to set aside our concern for material stuff, the stuff that gives us great comfort, to engage in the often messy, uncomfortable work that Jesus asks of us?

Inserted between the second and third conditions of Jesus’ legal fine print are two parables – one about making preparations to build a tower, and the other about a king preparing for battle against another king with a larger army. Both of these parables examine the wisdom of mature decision-making. Both lead to the conclusion that a reasonable person would not undertake a task without being sure that it could be finished. O’Day notes that these parables, “framed by Jesus’ words on discipleship, counsel that the decision for discipleship must be a highly intentional matter” (O’Day, 44). Given the conditions, the legal fine print Jesus lays out, one should not enter into the decision to follow Jesus lightly. After all, if we do, we may be faced with tough situations. We may be forced to, and, by accepting the call to discipleship, need to be willing to give up anything that stands in the way of that calling – family, possessions, dignity, our very lives. As Alan Culpepper notes, “God has not entered into a redemptive process without being prepared to complete it, and Jesus did not set us face for Jerusalem without being prepared to face the sacrifice that would be required of him there. Thus no one should step forward as a disciple without being prepared to forsake everything for the sake of following Jesus” (Culpepper, 292).

This section of scripture demonstrates absolute transparency in what Jesus is trying to do. In these words, we can rest assured that Jesus is not trying to lure unsuspecting people to discipleship. He warns us in advance that the way of discipleship will not be easy. His “intent is to urge persons who are seeking to be disciples to consider first the demands of discipleship” (Culpepper, 292). The decision is ours. And then, if we still are willing to sign on, he will accept us with open arms.

The good news in all of this legal fine print is not so much what is written, but rather what is not specifically written, what is implied. While the legal fine print discusses what is expected of the would-be follower of Jesus, nowhere does it say that success is required. Jesus is not asking for an absolute guarantee from us that we will be able to follow through with what he asks, for our promise that we will be able to get it right. In fact, he knows that we will not get it right. All Jesus asks is that we try. What he is asking for is a commitment – a fully-informed commitment, a commitment fully made. That commitment is not to a way of life filled with loneliness and poverty, or a commitment to a seemingly hopeless or impossible goal. Rather, it is a commitment to a person – to Jesus. Jesus calls us to be his disciples. A disciple does not follow a cause or a goal. A disciple follows another person and learns a new way of life (Culpepper, 293). That is what Jesus promises us. By committing to follow him, Jesus promises to lead us to a new way of life, to eternal life. As today’s passage, the fine print, reveals, the way may not be easy. Jesus never promised that it would be. In fact, he is quite up front about what may be required. All he asks is that we enter into our commitment to him fully are of what we may be getting ourselves into, that we do so whole-heartedly, and that we try our best. But he also promises that, in the end, the journey will be worth it.

In closing, I leave you with one final thought by Alan Culpepper that sums up today’s lesson. “The cost of discipleship is paid in many different kinds of currency. For some persons a redirection of time and energy is required, for others a change in personal relationships, a change in vocation, or a commitment of financial resources; but for each person the call to discipleship is all consuming. A complete change in priorities is required of all would-be disciples. No part time disciples are needed. No partial commitments are accepted” (Culpepper, 294).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Culpepper, R. Alan. “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection.” In Vol. IX of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by Leander E. Keck, et al. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.

O’Day, Gail R. Proclamation 4: Aids for Interpreting the Lessons of the Church Year: Series B Pentecost 2. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989.

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