Pentecost 13, Year C, September 4, 2022

I. Theme – Exploring the meaning of discipleship and commitment.

  

“Climb That Hill”

The lectionary readings are here or individually:  

First Reading – Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm – Psalm 1
Epistle – Philemon 1-21
Gospel – Luke 14:25-33 

Today’s readings explore the meaning of discipleship and commitment. In Deuteronomy , Moses challenges God’s people to “choose life” by remaining faithful to God. In his personal letter to Philemon, Paul disarms the slaveholder’s authority by bidding him to receive the slave as a dear brother. In today’s gospel, Jesus describes a disciple as one who knows the cost and is willing to make a radical surrender to Christ.

The Gospel says, “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.”

Hate our parents? Reject our spouses? Deny our children? The traditional hyperbole of today’s gospel may have been designed to separate the serious followers from the crowd. Whenever huge throngs gather, we can assume a variety of motives. Did they follow Jesus from curiosity, hope for healing, need for security, peer pressure or self-interest? He dispels all motives but one: radical commitment to a way of life that carries an exorbitant cost.

The final verse of today’s gospel reading (Luke 14:33) reiterates Luke’s concern that possessions might be an obstacle to Christian commitment. His concern can be interpreted in many ways. Jesus was addressing people who didn’t have any possessions, so why would it pose a problem to them? Luke Johnson argues in The Gospel of Luke that the language of possessions is symbolic, referring not so much to wealth (which can be used for good or ill) as to attitudes. Jesus wants vulnerable people, ready to surrender their assumptions and find a new identity in him. On the other hand, he rejects those who cling to comfortable ideas and who resist transformation.

Yet to over-emphasize symbolism would blunt the evangelist’s sharp social criticism. He wrote for a wealthy community, or for well-to-do Gentiles concerned that conversion might mean grave economic loss. He challenged them to continue Jesus’ welcome to the economically poor and to work for a reversal of the social order that would bring justice to all.

While Luke does not offer a definite answer to the problem of possessions, he suggests a direction that is fleshed out in Paul’s letter to Philemon. There we find a concrete example of the radical commitment Jesus demanded. Paul has the audacity to ask a slave owner to give up a costly possession; in this case, a human being. Furthermore, he invites a shift in attitude: that Philemon see Onesimus not as slave but as brother. His plea combines both elements of Luke’s message: relinquishment of possessions, change of heart. If we have the courage to apply the message to our own lives, we probably respond with an honest “Ouch.”

There are other thoughts about living a life according to God.  There are two ways to live: to live into God’s ways, or to live into the way of the wicked. It is clear in the Scriptures that the way of the wicked is to abandon God. Do we abandon God in exchange for a set of rigorous rules? Do we abandon God in exchange for worldly success, comfort and wealth? Do we abandon God to be around people who think, look and act like us, where we are comfortable? Or do we seek God’s ways, which are not always easy but are often hard—to be among people who are different, to be open to learning new ways of thinking, to stand against war, injustice, and poverty? One way is more straightforward and easy, but serves ourselves. The other way is harder, but serves others, and is concerned about the whole community—the whole kingdom—the whole reign of God.

II. Summary

First Reading –  Deuteronomy 30:15-20

The book of Deuteronomy was written as Moses’ farewell address to the people of Israel gathered at the border of the promised land. The book re-presents Mosaic teaching in order to deal with the changed situations of later history. The applicability of Moses’ teaching to each generation is emphasized (5:3; 6:1-2).

 This reading comes from Moses’ third address (chaps. 29–30). It challenges the people to decide between two ways of living, life or death, blessing or curse, as they prepare to enter the land that was prepared for them. The format reflects treaties between nations of that period. These concluded with a call to the gods to act as witnesses to the treaty. Here the whole created universe is called to witness the covenant (31:28).

The people are urged to “choose life,” not merely a prolongation of days but the fullness received in love, obedience and faithfulness to God.  In a classic prophetic “rib” pattern, heaven and earth are called to witness what God sets before Israel: “life and death, blessings and curses”.  It is classic covenantal speech that beseeches Israel to do one thing.  “Choose life!”

For those who follow God, obey the commandments, observe the ways they have been taught, God’s blessings are with them now and always. But for those who go astray, who do not follow the commandments and what they have been taught, it will lead only to death. This is part of the final discourse of Moses, warning the people that the way they live their lives matters. The way we live our lives shows our faithfulness to God, our upholding the covenant. God cannot break the covenant, only we can.

Psalm –  Psalm 1

Psalm 1 reflects the blessings and curse of life choice reflected in Deuteronomy. For those who turn towards God, the blessings of life are found in the life well-lived; for those who turn away from God, they will not experience the blessings. This isn’t about worldly success and riches, but rather the blessings are wisdom and fulfillment—even joy—for those who choose to follow God.

