“In this way, therefore,” Jesus says to the large crowds who were going about with him, “each of you who does not renounce control over all of what belongs to them will not be able to be my disciple” (Luke 14:33, my translation). I’ve come to the point in my preparations where I must ask the most important question of the text. Is there any good news here? Is there any Gospel in this gospel reading? When I finish reading the text and declare, “The Gospel of the Lord,” will that be a statement or a question?
“Jesus’ point, however,” writes Robert Farrar Capon, “is not simply that discipleship in the way of death-resurrection is expensive; more important, it’s that it is liberating once the price is paid” (Kindle Locations 3738-3739). This is where I find the Gospel in this gospel. Jesus comes to free us from bondage and for loving service. That’s always the baseline from which we begin our interpretation, especially in the Lukan account.
I want to pay close attention to the words used in Luke 14:33. Jesus doesn’t say that one who doesn’t renounce control over their stuff will not be permitted to be his disciple. Jesus says that one who doesn’t renounce control over their stuff will not be able to be his disciple. This verse is less of a demand and more of a description. The discipleship fail is not a condemnation but rather a consequence. Jesus invites and empowers us to be freed from our bondage to control over life and freed for real living.
I think I will play the song “Things We Leave Behind” as a warm-up to worship this week. By the way, I’m beginning a part-time interim assignment, so my preparations have a bit more of a practical edge to them. That will continue, I hope, for some months into the future. Anyway, Scott Roley, Phil Madeira, and Michael Card wrote this song in 1994. I want to quote some of the lyrics as part of our reflection today.
Every heart needs to be set free,
that hold it so tight
‘Cause freedom’s not found in the things that we own,
It’s the power
to do what is right
Jesus, our only possession,
giving becomes our delight
We can’t imagine the freedom we find
from the things we leave behind.
I’m grateful to Tim Kelley for pointing out this song in his 1998 article on Luke 14:33. Kelley reminds us of the connection between Luke 14:33 and the story of the Rich Ruler in Luke 18:18-30. This story doesn’t make it into the Year C readings of the Revised Common Lectionary. Therefore, I think it’s fair game as an illustration in our proclamation on this text.
“Most of us are familiar with the words of Jesus to the rich ruler,” Kelley writes, “and we have insulated ourselves from them by the reassurance that Jesus said them because the ruler loved his possessions and that we, of course, are not like that.” Indeed, the phrase Jesus uses in Luke 18:23 describes the man as immensely wealthy, not merely having lots of stuff. “Yet these other, equally disturbing words [in Luke 14:33] are given not to a rich, materialistic young man,” Kelley continues, “but to all who would be disciples, and it is far more difficult to insulate ourselves from them” (page 1).
Kelley notes that in the Lukan account, divestment from all wealth isn’t a condition every would-be disciple must meet. Zacchaeus is generous, but he doesn’t bankrupt himself. Matthew Levi leaves everything behind in Luke 5, but he has enough left over to give a huge feast for Jesus at his house. Peter says that he and the others have left everything behind (Luke 18:28), but he seems to still have a wife, mother-in-law, and a house in Capernaum. Things seem more nuanced than a superficial reading of Luke 14:33 would indicate.
Kelley notes that the reports in Acts continue this nuanced understanding. We read stories of some well-off disciples, including Lydia. Cornelius doesn’t have to divest himself before baptism. House churches take collections to assist the poor and hungry. The mission of the church (beginning with the women in Luke 8 who funded Jesus’ own ministry) has depended on the generous support of people who have and maintain financial means.
Kelley outlines ways in which interpreters deal with Jesus’ radical words in Luke 14:33. Perhaps the early church walked these demands back in the face of resistance in the mission field. Maybe Jesus intended these words only for the fully-committed, those like Paul who were full-time in the field. Could it be that these words were applicable only during Jesus’ earthly ministry and the time of eschatological crisis he both described and provoked? Should we allow these words to fade into the background as no longer relevant to the ongoing life of the Church?
