“If anyone comes to me and does not place me above his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).
This is a very hard piece of scripture, and the original Greek can be translated more harshly than the version we’ve just heard, for the literal words have Jesus saying, “Anyone who does not hate his father and mother, et cetera”. But the Aramaic language and thought pattern that Jesus would probably have taught and spoken in didn’t use comparatives in the way we do: the idea of liking one thing more than another, or placing one thing above another, would always be expressed in terms of hating the one thing and loving the other. Even so, it’s a tough ask. Jesus says, “Place me above all those things, all those people that society, community, even the bones of your own body, insist should come first.”
And we know and have heard so many sad stories of cults and sects where adherents are brainwashed into abandoning their families, and erecting a barrier against those who were once their closest friends. It’s the stuff of many a TV drama, and one of the ways in which religion is often portrayed as a negative force.
And yet it does need to be true. We do need to put Jesus first. The great teacher, artist and philanthropist John Ruskin wrote, “He who gives God second place in his life gives him no place.” Again, hard words, and of course we all do it, in fact, and often with every good intention. I’m reminded somehow of the arrow prayer that goes, “Lord, thou knowest I must be busy this day. If I should forget thee, do not thou forget me.”
Putting Jesus first is hard; and our failure to do this should be the beginning of every confession, I think. But when Jesus says, “Follow me,” he means it to be a full-time occupation, and a serious journey. But here’s the point. Here’s what makes what I’m saying different from the divisive and exclusive cults that do so much damage to the vulnerable. Jesus calls us to put him first, to serve him, to do his will - but where does he then send us to do this, and how do we do it? One or two of us may be called to some special work. A few may even enter monasteries or become hermits.
But most of us he sends right back to where we are, into our own home situations, into our own communities, back to our own friends. To work with him there to make his name known and his love felt in the everyday of our own lives. True discipleship doesn’t separate us from our loved ones, it sustains, enriches and enhances our love for them, as we share and show Christ’s love for them.
A story, not from Christianity but from Hinduism, but the moral is apt. In the early morning, before the sun has yet risen, a young man rises from his bed, dresses in simple robes, and prepares to leave his home. He can hear the sleeping sounds of his wife and children, but knows he must leave them. It is time, he has decided, to heed the call of God he has heard for so long. Quietly, he opens the door, steps out and onto the still dark highway, and starts on his journey.
Back in the house, where his wife and children still sleep, God sighs. “Why is it that so many people who dream of finding me and serving me leave the place where I am in order to search for me?”