8, 2019. Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Philemon 1:1-21 Luke 14:25-33
Charge to my account!
In some cultures, even more than ours, it is an honor to pay the check at a restaurant. As a matter of fact, people are so determined to pay, waiters don’t always know how to deal with this. This is how one waiter describes his dilemma: “If you take the credit card from one person, the other is insulted and vice versa. It is not uncommon to have one person snatch the check from another’s hands or even the server’s hands.
Some have actually learned good strategies just to make sure that they, and not their friends or family pay for the meal: they pretend to go to the bathroom and covertly slip you a credit card. Sometimes one gets her wallet out and keeping her credit card on her lap, but out of her friend’s vision so that when the check does arrive, she is ready to swoop in. Another strategy is taking their friend’s credit card off the tray or out of the receipt book, replacing it with their own, and holding onto their friend’s card until the server walks away to run her credit card.”
“I’ve personally seen”, he continues, “that one person snatched his friend’s entire wallet out of his hand and holding onto it until he successfully paid the bill. Some even chase after me to swap a card. On occasion it becomes quite a spectacle to see who has the best power of persuasion to pay the bill. Be that as it may” he continues, “it is definitely awkward at times.”
In our culture people often lightheartedly battle over who will pay the check, but I have not seen something like what is described by the waiter. Yes, we too want to show appreciation for friendship or to repay others for their generosity or help. Yes, we too offer to pay because they paid the last time. And sometimes you pay because you don’t want to be in debt to anyone.
There are scenarios that are somewhat different. Sometimes when you go to a restaurant, enjoy a meal with a friend and the check arrives, you have a decision to make: “Am I going to offer to pay or not?” Then you take out your wallet and hold it in your hand and wait. And if the other person, who has gone through the same internal dialogue does offer to pay, you may have a very mild form of objection: “Are you sure?” which in essence means, “Please go ahead!”.
The Dutch solved this problem a long time ago by going Dutch, didn’t they? Each one pays for her own expense.
In the Book of Deuteronomy Moses presents the people with two options and now they too have a decision to make. And in verse 11 Moses points out that it is not a difficult or cumbersome decision. On the contrary, he says: “The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart to observe.”
And it is in fact an easy decision: Life and prosperity or death and adversity. Being obedient to what God requires or being disobedient to what God requires. And in line with the purpose of the book of Deuteronomy, obedience is linked to life, blessings, prosperity, freedom and abundance. Disobedience on the other hand however, is linked to death, curses, scarcity, confusion and servitude.
So, it really ought to be a clear and simple decision- easier than who is to pay for the dinner. And yet, as we see in the OT, it turns out that Israel found it very difficult to make and stay with the right decision. Their history, as described in the OT, is characterized by them failing-stumbling-getting up, and repeat.
Time and again God intervenes and in spite of their disobedience gives them another chance! One would have thought that after all these years, Israel who in a sense is representative of all of humankind, would have learned. But it does not seem to be the case. In spite of clear and easy options between what is right and good, of long-term benefit for our species, we don’t always make the right decision. In spite of the fact that some options are clearly the better options humans still don’t always get it right. Easy but at the same time very difficult. But there was always hope and expectation that it would get better!
In our New Testament reading of the Gospel of Luke, great crowds are following Jesus. For some reason, perhaps because Jesus is preaching with authority, or perhaps because he presents them with a good alternative, or perhaps he makes it look easy by not being a prisoner of the strict Jewish laws, large crowds are impressed and they follow him. Maybe they are thinking that Jesus’ way is easier to follow than the law that Moses gave to their ancestors.
But then Jesus said something that must have shocked them to their core: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
Now in all fairness, these words do sound worse in English. Hating someone in English generally means you despise him, or you cannot stand her. You may even feel revulsion or feeling hostile toward him. This is not the case in our text. Hate in English has an emotional aspect to it, that it does not have in the Hebrew language. Hebrew works with contradictions: Light and darkness, truth and lies, love and hate. So it has more to do with priorities. Eugene Peterson translated this verse as follows: “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters, yes even one’s own self cannot be my Disciple.”
This then means that Jesus is saying that in order to be a disciple of Christ there is a cost involved. The question is simply: “How willing is one to let go of those things that stand in one’s way to be a Disciple of Christ?” How willing is one to let God shape and form one’s view of the world – even if one personally doesn’t like the way God speaks about enemies (we want to get rid of enemies- God says pray for them), and aliens (we want to send them away-God says take care of them), turning the other cheek (we want to retaliate – God says turn the other cheek), being the least (we want to be important – God says be the least)? You see, if you are unwilling to let go – then you cannot be a Disciple – as simple as that! And there we are back to a decision – just like ancient Israel: easy, clear, simple and yet – so hard! For I am stubborn, I like what I like, some people I do, others I don’t, I don’t want anyone to prescribe to me, and then there is a little rebel in me: you tell me do this and I will do the exact opposite! And then I hear the voice: “If you are not willing to let go-you can’t be my disciple!”
“Let go of father, mother, brother, sister, and wife and children.” That I may be able to do – so I think I can be Disciple. But then Luke’s Gospel, Luke’s Jesus makes it even more difficult: “You cannot become my Disciple if you do not give up all your possessions!” What can I say? I would have preferred that someone who copied ancient manuscripts way back erased this verse. But here it is. And now it is getting serious. How important is Discipleship? Important enough to let go….of family and possessions?
The conclusion of the parable that Jesus is telling is therefore clear: “Before you talk about following Jesus, of being a Disciple, count the costs! And then if you know the costs, if you are willing to let go… then you can be a Disciple.” Before you talk about faith and Discipleship- are you willing to pay the tab?
Our last reading is from the very short letter from Paul to an apparent wealthy Christian, Philemon. Philemon had a slave Onesimus, who also was a Christian. Philemon ran away. We don’t know why but apparently, he wanted to be with the Apostle Paul. However, Paul is in prison when he wrote a letter to Philemon, gave it to Onesimus and tell him to go back to his master. In the letter Paul urges Philemon to no longer treat Onesimus as a slave but as brother in Christ. And then Paul says: “If he has wronged you or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” The Apostle’s words show that, as a Disciple of Christ, his priorities are the priorities of God’s Kingdom. His offer to intercede for Onesimus – not only in words but also in deed by offering to pay for any expenses that may have occurred. From everything we know, this offer was made not from a position of wealth. The Apostle was in prison and certainly was not a wealthy man.
So, it is fair to say that the Apostle Paul, as a Disciple of Christ, was able to let go of everything, also the little he had. He, who once persecuted the church, became a Disciple of Christ and understood that there was cost to discipleship! And his willingness to let go, liberated him spite of him being in prison.
People of God, we believe that Christ once paid the check for our sins to give us new life. God makes us whole and forgive us – not because of our doing but as a gift, as an act of grace. But as Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed in his book, titled “The Cost of Discipleship”, there is a cost to Discipleship. This means that we need to make a decision, but know that there are costs involved. We need to be willing to let go of everything that takes priority over the kingdom of God: people, causes, ideologies, and, yes also our attachment to material possessions. We are free, we should not let anything make us prisoners.
“Charge it on my account!” Why? For Christ has charged it to his to make us free, new and whole! Amen.