|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at
An outline and parallels of our lesson and beyond:
a. introductory statement (25)
b. "hating" family members (26) // Mt 10:37; Th 55:1; 101:1-3
"not able to be my disciple"
c. bearing one's cross (27) // Mt 10:38; Mk 8:34; Mt 16:24; Lk 9:23; Th 55:2
"not able to be my disciple"
d. tower builder (28-29) no parallels
e. warrior king (30-32) no parallels
f. renouncing all possessions (33) no parallels
"not able to be my disciple"
g. saltless salt (34-35a) // Mt 5:13; Mk 9:50a -- not in lesson
h. ears to hear (35b) lots of parallels -- not in lesson
As I noted above, three times the phrase: "not able to be my disciple" is stated in these verses. The phrase is exactly the same in all three verses in Greek, but not translated that way in NRSV.
The word for "able" (dynamai) with the negative generally carries with it the meaning of "not being able" to do something. That is, it refers to something that is impossible for one to do; e.g., Zechariah is unable to speak (Lu 1:20 & 22). He may want to speak, but he can't.
However, Luke also uses this phrase to refer to something the person is able to do but chooses not to do: the man who cannot get up and give his neighbor some bread (11:7) and the man who has just gotten married and cannot come to the great dinner to which he had been invited (14:20). In both cases it was possible for them to do the task, but they just didn't want to do it.
How should the phrase be understood in our verses? On one hand, with the the invited guest being able to come, but choosing not to just a few verses before our text (14:20), ou dynamai in our verses could refers to something that is within the abilities of the crowd, but they can choose to do it or not. That is, it is within their abilities to hate their family members and carry their crosses and to give up all their possessions. They can choose to do this or choose not to do it.
On the other hand, which I prefer theologically, ou dynamai can refer to something that is impossible for the crowd to do. That is, it is impossible for humans to meet the demands of discipleship even if they wanted to choose it. A related word, dynatos is used in v. 31b to refer to the ability of the king's army to defeat the more numerous enemy. If the king believes that it is possible to defeat them, he chooses to go to battle. If he believes that it is impossible to defeat them in battle, he chooses a diplomatic way to peace -- which would be dependent upon the more powerful king's willingness not to destroy the inferior forces.
In addition, Luke has told us near the beginning of this gospel that "nothing will be impossible (adynateo) with God" -- an old couple and a young virgin will give birth to sons! Later, in Luke, after Jesus makes impossible demands on a wealthy ruler, he is asked, "Who can (dynamai) be saved." He answers, "What is impossible (adynatos) for mortals is possible (dynatos) for God" [18:26-27].
Immediately following this exchange, are these verses which I think are connected with our text:
Then Peter said, "Look, we have left our homes and followed you." And he said to them, "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age and in the age to come eternal life." [18:28-30]
I'm not sure that it is possible for most of us to hate our family, to bear our crosses, or to give up all our possessions -- even with these promises given in ch. 18? Does that mean that it is impossible for us to be Jesus' disciples? With mortals, it is impossible, but God makes the impossible happen.
Another approach might center on the large (enthusiastic?) crowd who have joined the Jesus party (who are on their way to Jerusalem). These aren't people whom Jesus has called, but closer to the people who approach Jesus in Luke 9:57-62 wanting to follow him. Jesus insists that following him has to come before everything else. The harsh words of discipleship are addressed to these enthusiastic followers. Will they have enough strength to follow all the way? [But not even those whom Jesus called had enough strength!]
Green (The Gospel of Luke) writes:
Often in the Lukan account, crowds are presented as pools of neutral persons from whom Jesus might draw disciples, and this is clearly the case here. In light of Jesus' message in 13:26-27, however, one should not immediately be overly sanguine about the realization of their potential as disciples; many, according to Jesus, will claim to have associated themselves with Jesus' teaching both at the table and on the road, but their fundamental allegiances will not have been altered. Such persons cannot be identified as disciples. [p. 565]
In a sense, our text repeats and corrects the dinner conversation that occurred just before our text (vv. 15-24). In that text, there were three who were unable to attend the "great banquet" to which they had been invited. They had their excuses. In essence, there were other things that were more important to them than attending this great banquet. After this rejection of the invitation, everybody -- all the "dead beats" in town and out of town are invited to the banquet. They are compelled to come so that the house might be full. There were no requirements put on them, except to come.
On one hand, our text repeats the necessity of putting Jesus first -- before everything else in our lives. Following Jesus is extremely demanding. On the other hand, "street people" are invited to and come into the banquet with great ease. The only "demand" was to come and eat and enjoy the feast that had been prepared.
Do we not live in that tension of free grace and costly discipleship? Is there a difference between believing in Jesus and being a disciple? Being an active church member -- receiving Jesus in Word and Meal, and being a disciple?