No, that’s not a faithful interpretation of this text, or any other. Just because a text is hard, that’s no reason to toss it in the homiletical dustbin. “To follow Jesus is to acknowledge that all we own belongs to God and is at [God’s] disposal,” Kelley writes. “If the master calls on us to get rid of all we have because it competes with our primary devotion we are to do so. If there is a need, we give the possessions God has entrusted to us to meet that need. That,” Kelley concludes, “is exactly what the earliest church did” (page 4).
Yet, there is more going on here. Kelley quotes the lyrics of “Things We Leave Behind” –“it’s hard to imagine the freedom we find from the things we leave behind.” Of course, this text is about removing obstacles in our lives to faithful Jesus following. That’s the “Law” part of the text. But the “Gospel” part is that we are released from our addiction to power over others. That addiction makes us hostages to our stuff. That addiction makes us less than fully human. That addiction leads us to treat others as means to our ends rather than as ends in themselves.
Whenever we are freed from our addiction to power over others, we become more fully human as bearers of the Divine Image. This freedom will come with a cost because we are so deeply committed to our addiction to power over others. “Hold everything in your hands lightly,” Corrie Ten Boom once said, “otherwise it hurts when God pries your fingers open.” From this perspective, the language about cross-bearing is right on target in our text. Dying to self is the path to life. Saying farewell to god-like control is the doorway to authentic freedom.
None of this would make any sense if God were not faithful. Yet, that is precisely the Good News we proclaim in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Letting go of our illusion of god-like control may feel like falling sometimes. But it’s really resting in God’s faithful care.
Let me illustrate. Last weekend we took family members to a local high ropes course. It was a series of cables, footbridges, ladders, and platforms about thirty feet off the ground. We were well harnessed and supervised. Each person had two secure connections to the main cable. One was a steel “trolley” that never left that cable. The other was a heavy-duty carabiner that served as a backup. The system was reliable and resilient.
The payoff for all the rope work was a zip line ride at the end of each loop of the course. The zip line platform was an angled ramp, and with good reason. No matter how intellectually certain I was that my connections were secure, I wasn’t really ready to leap into the air and trust the system. Fortunately, once I got on the ramp, I began to slide toward the edge. In seconds I was zipping down the cable toward a rather unceremonious dump on my rump (not the hoped for outcome — but any landing is a good one, right?).
The cable was strong. The connections were secure. But it still felt a lot like falling. And it felt a lot like freedom. The only way I could experience that freedom was to let go of control, trust the system, and risk the falling. I imagine that with a certain amount of practice I could learn to fully embrace and enjoy the experience.
It’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s not a bad one either. We could go back to Onesimus and Philemon for a moment if we wish. Onesimus had already made the leap and was freed. Paul was inviting Philemon to say farewell to his power addiction and join the party. As the letter was read to the congregation, the enslaved person was the free one. And the enslaver was still deep in bondage. Did Philemon embrace the freedom of falling? We don’t know for sure.
If it had been just up to me to leap into the air, I’m not sure I would have done that. Instead, I was pushed and led, by the structure of the platform and the firm encouragement of one of the staff. I’m not willing on my own to say farewell to my addiction to power and control either. Especially in the Lukan account, this renouncing of my dependence on stuff is always first and foremost the work of the Holy Spirit within me and us. I can resist and be miserable. Or I can relax and enjoy it.
Following Jesus means authentic freedom. Will we go along on the ride?
References and Resources
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship, (1937) 1979.
Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition, 2002.
Kelley, Tim (1998) “Renounce my Posessions?: What does Luke 14.33 mean?,” Leaven: Vol. 6: Iss. 3, Article 8. Available at: https://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/leaven/vol6/iss3/8.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III, The Gospel of Luke, 2018.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 1992.
McCaulley, Esau. Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope, 2020.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke, 2006.
Tiroyabone, Obusitswe. “Reading Philemon with Onesimus in the postcolony: exploring a postcolonial runaway slave hypothesis.” Acta Theologica 2016, no. supp24 (2016): 225-236.