Listen to the audio version here (sorry about the bumps and shuffling at the beginning!)
Happy new year…At least that’s how it often feels at the beginning of September, especialy if you have any connection with the teaching profession, or have children at school or university, or are a student yourself. It’s a time when all sorts of groups and activities start up again after the summer break, so there’s all sorts of informal learning in the offing as well. Whether you are a four-year-old heading off into your reception class in uniform that’s miles too big, or an adult starting a new evening class , the start of the academic year can seem as if it is full of promise. But that promise often doesn’t last long. By Christmas we start to realise that it isn’t enough just to sign up, or even turn up. If we want to learn anything, we have to work at it, and give up our time and energy to it. However skilful our teachers, if we don’t concentrate and practice very little is going to sink in. Learning doesn’t happen by magic. No one else can do it for you. You have to apply your own brain to the task, and that can be hard going.
Today’s Gospel reading is all about learning. Jesus is talking to the crowds who follow him – large crowds, we are told. He’s very popular. People enjoy his stories and marvel at his miracles. He’s got a lot of fans. But it soon becomes clear that he doesn’t want fans. He wants disciples. “Disciple” literally means “learner”. It comes from the same Latin word that gives us “discipline”. Disciples are people who engage in disciplined, intentional work in order to learn something.
What does it take to become a disciple of Jesus, to learn from him? Jesus had some pretty challenging things to say about it. “You can’t learn from me” , he said, “unless you give up all your possessions. You can’t learn from me unless you are prepared to hate your family, and even your own life.” It’s very strong stuff, and we need to be careful how we read it. It’s a good example of a passage where you’ve got to understand the context if you aren’t to end up in a terrible mess.
Jesus is using deliberately provocative, over-the-top language because he needs this large, excited crowd to understand what following him might lead to. It’s one thing to tag along for the ride for a day or two, maybe even to be healed of some illness that has been troubling them, but allying themselves with him in the long-term is another matter. That will involve radical change, and maybe radical sacrifice too. He wants to offer them something which will transform them, setting them free forever, not just for a day or two, but there’ll be a price to pay. If they want to be learners rather than just hangers-on, they will need to commit themselves, and to be prepared to give up whatever gets in the way of that commitment.
“None of you can become my disciple – my learner – if you do not give up all your possessions.”
We might be tempted to switch off at this point, defeated by the scale of that statement, but let’s hang on in there with Jesus and really listen. He isn’t saying that we should live without material things. That would be impossible. We have to eat. We need clothes and shelter. No one can live without material stuff. And, in any case, the Bible doesn’t say that material things are bad. In fact, it takes quite the opposite view. It starts with a wonderful celebration of the material stuff of the world. God made it, says the book of Genesis, and pronounced it “very good”. The Bible is full of celebration of the goodness and generosity of God; “wine that gladdens the human heart and oil that makes the face shine” as Psalm 104 puts it. Many philosophies and religions of the time saw the material world as evil, a prison for immaterial souls, but the Jewish people disagreed. They proclaimed that it was mightily blessed by God. So Jesus isn’t calling us to a body-defying, self- punishing asceticism here. What he is warning against are “possessions”, not just material things in themselves.
What’s the difference? Material stuff is the stuff that is all around me, the stuff I am made of. A possession is something I possess, something I control, something I can grasp and keep, or think I can , something I think of as “mine”.
I don’t know if you’ve come across the Toddlers’ Laws of Possession, but if you have ever had small children you will recognise the sentiment. This is what they say a toddler is thinking:
If I like it, it's mine.
If it's in my hand, it's mine.
If I can take it from you, it's mine.
If I had it a little while ago, it's mine.
If it's mine, it must never appear to be yours in any way.
If I'm doing or building something, all the pieces are mine.
If I’ve got one like it, it's mine.
If I saw it first, it's mine.
If you are playing with it and you put it down, it’s mine.
If it’s broken, it’s yours.
If it’s broken but you are enjoying playing with the pieces, it’s mine again.
If there’s any doubt about it, it’s mine.
That’s what possession looks like – and it’s not just toddlers who behave like this. We all do to some extent. The problem with this attitude is not just that it causes conflict; it’s that it’s based on a chain of misconceptions.
An attitude of possession is only possible if we believe that we can “own” things – land, goods, people, status, jobs – that they can be exclusively, permanently “ours” in some sense, but that isn’t ever really the case. All that we have has come to us from others. “Our” physical bodies are built from the genetic material of our parents and the food that the good earth gives us. “Our” achievements have been gained with the help of teachers, parents, and many others who have encouraged us along the way or paved the way for what we have done. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. “Our” goods are produced by the labour of others . “Our” homes and communities are built and maintained by the skills of those who can do things we can’t – building, engineering, problem-solving. We may pay for these goods and services, but we depend on others having the skills and willingness to do the task in the first place. And the money we use to buy them is earned because someone else has decided they want to pay for what we offer. Without others, including many we will never see or know, we would have nothing. We couldn’t survive, let along thrive, without them. So In what sense is anything we have really “ours”.
And the things we think of as “ours” are only ever lent to us. We hold them for the course of our brief lives at the very most, and maybe not even that. They can slip from our hands in a moment. Those Syrian refugees who have landed on our shores with nothing had homes, jobs and belongings they thought were theirs forever, but now they’ve only got the clothes they stand up in. Redundancy or illness can strip away overnight the things we thought were ours to keep – our money, our health, the future we were hoping for. If we have relied on these things for our sense of self-worth, if we have hedged ourselves about with our possessions, hoping they’ll protect us forever from helplessness and want, we’ll find ourselves in deep trouble. What are we to do without them? If we have let our possessions defined us, who are we without them?
Even our families, says Jesus, can become a problem if we treat them as things to possess and control, or allow them to treat us that way. Families can be wonderful. They can give us safe space to grow into the people God wants us to be, but if we place all our hope and security in them, if we try to be everything to them and expect them to be everything to us, to meet all our needs, we set ourselves up for failure and heartache.
The second reading we heard today – the whole of the very short letter of Paul to Philemon – underlines that danger. Paul’s in prison, but he’s not alone there. Onesimus, a slave belonging to Philemon, is with him, not as a prisoner but as a helper to him. We don’t know why Onesimus is with Paul. He might have run away from Philemon, or been sent away by him to serve Paul, but in the course of his time with him, he has become a Christian. Now Paul is sending him home, but he’s hoping that Philemon will be able to see Onesimus not as his possession, but as his “beloved brother”, taking him back as a sibling, not a slave. He’s calling for a radical rethinking of the relationships in this, typical, slave-owning, household . The early Christian communities were called to be places of equality and freedom, where there was supposed to be neither Greek nor Jew, male and female, slave and free. In a society where everyone in a household was “owned” in some sense by the paterfamilias, the head of the household – they even had the right to kill them - that was a radical idea. People weren’t to be treated as possessions, simply there to meet a need or fit into a predetermined slot in the household.
Christians struggled with it then, and they still struggle with it now. We still feel we are entitled to tell others what they can and can’t do, and get upset if they won’t conform. Paul challenges us, like Philemon, to think again.
When Jesus tells us to give up our possessions – whether things or people - it’s not just a spot of de-cluttering he has in mind; it’s the attitude of possessiveness he wants us to lose. He knows that it’s only when we stop looking at things - or people - as possessions, that we can start seeing them as the gifts they really are, gifts to celebrate and give thanks for, not security blankets to cling anxiously to for fear of being left with nothing.
And when we can see that, we might also see that God is all we really need to possess and be possessed by. In the end, it doesn’t matter what is “ours” so long as we are his.