“I have finished the race, I have
kept the faith.” (2 Tim 4:7)
Crowds were coming to Jesus. The movement He started with a
dozen men was swelling with converts. How pleased the disciples must have been!
How confident and successful they appeared, surrounded by popular appeal and
growing numbers. It must have seemed to them that the sky was the limit now….
Until Jesus opened His mouth and said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate
his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes,
even his own life – he cannot be my disciple.” (LK 14:25)
I would venture to say you have never seen that saying of
Jesus cross-stitched and framed, hanging in the front parlour, have you? Well
as you might imagine, that statement let the air out of their balloon. What a
career-ending sound bite that would make on the evening news these days: “Noted
speaker says “Hate parents, family, siblings.”” In response we can only wonder
what the disciples murmured about among themselves: Jesus, surely we
misunderstood you. You are the One who taught us to love even our enemies, much
less our own families. You are the One who held and blessed all children as
images of the Kingdom of God. Why are you making the conditions of discipleship
so hard? Why make us choose between You and our families? Couldn’t Christianity
be more successful and popular if you eased up on us all? Are you sure you know
what you are doing, Jesus? I can see that these may well have been the
questions, spoken and unspoken, by the disciples that day. More than likely
they could be the questions we asked ourselves, on hearing this saying of Jesus
for the first time.
Jesus of course knew what He was doing. He wanted to make
sure those following Him knew what they were doing. What do you make of this
hard saying of Jesus? Just this: He wanted the disciples to finish strongly on
the journey of following Him. So, how do we finish strongly on this journey?
Today, leaders and politicians have staff members who
measure every word, examine it for political correctness and spin the truth to
the purpose of their employer. The fatal flaw to be avoided is the
embarrassment of offending the constituents. Jesus had no such desire to “spin”
the truth. He did not want to offend but he did intend to shock His hearers to
a higher level of commitment. Jewish teachers of the first century often used
overstatement and exaggeration with their disciples. Jesus wants to alert
would-be followers that the hill is steep in places that they will be asked to
journey. He would be doing them no favour to soft-sell the pressing need for
absolute commitment to the Kingdom of God. If someone begins the journey under
an illusion of ease, that one is heading for certain disappointment.
Disillusion is always the child of illusion.
Jesus knows that the crowd surrounding Him is not ready for
the journey that awaits them as His followers. It is relatively easy to confess
loyalty to Christ when one is surrounded by a multitude that does the same. It
is quite another thing to confess Him when one stands alone, much less when one
must stand in the face of a multitude who are antagonistic to the cause of
Christ. Christ came to call men and women to bear a cross, not just attend Palm
Sunday parades. Jesus knows that if He does not prepare His followers for the
harsh times that may come upon them, they will wilt under the pressure. Take
the cross seriously says Jesus.
The saying about hating family is startling but not as
shocking as it sound to our ears. In the first century, “to hate” in such a
comparative statement means “to love less than”. S. Matthew’s Gospel offers the same saying of
Jesus but translates it, “if you love your family more than me, you cannot be
my disciple.” Is Jesus advocating a renunciation of all family loyalties? NO.
In a way this hard statement is the supreme compliment to family ties. Jesus
picked the most cherished, the most honourable of earthly relationships to
illustrate His point. He selected the family because it is the most honoured of
values. But even this highest and noblest of relationships must pale in
comparison to the love and loyalty to God. Will there be frequent conflict
between these loyalties? Probably not; especially given the witness of the rest
of scripture on the value of family. But if a decision had to be made between
God and family, or God and country, or God and your own life, Jesus is bold to
say: “Choose God.” Something or someone is going to be the first love of your
life. If we would be the followers of Jesus in the pattern of His relationship
to the Father, then He must be first-loved more than our earthly ambitions,
more than our sense of survival, yes – more than family.
Why is such focused loyalty so important? Because no great
feat of victory was ever won without unswerving loyalty to the cause. The
mountain climber reaches the top by staying focused on the peak; he doesn’t
just walk around until he finds himself on the top! How many of us never
excelled in an endeavour because we could not come to the point of commitment?
How crucial such devotion is to the journey of faith. Jesus was a finisher. At
His death He exclaimed: “It is finished.” And now He calls us to follow in his
steps. It is not always an easy climb, but it is the only peak worth giving
your life. It is not always a popular journey, but you will never be totally
alone either. Christ will be there, and His presence will enable you to finish
strongly. In the words of S. Paul: “I
have fought the good fight, I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim 4:7)