"hate" is a Semitic expression meaning "to turn away from, to detach oneself from," rather than our animosity-laden understanding. In Genesis, we read in one verse that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah (29:30), but in the next verse, it literally says that Leah was hated ("unloved" in NRSV, see also v. 33). Leah was not hated like we usually use the word, but Jacob simply loved her less than he loved Rachel. Jacob didn't have an intense dislike for Leah. In fact, he had seven children with her after these verses! (There must have been something he liked about her!) Note that Matthew 10:37 interprets Jesus' saying: "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." The parallel sayings in the Gospel of Thomas use "hate".
Jesus said, "Whoever does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple, and whoever does not hate brothers and sisters, and carry the cross as I do, will not be worthy of me."
"Whoever does not hate [father] and mother as I do cannot be my [disciple], and whoever does [not] love [father and] mother as I do cannot be my [disciple]. For my mother [. . .], but my true [mother] gave me life."
In contrast to some testimonies I've heard, where the converts have given up the worst things in their lives: drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, etc. in order to follow Jesus; Jesus demands that we give up the very best and most important things in our lives in order to follow him.
Some family systems theory thinking may be appropriate to this section. One's identity can be so wrapped up in pleasing (or rebelling against) the family that the person has no real self-identity. With such a person, his or her identity is determined by one's family (or friends or even one's enemies). It could be that Jesus doesn't want disciples who are people who just go along with the crowd, but Jesus seeks disciples who are committed individuals -- those who are aware of the costs of following him -- and choose to follow anyway.
However, in the first century, Mediterranean world, one was always identified by one's family. A father could convert to Christianity and the whole household would be considered Christian. Similar things happened with tribes in Africa; if the chief was converted, the whole tribe was considered Christian. There was some of this with the conversion of Constantine and legalizing (and demanding?) Christianity of the citizens; and with the conversion of Olav in Norway.
Perhaps in other words, when does Christianity need to move from "our" faith to "my" faith?
Earlier Jesus had redefined his family: "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it" (Lk 8:21). This section ends with an emphasis on "hearing" (35b). If a conflict arises between hearing and doing the word of God and family obligations, which should have priority? How would a first century hearer/reader understand this passage? Is it different than we hear/read it today?
I have been part of discussions about the pros and cons of having Sunday school at the same time as the worship service. I think that this text speaks against such a practice if it is just for the convenience of the members and/or visitors. Being Jesus' disciple was never convenient for the disciples. It was costly -- costly in terms of money, time, relationships, and priorities. It may be that we need to go back to some basics and define being Christian, being Jesus' disciples, being Jesus' followers. Are all these terms synonymous? What are God's responsibilities in making us Christian? What are our responsibilities in being Christian?
Comments in The Five Gospels:
The severity of this saying can only be understood in the context of the primacy of filial relationships. Individuals had no real existence apart from their ties to blood relatives, especially parents. If one did not belong to a family, one had no real social existence [like widows and orphans?]. Jesus is therefore confronting the social structures that governed his society at their core. For Jesus, family ties faded into insignificance in relation to God's imperial rule, which he regarded as the fundamental claim on human loyalty. [p. 353]
How might we apply this text to the political (and frequent church) emphasis on "family values"?
Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreter's Bible) presents a corrective to an interpretation of this phrase.
The language of cross bearing has been corrupted by overuse. Bearing a cross has nothing to do with chronic illness, painful physical conditions, or trying family relationships. It is instead what we do voluntarily as a consequence of our commitment to Jesus Christ. Cross bearing requires deliberate sacrifice and exposure to risk and ridicule in order to follow Jesus. This commitment is not just a way of life, however. It is a commitment to a person. A disciple follows another person and learns a new way of life. [p. 293]
Although we read about Simon of Cyrene carrying a cross, the words used for his actions (airo in Mt & Mk and phero in Lu) are different than the word in this text (bastazo). This wasn't a volunteer situation for Simon. Cross-bearing was forced upon him, whether he wanted it or not.
Lowe & Nida in their definition of this idiomatic phrase goes a bit further than Culpepper. They interpret it to mean: "to be prepared to endure severe suffering, even to the point of death." Death sounds a lot harsher than Culpepper's "risk and ridicule".
In looking at the tower building story, I've discovered a couple of new questions about this text. Are we to act like the builder or not? First of all, in the narrow door text (Lk 13:22-24), the seeker is not strong enough to enter through the narrow door. Here the builder is not strong enough to finish the building. As I said in the exegetical notes on the earlier text, when we can finally admit that "I can't," then we are open to God's "I can".
Secondly, the "suffering" of the unfinished builder is being mocked -- exactly the same fate that Jesus suffered before and during his crucifixion. If we are called to "bear a cross" -- to face possible death, why should we worry about simple "mocking"? "Being mocking" sounds a lot healthier than dying!
