The last words we hear in the Gospel reading today are stern: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Gulp. These stark terms can drive us to fear that our relationship with God sits entirely on our weak and unfaithful shoulders.
Here is some perspective from thoughtful writers whose words from Homily Service 2007 still speak to the preaching challenges presented by these readings.
The Old Testament readings for today derive from a cause and effect worldview that was part of the wisdom tradition. . . Put simply, where there is obedience there is blessing.
Later biblical tradition challenged this notion, suggesting in Job and Ecclesiastes that obedience and righteous behavior were not guarantees of material prosperity and blessing. . .
These passages are a wonderful opportunity to remind our congregations of God's richest desire for our heart's transformation and the blessing we have as Christ-followers! – Thomas Boone
Jesus is traveling again with large crowds following. Jesus speaks tremendously challenging words about priorities in life, using the Semitic idiom of “hating A and loving B,” an expression of preference. Jesus requires that those who would be his disciples must devote themselves first of all to him and his way of suffering love.
The preacher must take care not to equate devotion to Jesus with participation in church activities. One might, in fact, add church to the list of things one must hate.
Jesus calls for followers who will take on his way of embodying the reign of God, with forgiveness, compassion and generosity. In two brief parables, Jesus emphasizes that responding to such a costly calling must be well considered. The costly calling is described in three ways: as preferring Jesus to the supportive kinship network; as carrying the cross; and as giving up possessions.
These are not requirements for being admitted to heaven. Rather, they are descriptions of how one lives with Jesus in the reign of God instead of remaining captive to one's culture. Jesus' words are less warning than statement of fact. – Aaron J. Couch
I take Jesus' words as a kindly invitation given to the “great multitudes” that accompanied him: Look where this is going and how one gets there. It is not just a matter of “counting the cost” but of realizing that how one gets there is part of the character and nature of the trip and where you are going. No tricks, no bait and switch, no softening of the realities, Christ asks us to see what this is at the beginning. We, the church, should be as honest in our invitations. – John E. Smith
Moses presents a stark choice to the people of Israel as they prepare to leave the wilderness and enter the land of Canaan. There is no middle ground to be found between life and death. No third choice is offered. To choose life and prosperity is to obey God and live according to the commandments. To choose death and adversity is to turn toward other gods. It is God's great desire for the people to choose life.
The twenty-first-century reader of this text must not hear this choice of life or death as presented to individuals. The promise of blessing and the warning of adversity are offered to the people collectively. – Aaron J. Couch
Traditionally it has been inferred that Onesimus had run away and that Paul was appealing to Philemon to refrain from punishing his former slave. Recent scholarship has raised questions about that traditional interpretation. Because of Paul's diplomatic appeal, close attention to the text seems to raise more questions than it answers. – Aaron J. Couch
Aaron Couch is a co-pastor of First Immanuel Lutheran Church in Portland, Oregon.
John E. Smith has served as a Methodist pastor for many years.
Homily Service 40, no. 10 (2007): 15-25.