Living out your faith is going to cost you something; not likely the classic idea of the “lay your life on the line for Jesus”, but a more visceral laying down of pride, rights, justice, money, social status, family – for this new family and life in Christ.
The scene is the prison in Ephesus. It is a dark place but the Old Man is someone of some significance. His importance in the community gives him some creature comforts that other inmates might not have. He has a network of family that will bring him food and drink. He has a cot and a desk on which to write. He has influence in the prison. Guards and inmates alike seek him out for counseling and advice. It might be slightly more comfortable for this minimum inmate, but let there be no doubt, it is still a Roman prison in ancient Ephesus!
Narrator (italics): The Old Man graciously receives a cup of tea from his young associate. The steam rises from the cup and he smells the bittersweet aroma. The Young man is quiet. He has the takes the subservient position of the slave, head slightly bowed, hands folded, he pulls back to the corner.
“You should go back.” The Old Man finally says, after sipping the hot liquid.
The Young man knew this was coming. “My father, how can I? It is a return to slavery. He was not a nice man.”
“It is true.”
“And I am a Christian now, I am your follower, your disciple.”
“I need to stay with you and learn more of Christ!” The Young Man’s eagerness betrayed his complicated motives.
The Old Man smiled sadly. “My son. It is the law. Roman law requires you to return to your master.”
“But we are subject to a higher law! We are subject to the law of Christ! You said so yourself, the Law of Love. Does not love dictate you keep me here with you?” Desperation crept into his voice. His confused affect betrays the growing anger rising in him. He had reached out to this prophet, this preacher, this teacher who had introduced him to a new faith. Surly, this faith would save him from returning to his master. Law! The law was not helpful! The law separated people into the haves and the have nots! The Law made classes of people. The Law made some rich and some poor. The Young Man’s simmering anger began to move towards rage. How could he just sit there! How could his mentor and leader just sit there, sipping tea, in this prison and speak of following Roman Law! He was here for disobeying Roman Law!!!
The Old Man sat watching the drama play out in the Young Man’s face. He watched the angry thoughts dart back and forth, fighting reason and emotion. His smile drifted away and was replaced by a pained look, he grieved for the Young Man. He knew his baggage. He had heard his story. The Young Man was a tradesman seeking to grow his business. He had a rough go of life. Coming from a distant Roman colony, his parents died early and he had been apprenticed at a spice seller’s shop. Selling spices on a far flung Roman outpost is an unpredictable trade at best. If a ship goes down in a spring storm and the tradesman has not prepared, they are destined for poverty. This was the Young Man’s story. He struck out on his own too soon. He was passionate, full of dreams and vision, he saw himself a wealthy man at a young age and did not adequately prepare for the reality of selling a luxury item in a poor place. Add a particularly vicious storm and soon, he was over his head in debt to creditors. In desperation, he entered the slave market, indenturing himself to a wealthy spice trader in Rome. Philemon paid Onesimus’ debts. In return, Onesimus was now a slave.
Onesimus tried another approach. “My father. When I was captured by the slave hunters and brought to this prison, I thought my life was over. I really believed that when I was sent back, Philemon would exercise his rights. He would have a limb removed or chain me in his kitchens, beat me, or even have me killed. I was so overwhelmed with this thought, I planned to end my life in this prison but then, I met you and…” his voice trailed off, breaking under the strain of his emotions.
Paul, the Old Apostle who had met so many in his journeys recognized that you cannot reason your way out of an emotional decision. He reflected Onesimus’ fears. “My son. Of course. Philemon still has those rights. He can still do all of those things to you. It would still be justice if he did yes?” Onesimus was sobbing by now and nodded. “You do not want to return because you fear that he will do those things to you?”
“Yes! Yes my father! I believe he will.”
“Oh, my son. There is something you do not know about your master. He is as you are. He too is a Christian and he is your brother. I have some sway with him. I will write a letter to take with you. He is my spiritual son as you are. I shall appeal to him on the basis of his obligation to honor the elderly and his obligation to kinship. I shall ask to pay whatever debts you owe. He shall put them on my account. We are all brothers. You, me, and even Philemon. I shall ask if he will take you back and not carry out retribution as is his right.”
“Thank you, oh thank you my father.”
“Onesimus. Hear this. You will still need to work. You will need to be faithful to your master, as a though you were faithful to Christ. Obey him with fear and trembling not only while being watched, in order to please him but, as a save to Christ, do the will of God from the heart. God would have you be a faithful servant. Whatever good you do, you will receive from the Lord, whether you are a slave or a free man.”
Philemon is reminded by Paul that when he came to Jesus, he was choosing a life that was challenging. He was choosing a life that would challenge and change him. He chose a life that came with it, some responsibilities. Was he really ready to give something up for Christ?
Was he ready to give up his rights?
He had a right to justice. He had a right to retribution. He had a right to a world he made. Paul calls him to something else. He calls him to fully embrace another way of being – the way of grace. Let God handle the retribution, let God handle justice, let God handle his pride.