Often, if we wait until everything is perfectly planned before beginning a project, we would never get started. On one hand, one should know about the costs of following Jesus and not just "go along with the crowd", but on the other hand, we don't know exactly what "crosses" may be before us.
Another very practical issue this may address is a congregation's budget process. Do we operate on faith, trusting that God will provide the needed funds or do we operate with the best business sense possible. Do we, as accurately as possible, determine next year's income and create a spending budget no higher than the anticipated revenue? How often does the church appear foolish because they haven't planned well enough? How often does the church appear foolish because it was too scared to risk and act on faith?
A church member I know talks about being elected and attending his first council meeting. At that meeting they "passed the hat" among the council members so that they could raise enough money to pay the pastor. Does that indicate that the congregation was acting on faith, or being a bit stupid in their budget process? It's a bit amazing that this man continues to serve on congregation councils.
A similar scenario is in the next story. Do we have the strength to defeat the larger enemy or not? Are we supposed to think that we can (and thus rely on our own abilities)? Are we supposed to think that we can't (and thus need to place ourselves at the mercy of our enemy)?
This second story reminds me of the story about settling with one's accuser before the case gets to trial (Lk 12:57-59). I think that the accuser represents God. Could the enemy in this story also be God? The force we cannot defeat, so we need to seek peace with him before making war with him? That's an interpretation that comes out my earlier comments about the word group based on dynam-...".
Green (The Gospel of Luke) interprets this section with: "... Jesus insists that such assets as one's network of kin, so important in Greco-Roman antiquity, are an insufficient foundation for assuring one's status before God." [p. 566]
In a couple of other texts, we've seen Luke's emphasis on getting rid of possessions. The word translated "give up" (NRSV) is apotasso. The other occurrence of this word in Luke comes in the would-be followers of Jesus, which, as I suggested in an earlier comment, may be the closest parallel to this text. In 9:61 one of those wishing to follow says, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home." Usually apotasso is translated, "farewell" or "good-bye". When one says those words, they usually leave the other person -- so the word also means "to leave behind".
This section is concluded with the salt analogy. Pure salt, sodium chloride, can't become unsalty; but the sodium chloride of impure salt can be leached out, especially in humid weather, and the remaining substance can be tasteless.
The word for "loose its taste" is moraino, which, more literally, means "become foolish". (It's related to our word "moron".) Salt that isn't salty is foolish or moronic or useless salt, which could be the similar to saying Christians who aren't disciples of Jesus are foolish or moronic or useless Christians. Tannehill (Luke) phrases it: "...if strangely it [salt] loses its saltiness, it is worthless. The same would be true of a discipleship involving no commitment or sacrifice." [p. 236]
This whole section has stressed what makes one unable to be a disciple: not hating family members; not bearing one's cross; not "counting the costs"; not giving up possessions.
On one hand, Jesus makes it very difficult to be his disciple. It will cost us everything and we need to know the cost before "jumping" in. On the other hand, Jesus may be making it impossible to be his disciple on our own abilities? When we confess, "I can't," then we are open for God's "I can."
How far do we take this? I certainly agree that following Jesus has to mean more than just saying, "I believe in Jesus." To be a Mormon in good standing (and I'm not equating them with being Christian), individuals or families are assessed a "tithing" based on their tax returns, which are viewed by church leaders. They are required to pay so much money to be in good standing with their church. How would our members react to such financial disclosures and demands?
I've seen a bumper sticker: "If you love Jesus, tithe. Anybody can honk." That may be a fitting illustration of the costs of discipleship. At the same time, I don't want to give the impression that one is a disciple of Jesus only through generous giving. We don't buy our way into heaven.
If this large crowd, like many people in the pews, think that they have decided to follow Jesus -- perhaps we need to dampen their enthusiasm and redefine their theology by making the demands of discipleship very difficult or impossible for anyone to actually do; but at the same time, proclaiming salvation by GRACE?
In the book Power Surge, Mike Foss lists "six marks of discipleship for a changing church" which he expects members to practice. They are:
The ELCA has seven faith practices which are quite similar to the six marks:
Foss writes about the marks:
The marks of disciples have nothing to do with a legalistic, law-oriented approach to Christian faith. The purpose is not to create super Christians or any kind of spiritual elite. No one earns salvation or gains any special favor from God by practicing the marks. They are simply habits of the soul that open us to the wonder and mystery of God's active presence in our lives. They keep us focused; they fix our attention on the things of God. [p. 106]
Christ told us to make disciples of all nations (not "make members"). His instructions are to baptize and teach them. Shouldn't we expect the sacrament and education to make a difference in the way they live? Faith is more than just intellectual acknowledgment. We indicate what we believe by the way we live much more than by what we say.
If someone says: "I want to be a Christian," or "I want to follow Jesus" or "I want to be a member of your church," what should we tell them? What does this text say to them?
These questions raise another issue, if no one is asking us those questions, why not?
Brian Stoffregen, Marysville, CA