Today is the Last Sunday after Pentecost, sometimes known as Christ the King Sunday. It’s meant to be a festive occasion celebrating Jesus Christ’s sovereign rule over all Creation. But to be honest, today’s Gospel reading lets some of the air out of the party balloon! Last week, we were threatened with the Outer Darkness, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” This week, we get the threat of “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Not much of an improvement!
Now, I maintain that there is, in fact, Good News in this Gospel reading. But it takes some work to find it, mostly because it takes some work to figure out what Jesus is talking about. The reading is deceptively simple. You might be tempted to sum it up as follows: serve the needy and go to Heaven; ignore the needy and go to Hell. And preachers for the last century or so have, in fact, taken that interpretative route. But the meaning of today’s reading is not so clear. There are two issues with the language of the text that greatly affect its meaning, and they have been a bone of contention since the 3rd Century: Issue #1) What does Jesus mean by “all the nations”? and Issue #2) To whom is Jesus referring when he speaks of “the least of these who are members of my family”?
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and pastor, wrote these words in 1937; a few years later, he was executed by the Nazis. Bonhoeffer knew the cost of discipleship, and he was willing to pay the price.
In today’s reading from Luke, Jesus speaks of this cost in words that are both startling and intimidating. He enumerates three demands of those who would be his disciples: 1) hate your family, 2) carry the cross and follow him, and 3) give up all your possessions. Jesus goes on to tell two parables, one about a builder and one about a king, the point of which is “Don’t even start what you can’t finish.”
If we wish to call ourselves Jesus’ disciples, it behooves each of us to consider these three demands and to ask ourselves, “Can I finish what I have started?”
Today we begin that long season commonly called “Ordinary Time.” This season is marked by green vestments and paraments, and during Year B of the lectionary, we hear Gospel readings from the Gospel according to Mark. Despite the appellation “Ordinary Time,” some of the readings during this season are rather extraordinary. Today’s reading from chapter 3 of Mark’s Gospel is a case in point.
Jesus has started his ministry of teaching and healing and proclaiming God’s love. The crowds are so large that he can’t tend to them all. So he appoints twelve apostles to assist him. That evening, exhausted and hungry, Jesus returns home longing for a meal and some rest. But the desperate crowds follow him home and won’t give him the time or the space to eat that meal.
That is where today’s Gospel reading begins. Even before the advent of Facebook and Twitter, word traveled fast. And Jesus’ family had heard that he was claiming to be on a mission from God and was drawing unwanted attention to himself. Neighborhood gossips spread the rumor that Jesus was out of his mind, and his family decided that they needed to intervene. So they headed out to put a stop to all this nonsense. We don’t know their motivations. Were they afraid for Jesus’ safety? Were they concerned that Jesus might be mentally ill? Or were they merely ashamed of the unwanted attention that Jesus was attracting? (After all, shame was a powerful factor in the culture of first-century Palestine.)
Evidently, rumors of Jesus’ miraculous healings had spread all the way to the capital of Jerusalem. And religious officials were sent to check out the situation. In reaction to Jesus’ miracles, these officials accuse Jesus of being in league with Beelzebul, another name for Satan. They claim that he casts out demons by the power granted him by Satan himself. Jesus responds by demonstrating the faulty logic of their reasoning. For “if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.” Jesus proceeds to tell a short parable that I would like to call the “Parable of the Home Invasion.” In this parable, a robber invades the home of a strong man, binds him, and then robs his house. Surprisingly, Jesus is the robber in this parable! And Satan is the victimized homeowner. One can infer that the robber’s plunder represents the people whom Satan has tormented in body, mind, and spirit and whom Jesus has set free. Satan may be a strong man, but Jesus is the stronger man, it would seem.