This psalm, with its call to a righteous life based on knowledge of the “law of the lord” (v. 2), the Torah, serves as a fitting introduction to all the psalms. It springs from the wisdom tradition, which emphasized how to live in both material and spiritual prosperity.

The righteous are those who have not taken the advice of the wicked, nor imitated their way of life, nor joined in their rejection of the law. They “meditate” (v. 2) upon it, literally, read it aloud in a low voice. The lord is in intimate and personal relationship with the righteous.

Here all of these portions of Wisdom are assigned to the ones who love YHWH.  They are compared to the “wicked” that are like chaff.  Another agricultural image describes the righteous – “like a tree planted by streams of water”.  Note, however that it is not an ideal tree always in bloom and with fruit – no, times and seasons govern these as well.  Real life is lived by both the righteous and the wicked.  The righteous will be given the way of life, a path not granted to the sinner.

Epistle-  Philemon 1-21

This is the only personal letter of Paul’s to have been preserved. Paul writes from prison (perhaps in Ephesus around AD 56 or in Rome around AD 60), to Philemon, an earlier convert of Paul’s (v. 19b), in whose home the local congregation now meets (v. 2).

Onesimus was converted to Christianity by Paul, and the relationship between the two men was most like quite close.  The book becomes an exercise in practical Christianity in the face of social norms and expectations.  The letter consists of four sections: a) Introduction (1-3), b) Thanksgiving (4-7), c) the main Body (8-22) and finally a d) Conclusion (23-25). Onesimus has now runaway. The legal penalties for runaway slaves were severe.

Paul complies with the legal requirements by returning the slave and by making himself responsible for all damages due the owner. Paul asks Philemon to receive back his runaway slave, Onesimus, and then, like Abraham at Sodom, asks him to go farther and to send Onesimus back to Paul for “he is indeed useful to you and to me.” 

In the privacy of their relationship, Paul pushes the boundaries of their relationship in Christ.  There is no preaching against slavery, nor is there any accusation about Philemon’s desiring Onesimus’ return.  Instead there is the request to understand this as a situation unique to these two, no three, Christian men. 

Paul is able here to use the slave language to advantage, he who described himself as a slave to Christ.  Thus he describes the possibility for Onesimus as “no longer a slave but more than a slave.”  Paul does not push his apostolic authority, but yet implies a greater authority that ought to direct Philemon’s response, “Confident of your obedience.”   

Playing with Onesimus’s name (which means useful, beneficial), Paul points out that the formerly useless slave is now useful to both of them and asks for Philemon’s generosity (vv. 20-21). Paul’s letter is a masterful work of rhetoric in hopes of convincing Philemon to not be harsh to Onesimus, but to welcome him back and to see him differently—no longer as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. Paul is calling for Philemon to change his mind, to change his view. Paul calls Philemon to become a person of stature, to embrace a larger vision of his social context in which all people are God’s beloved children, worthy of affirmation.

This is not merely suggested as a personal favor to Paul but is grounded upon the recognition that the slave is now a “beloved brother” of his master, “in the flesh and in the lord” (v. 16). Philemon is left to decide his own course of action: whether merely to refrain from punishing Onesimus, or to free him or to accept him as a fellow evangelist (and perhaps send him back to Paul).

The Revised Common Lectionary excludes the last few verses of personal note, but verse 22 is very important because Paul is going to follow up and make sure that Philemon is treating Onesimus well, for Philemon is a follower of Jesus

Gospel –  Luke 14:25-33 

This scripture also needs to be set in context Luke’s parables in Chapter 13 – 14 (of which this is part) which calls us to whom we should direct our ministries – the crippled woman, the man with dropsy, and the guests from the highways and byways.

In this reading, Jesus cautions those who accept the invitation into the kingdom too easily. In Semitic idiom, hate means to lack commitment or attachment, a point made clear in Matthew 10:37. Coming to Jesus for teaching and healing must be complemented by following him as disciple and servant (9:23).

Therefore the “hatred” of father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters” is not disaffection from persons we love, but rather understanding the even greater things that Christ calls us to.  The family of reference is really the larger family of discipleship.  What is it, we ought to wonder, that Jesus really calls us to, and do we know the cost of it.

The two brief parables illustrate the point that one must count the cost before undertaking a demanding enterprise.

  1. ” For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, `This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ The tower is not a fortification but a farm building, a watchtower or a silo.
  2. ” Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” 

Verse 33 does not summarize the parable but counts the cost of true discipleship: renunciation.

This passage does cause to examine the larger context of our lives. Are we “possessed” by our possessions, stressed out in our quest for the comforts promised by the American dream? To love the world rightly we need to place God at the center of our lives; conversely, we love God best by bringing beauty and joy to the world. The vision of an impossible ideal can motivate us to seek the most realistic transformation in our current situation.

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