Being in a crowd at some exciting event can be a wonderful experience, People can be carried along by enthusiasm, uplifted by all those around them. Perhaps something like this happened to the many people who followed Jesus. However, for Jesus, an unthinking kind of follower was not what he needed. He wanted his disciples to count the cost of following, to have realistic expectations of what it would mean to them.
On 8 September at the noon SLT service in the cathedral the readings were Psalm 139:1-5, 12-18; Jeremiah 18:1-11; Luke 14:25-33. Here is my reflection:
I suspect that most people have heard the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin at some time. The town of Hamelin was overrun by rats and the people were desperate to be rid of them. They offered a reward to anyone who could remove the rats from the town. The Pied Piper turned up and offered to help; his offer was accepted. He played his pipe and to the townspeople’s astonishment the rats came out of all the places they were hiding and followed on behind the piper. He led them in a dance to the river Weser where all the rats continued to dance until they fell into the river and drowned.
When the piper returned to the Mayor of the town to collect his reward, he was offered only 40 guilders and not the 1000 that was originally agreed. Rather than protest, the piper went away but he returned the next day. He stood in the town square as before and played a different tune on his pipe. As he played the children of the town came out of their houses to join him. The piper continued to play as he moved out of the square and towards the mountain. The children ran and skipped after him. When their parents realised what was happening they shouted to their children but they were deaf it seemed and took no notice. Eventually they reached the mountain and a crack opened up in the side of it. The Pied Piper continued to play as he entered the opening, with the children still skipping along behind him. As soon as all the children were inside, the crack closed so neatly that no one could see where it had been. The only child left was one lame boy who hadn’t been able to keep up.
The Pied Piper relied on the fact that he could attract the rats and later the children and have them so fixed on following him that they didn’t notice anything else. The rats carried on dancing until they fell in the river. The children left home and family, heedless of their parents’ voices and disappeared into the mountain, seemingly without a second thought. In a version of the story I have read, the notes of the pipe were able to create pictures in the minds of the rats and the children that attracted them to a wonderful prospect. They were so fixed on the promise in the music that they didn’t consider anything else.
When we read of large crowds following Jesus it reminds me a little of the story of the Pied Piper. Everywhere Jesus went, people followed him and by this time the crowd is very large. For the disciples, it was their task to follow Jesus. They had been called, individually and in pairs, to follow and they had accepted the invitation. The crowds we read about here are extra people who seem to have tagged along, irresistibly drawn to Jesus. They could have been following for any number of motives. Something was certainly attracting them: perhaps Jesus’ teaching which really spoke to their hearts; a wish to fight for a cause which would put down the Romans; maybe the hope of more feeding the 5000 type miracles urged them on; possibly some people had been healed by Jesus and others hoped to be healed.
Unlike the Pied Piper, Jesus didn’t want people to follow him without a thought. Following him amid the excitement of the crowd was not something he encouraged. Jesus knew he was heading for Jerusalem and he knew what awaited him there. He needed those who chose to follow him to have a clear idea of what to expect. In stark terms he spelled out three requirements of those who wanted to be his disciples.
First they were to hate their closest family members and even life itself. Jesus’ message could be summed up as love yet he was demanding that those who followed were to hate. That seems to make no sense at all. However, in the language of the time, this was a way of making a comparison. ‘Hate’ meant to love less. The love for Jesus was to be so great that the love for family would be so much less that it would be a long way down the scale, almost as if it were hate. It’s speaking of priorities. If we love something or someone, we give that priority in our lives. Jesus was telling his followers that he was to have priority over their families and even over the lives of his followers. Choices would have to be made in life which put Jesus’ way of life first, above personal preference. Nothing was allowed to be more important than Jesus in any aspect of life.
The second requirement was to carry the cross. Crucifixion was a common way to execute people at that time. It would be well known by Jesus’ listeners. Anyone carrying a cross had only one end in view. He would die very shortly afterwards. Jesus was telling his followers that they had to be prepared, as he was, to face death for his sake. That might be death in a metaphorical sense, putting to death their own wishes, but that was covered in his first requirement. It seems more likely that Jesus meant actual bodily death. Those involved in various uprisings at that time were put to death. If Jesus was going to die, those associated with him would be in danger also.
Jesus asks the people to stop and think what following him would mean. Already those in the crowd would have left their jobs to be with him, which is fine short term but what about long term. What would happen to their families? How would they all live? Jesus was asking his listeners to put aside their enthusiasm and do some cold calculating, just as they would do if trying to do some building work or just as a king would do when planning a military campaign. The cost of discipleship is to give up all claim to possessions, to everything that could be considered as something owned in life: time, space, things, choices, people. All is demanded of a disciple. Nothing can be held back.
These are the same demands that Jesus asks of us. Discipleship is not easy and not something to be entered into without thought. Handing over our whole life to someone else is quite a sobering prospect. And yet, as the psalm says, we are simply offering back to God a life that he gave us. We have been known from before time. God knew what we would be like before we were formed. He knew our character, our potential, our strengths and weaknesses. Now that we are born and grown, he still knows us inside out – our thoughts, our actions, our words.
Like the potter whom Jeremiah observed, God is shaping us to help us be all we are capable of being. We can resist his work or we can accept it and allow ourselves to be transformed day by day as we offer ourselves in service to God. No one is coercing us. The choice is always ours.