IN THIS Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus tells the crowd that they cannot be his disciples unless they “hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even life itself” and give up their possessions.
St Bonaventure suggests that the extreme language of “hating” family and life is an example of Jewish hyperbole (cf. Matthew 5.21,22). Jesus uses it to emphasise that all other allegiances must take their place under a more fundamental obedience to him. The waters of baptism are thicker than the blood of human kinship. Fullness of life is to be found only when we die to sinful and self-serving desires (cf. Romans 6.11).
This message is echoed in our Old Testament reading. The Israelites are warned against being “led astray” by false gods, making idols of the good things of creation. That is the road to spiritual death. The way to “life and prosperity” involves abandoning such idolatrous allegiances and faithfully serving the Lord.
Expounding Jesus’s teaching on giving up possessions, St Bede explains that it is only “the way of few” to leave all things; but “it is the part of all the faithful to renounce all things, that is, so to hold the things of the world as by them not to be held in the world.” The vocation of “the few” who follow Jesus’s counsel of poverty literally is a gift to the whole Church. It should inspire and challenge the wider body of Christians to behave as the stewards — not ultimate owners — of their possessions, stewarding them in a way that bears witness to the new creation that has dawned in Christ.
Our familiarity with the cross as a purely religious image may obscure the force of Jesus’s command to “carry” it. The crowd would immediately have recognised that he was asking them to endure one of the Roman Empire’s most brutal sanctions against rebels and criminals. Very soon, many of his hearers had to choose between faithfulness to Christ and allegiance to their families — precisely because their discipleship provoked violent persecution. Here, Jesus drives home the cost of discipleship with two parables, of a man building a tower, and a king waging a war. He wants each hearer to weigh the cost before deciding whether to follow him.
Our epistle also concerns the cost and reward of becoming a disciple. In verse 16, Paul invites Philemon to receive Onesimus “no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, as a beloved brother . . . both in the flesh and in the Lord”. If Christ has his ultimate allegiance, Philemon’s primary attitude to Onesimus must be as a brother in the body of Christ. All other aspects of their relationship stand or fall by whether they are congruent with that fundamental reality.
The transformation of their relationship — from “slave” to “beloved brother” — has a financial cost for Philemon. Yet, as Mukti Barton observes, that loss is as nothing compared with what he has now gained. “Previously Onesimus (literally meaning profitable or useful) was profitable to Philemon materially, now he is profitable to him spiritually. By freeing Onesimus, Philemon becomes free” (in Anthony Reddie (ed.), Black Theology, Slavery and Contemporary Christianity).
Stanley Hauerwas has written that “the Church does not have a social ethic. It is a social ethic.” In our epistle, as in the wider New Testament, we see the outworking of the new creation that has dawned in Christ — and of what it therefore means to be a body in which “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (Galatians 3.28).
The Church did not attract the opprobrium of the Roman Empire for a set of political practices separate from her internal life. Her whole being expressed a new social order that was at odds with Rome: for example, in the refusal of her members to sacrifice to images of the Emperor, or to shed blood in the service of imperial conquest. Now, as then, “what makes the Church the Church is its faithful manifestation of Christ’s peaceable kingdom in the world” (The Peacable Kingdom: A primer in Christian ethics).
Our readings speak of both the cost and the glory of such a “faithful manifestation” of the Kingdom; for it is in letting go of life that we find it, and in setting others free that we find true freedom in Christ.