Do we know what true discipleship means? In the Bible passage assigned for this week, Jesus urges his followers to count the cost. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and to the horrors of the cross, and yet the people around him think he is going to become an emperor. Jesus is keen to dispel this falsehood immediately. Accordingly, he spells out that true discipleship means sacrificing everything for the Kingdom of God – even those things which are most dear. It is a sad reality that in the church today there are many people who attend and many people who follow religion, but they are not true disciples of Jesus Christ! Jesus says to all people who want to be disciples, have you really counted the cost? Have we counted the cost? Have we weighed up the fact that in following Jesus our priorities must change forever? To illustrate the need to count the cost, Jesus uses two illustrations. Firstly, who would want the humiliation and embarrassment of starting to build an extension to a house which would never be finished? Secondly, a nation’s army would never choose to go war against a much bigger force that would ultimately prevail and destroy all that country’s citizens. In the same way, we must think carefully about what being a disciple means. The Christian way is about sacrifice and hardship. However, if we choose this steep path, the Holy Spirit will walk with us and Jesus will be there to greet us at the top. That makes it more than worthwhile.
Why is humility important? The Gospel passage this week underlines the importance of humility in the Christian life. Jesus builds on Jewish thought, expressed for example in Proverbs, that an individual should start at a feast by sitting at the foot of the table. If you arrive at a feast and start by sitting at the head of the table, you risk being demoted when someone considered more eminent than you arrives later. Of course, the model for humility was Jesus Himself. Jesus, who was God, humbled Himself by becoming human and then humbled Himself further by dying a criminal’s death on a cross. This is matchless humility. What about us? We may think that we are knowledgeable when we are young but as we become older, we realise there is so much more that we don’t know. We may think that we have achieved a lot in our lives until we realise that there is so much to life that we have not achieved. This is fine. God loves us as we are, but the key is to remain humble. Once again by focusing on Jesus. If we view our lives in comparison with the radiance of his stainless purity, our pride will automatically die, and our self-satisfaction will be shrivelled up. Then we can start to live the Christian life of pure grace.
Should we sometimes put systems before people or, at least, get people to fit in with the systems we have carefully devised? In the Gospel passage for this week, the answer Jesus gives is no! A crippled woman comes for healing on the Sabbath. Jesus proceeds to heal her of her crippling disease. This breaks the system of rules and so the president of the synagogue is critical of Jesus’ actions. Jesus’ reply is to point out that this same system of rules permitted an animal to be rescued but did not allow a human in crippling pain to be healed. Lest we become overly critical of the views of the religious leaders in Jesus’ time we need to reflect on our own churches today. Most of the arguments that happen in the modern-day church concern rules and systems of church government. We need to continue to pray that God will save us in all senses of the word from the schemes of the devil. This includes being saved from a system which puts rules and procedures above the value of a human life.
Following on from the Bible passage for last week, Jesus is once again talking about money. This is what Jesus says: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor…….. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” It is a political and economic manifesto which is diametrically opposed to the current way of thinking in most countries. Do Christians really act out Jesus’ words? A scrutiny of the bank balances and the diaries of most church folk may suggest not. You see, it is precisely because we do feel that inflation and economic uncertainty are going to rob us of our future that we save more and invest in elaborate pension plans. It is a middle-class obsession. It is because we don’t really feel valued by God that we fill our diaries with so many events to make us feel important and needed. And yet; and yet, Jesus says that all this is futile because God will give us so much more: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” However, like last week, we probably do greatest service to this passage if we do not assume an overly literal interpretation. Our attitude to all our possessions should be one where we look to share as much as possible. If you have a big garden, let friends, family, neighbours, church members use it. If you have a big house demonstrate hospitality to as many people as you can. In this sense, although not literally ‘selling your possessions’, you sell your right to exclusive ownership. Once you have done this, focus on what is more valuable: the kingdom of God!
What should we do with our money? Throughout the Gospels, Jesus seems to talk about money more than almost any other single thing. Why? The answer perhaps is that money is one of the biggest blockages to a deepening relationship with God. The temptation is to believe that we have earned it by our own efforts. We too often forget that all our skills, abilities, character, qualifications and education is a gift from God. In the Gospel passage for this week, we have the parable of the rich fool. This is a man who benefits from an abundant harvest and decides to build bigger barns to help him in his retirement. He plans to wait until then so that he can eat, drink and be merry. This is very prudent in our modern capitalist world, but is it the way that God wants us to live? The answer to this question is: no, probably not! It is no coincidence that, in Luke’s Gospel, apart from Zacchaeus, all the rich people are spiritually poor and the materially poor can be spiritually rich. However, careful reading of the parable does not suggest that it is wrong to be rich but, rather, that it is wrong to assume that your riches will be with you forever. It is perfectly fine to be rich as long as we invest that money or give it to good causes. What should we do with our money? Perhaps we should leave the answer to that question to one of God’s generals in the 18th century. John Wesley once commented: “Earn all you can; save all you can and give all you can”
How should we pray? In the Gospel passage this week, Jesus’ disciples put to him precisely this question. Jesus goes on to provide an exemplar of prayer (Our Father) followed by a parable about prayer (the friend who calls at midnight) and some final sayings about prayer (ask, seek and knock). This is a difficult passage because it seems to fly in the face of our experience with prayer. Often, we ask but do not seem to receive or seek and do not appear to find. How do we reconcile this? Perhaps the answer is that God does answer but not in the way that we expect or says ‘no’ because this is in our best long-term interests. We also need to acknowledge that the devil is prowling around, and sin and death are a consequence of the fall. Although the ultimate victory is won, battles with the devil and demons still rage on. Then, of course, there is the purpose of prayer in the first place. If we regard prayer as mainly about relationship and less about getting what we want, then persistent prayer makes more sense. Seen in this light, perhaps there are three things we learn from Jesus’ teaching about prayer in this passage. Firstly, put God’s kingdom first; secondly be persistent and, finally, pray in every small aspect of your life because this shows that, above all else, you are interested in relationship. This is what God wants and what we need. This is how we should pray.