Scripture readings for 9/8
If being a Christian seems easy, you might be doing it wrong. The readings for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost show us Christians are constantly faced with the hard choice to follow Jesus, or themselves. Following Jesus costs the loss of something we want to keep even more than family or money—our old sinful natures and its desires.
The Gospel reading tells us following Jesus has its God-given rewards—Christianity is worth it. But also, the choices facing Christians are very hard.
In the Old Testament reading the choice facing the Israelites is clear: They can choose life and good or death and evil. There is no middle ground.
In the New Testament reading, St. Paul asked a man to make a choice—a choice that could only make sense to a follower of Jesus.
The Gospel reading:
Probably there were some in the crowd listening to Jesus who were thinking of becoming his followers. Both for them and for those who had already committed to following him, Jesus illustrated the unconditional nature of being his disciple. To many people today, “unconditional” means “unloving,” but those are not the same thing. Jesus was not encouraging his followers to turn against their family members, but he means that if things come to such a pass that it’s a choice for us between him and our family, we’re to choose him. Obviously, this isn’t easy. Thankfully not everyone is faced with that decision, but neither are we to let our desire for money or pleasure interfere. And most of us in our lifetime do face that decision.
Jesus also talked about carrying a cross. Many people call any sort of trouble that comes our way ‘a cross.’ But in the strict sense, ‘a cross’ is only the trouble that comes our way because we’re Christians. That may be ridicule for Christian behavior, or losing a job for prioritizing worship over work schedules, or being nagged by the sharpened conscience Christian living inevitably develops. Those are the types of crosses we must bear if we become Jesus’ disciples.
Jesus does not mean to discourage people from becoming his followers. Clearly, the Gospels indicates Jesus wants us to follow him, to build the tower called Christianity and to fight the enemy twice our size called Satan. That’s why he lived and died and rose again—so that becoming disciples was even possible. But being a follower of Jesus means more than joining a club and having your name on a membership roster or your picture in a directory. It’s more than getting baptized, confirmed, married, and buried in a church. It’s more than subscribing to a body of doctrine. Following Jesus means to let God take over our lives through Jesus Christ—to give all that we have to him.
The Old Testament reading:
This reading comes from Moses’ final speech to the Israelites before they crossed the Jordan River to take possession of the Promised Land. He knew he would not join them, so he made an impassioned plea for their wellbeing. The alternatives for them and for us are clear: life or death, good or evil, blessing or curse. In light of our continuous history of evil, God is not obligated to include the good alternative, and the fact he offers us a choice implies we are not stone or wood but creatures of will and emotion and decision.
However, both Israelite history and biblical theology consistently demonstrate that our will is free only to choose the bad alternatives. The words “prosperity and disaster” in verse 15 are the Hebrew words “good and evil,” the same choice set before Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Moses knew the Israelites would fail (he had lots of past bad behavior as proof) just as we always fail according to our own efforts (there’s lots of past behavior as proof of that too).
To choose God’s good alternatives we need God’s help. In verse 6, Moses said, “The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.” God will cut away from us the things that hold us back from following him. God not only holds before us the possibility of a good choice, but he also empowers us to make that good choice. He gives us his life first in order that we might choose his life.
The New Testament reading:
Philemon was a Christian man from the congregation in the city of Colossae. In fact, the church met in his home. A man named Onesimus was his slave, but had stolen some of Philemon’s property and run away to Rome. There he came into contact with St. Paul and, through the power of the gospel, became a repentant, believing Christian and a very useful and helpful friend of Paul.
After a time, St. Paul sent him back to Colossae with this letter to Philemon, who did not know that Onesimus was now a Christian. Philemon had every societal right to demand the return of his slave, but at great personal sacrifice and financial loss to Philemon, Paul asked him to release Onesimus because he was not just a slave, but was now also a dear Christian brother. Only a man like Philemon who feared the Lord could see the wisdom in bearing this cost of discipleship.
In the economic offer of verse 18, St. Paul is playing out the role of Jesus. He will absorb the consequences of Onesimus’ wrongdoing and will pay the cost himself, all so that Onesimus can be reconciled to his master, Philemon. Jesus has done the same for us. God doesn’t count our sins against us, but counts them against Jesus, so that we can be reconciled to him (2 Corinthians 5:19).
A little note about slavery:
Roman slavery was totally different than the type of slavery we know from American history. Slavery in the Roman world was not associated with the oppression of any particular race. Slaves could serve in a variety of positions, and some (like Onesimus or Joseph in Egypt, Gen 39:6) held positions of great power and responsibility. While in service to their master, slaves could earn wages, buy and sell property, enter into contracts, and own slaves themselves. Typical Roman slaves hoped for release at age 30, the usual age for discharge.