I wonder what it was like when Onesimus came back. I wonder what it was like when he walked in and handed Philemon that letter. Did he throw him in the dungeon to wait for justice? Did he stand there and read it while Onesimus knelt before him? At what point in the Onesimus/Philemon relationship did Philemon, the wealthy merchant with the right to kill Onesimus demonstrate that he was a different person? That he had changed? That he actually saw and experienced life differently? How would Onesimus know that Philemon had really, truly changed?
This takes us to Luke 14. From the New Interpreters
14:28-32. The twin parables that follow might aptly be entitled “Fools at Work and at War.” These parables have no parallel in the other Gospels. Jesus draws attention to a simple observation: A prudent person would not begin a project until being sure it can be finished. A man would not lay the foundation for a tower unless he was sure he could finish it. A king would not go to war unless he had enough soldiers to resist the opposing force. By the same token, God has not entered a redemptive process without being prepared to complete it, and Jesus did not set his face for Jerusalem without being prepared to face the sacrifice that would be required of him there. Thus no one should step forward as a disciple without being prepared to forsake everything for the sake of following Jesus.
The two parables move from the lesser to the greater consequence. In the first, the threat is merely that one may be embarrassed before one’s neighbors. In the second, the consequence may be defeat at the hands of an enemy. The parable does not advocate building stronger armies; it illustrates the folly of embarking on a venture without being sure one can see it through.
14:33. The parables lead to the third condition (v. 33); they demand that one be ready to give up everything to be a disciple. If you seek to follow Jesus, then understand first that what is required is all you have.
Applying this principle in the area of one’s material possessions, as Luke often does, v. 33 concludes with a return to the refrain found in vv. 26-27: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” The verb translated “renounce” or “give up” (ajpota”ssomai apotassomai) literally means “to say farewell to” or “to take leave of.” The descriptions of the sharing of goods in the early church in Acts 2:44; 4:32 probably illustrate what Luke understood this demand to mean.
14:34-35. Sayings on salt also appear in Matt 5:13 and Mark 9:49-50. Although Luke uses these aphorisms as the conclusion to this section of warnings, the sayings actually make a different point from the preceding sayings, which were directed to the crowd of would-be disciples. The sayings on salt are more appropriate as warnings to those who are already disciples. The value of salt lies in its salinity. If it loses its saltiness, it cannot be restored. The point of the analogy is that the disciple is defined by his or her relationship to Jesus. If one gives up that relationship, one is like salt that has lost its saltiness.
Real salt cannot lose its flavor, but the complex minerals found around the Dead Sea were not pure salt and could, therefore, become tasteless. The taste, once lost, could not be restored. Jesus observed that this tasteless salt was not even good for fertilizing or killing weeds; “it is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile” (14:35). The point seems to be that salt that has lost its saltiness is not even good for menial, alternative uses.
The call for those who have ears to hear is a call to decision. The reversals of the coming kingdom have been dramatically illustrated, the conditions of discipleship have been set forth, and the consequences of rejecting the call to discipleship have been made clear. Now is the time for decision.
Some churches, preachers, and TV programs present the gospel as though they were selling a used car. They make it sound as easy as possible, as though no real commitment were required. Jesus’ call was far different. He was not looking for superficial commitment or a crowd of tagalongs. Instead, he required his followers to be totally committed if they were going to follow at all.
The language of cross bearing has been corrupted by overuse. Bearing a cross has nothing to do with chronic illness, painful physical conditions, or trying family relationships. It is instead what we do voluntarily as a consequence of our commitment to Jesus Christ. Cross bearing requires deliberate sacrifice and exposure to risk and ridicule in order to follow Jesus. This commitment is not just to a way of life, however. It is a commitment to a person. A disciple follows another person and learns a new way of life.
In a sense, no one can know whether he or she will be able to fulfill a commitment to discipleship. Jesus was not asking for a guarantee of complete fidelity in advance, however. If he had, no one would qualify to be a disciple. Through these parables, Jesus was simply calling for each person who would be a disciple to consider in advance what that commitment requires.
Cultural accommodation of the Christian faith has progressed steadily in recent years. As a result, many see no tension between the teachings of Jesus and the common aspirations of middle-class Americans. On the contrary, a complete change of priorities, values, and pursuits is required. Paul wrote that in Christ we become not just nice people but new creations (see 2 Cor 5:17). When Jesus turned and saw the crowd following him, he was not impressed by his own success. He was not interested in the casual, easy acceptance the crowd offered.
The cost of discipleship is paid in many different kinds of currency. For some persons a redirection of time and energy is required, for others a change in personal relationships, a change in vocation, or a commitment of financial resources; but for each person the call to discipleship is all consuming. A complete change in priorities is required of all would-be disciples. No part-time disciples are needed. No partial commitments are accepted.
Are you ready?