Last Sunday after the 8:00 service, Ralph Tildon came up to me and told me that my sermon had reminded him of a movie. “We’re No Angels,” was based on the passage about welcoming the stranger that I had taken as my text. I don’t expect you’ve ever heard of the movie either, as it never broke number 8 in the box office listing when it came out in 1989. But it was a slow Sunday evening, so Allison and I watched it together.
The movie tells the story of two bumbling convicts who escaped from a prison and were taken into a monastery, after being mistaken for famous Biblical scholars. The convicts are played by Sean Penn and Robert DeNiro, and for me it was worth the cost of the rental to see Robert DeNiro trotting around in an old fashioned priest’s cassock and biretta. The plot plays out as you would expect when two semi-illiterate, chain-smoking cons try to pose as holy men in the midst of a massive manhunt.
The climax of the film comes when Father Brown, aka Jim the convict, is spontaneously invited to give the sermon at the monastery’s annual festival. Jim is Sean Penn’s character, a relatively kind hearted fellow who looks about fourteen. By this point in the movie, you know to wince when he opens his mouth, but you’re also on his side.
Jim starts off the sermon by cribbing lines from a gun advertisement he’s slipped between the pages of his prayer book. He talks about how people live in fear, how they need a helper, how so many of the things we depend on really don’t do much good for us. As the background music swells, Jim’s remarks build up to this statement.
God good? I don't know. All I know is something might give you comfort. And maybe you deserve it. If it comforts you to believe in God, you do it, that's Your business…you want to go believe in something, well that's not so bad.
And then Jim steps back from the microphone, and the priests behind him smile, and the people applaud. Not the finest oratory, we’re meant to think, but you know, the old boy has made a point.
He’s made, in fact, the one point about religion that’s supposed to bind all of us Americans together: “If it comforts you to believe in God, you do it, that’s your business.” Religious practices and feelings, whatever they might be, we assume, have a purpose, a recognizable social good—they help people get through things. Life is tough, and it’s nice to have God on your side.
A large crowd was following Jesus, most of them probably just looking for a little comfort. Jesus was a deeply compassionate and generous person, whose presence brought joy to so many of those He encountered. He spoke with wisdom and authority. Just before this, he had called out a leader of the Pharisees for his hypocrisy and spoke of the generous welcome God was extending to those so often scorned or ignored. Jesus also had real power. He healed people of diseases they had suffered from birth. He cast out demons and raised the dead.
But this day He wasn’t doing any miracles, and He was much more interested in challenging than comforting this curious crowd. He asks them to think about what they really want from him, what they really want out of life.
The line that probably sticks out for us is this one: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Now, in Jesus’ language there weren’t comparative adjectives, so hate here probably means “love less,” as in the clarifying phrase Jesus used in another place in the Gospels, “He who loves father or mother more than me cannot be my disciple.”
So Jesus is not saying that you should hate your mother or your spouse, but He does mean that you shouldn’t put them first in your life. You should not seek in them for the meaning, the joy, the hope that compels you. Similarly, He is probably not requiring you give away all your possessions, though some have served Him by doing this in every age, and the Church’s witness has always been stronger for it. So, maybe not giving them all away, but not clinging to them for your security, your sense of dignity.
Jesus asks the crowd to tally up the things they put first in their life. A man who builds a tower wants to be sure he has enough to finish it. A king wants to make sure his army is strong enough to face the opponent before he sets out into battle. Ask yourself, He’s saying—is your bank balance really enough to give you what you need out of life? Your job, your set of hobbies, your friendships, the love in your family—will they provide you with enough to get by when you must give account for your life; on that day when, as He put it in another parable, “your soul is required of you?”
Part of what Jesus is saying here is something that spiritual people have always said—you can’t take it with you, all good things come to an end. Detachment from worldly things will help you find the meaning you’ve been seeking. You’re a spiritual being, seek a spiritual foundation for your life. There’s nothing particularly original about this, though it certainly needs to be said. The wise men of the Old Testament said as much, and there are echoes of this in the teachings of most of the world’s religions.
It’s that other thing that Jesus said that would have given his listeners pause—not hating your mother, but carrying a cross. We think of the cross as a religious symbol, but to people of Jesus time it was an obscene horror. Death by crucifixion was the great unmentionable subject of the ancient world. Though we know it was very common, it’s almost completely absent from contemporary literature. Even after a Christian emperor outlawed crucifixion, it was centuries before someone could bring themselves to create a picture of Jesus suffering on a cross. It was an almost unbelievably gruesome method of execution, reserved for slaves and rebels. Jews believed that the crucified were cursed by God, and Romans, by law, could not be subjected to it.
But of course, Jesus couldn’t stop talking about crucifixion. In fact, he was headed to Jerusalem to be crucified, as He seems to be telling anyone who would listen. And here he is, describing the kind of life he is holding out to His followers, the good life He was sent to reveal to them, as a crucifixion: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” You must come and die with me—hate your own life--and only then will you be free.
What Jesus is doing here is calling the whole way we ordinarily think about religion into question. If all we really needed was a little more spiritual insight, a little more health, a little comfort to perk us up when we’re down—well there’d be no need for anyone to be crucified. After all, God had sent wise men before and prophets who healed. But the problem goes deeper than that. As Stephen Westerholm has written in speaking of Jesus’ crucifixion, “so catastrophic a remedy demands a catastrophic predicament.”
Jesus doesn’t say it here directly, but the truth is that we’re not doing nearly as well as we often assume. We are in fact, under the power of sin. The idea that we really control our lives is an unfortunate illusion, as our constant inability to control our desires shows us again and again. Death stands before us, ridiculing all our aspirations and projects. A deep and unbridgeable divide separates us from the God who loves us, but whose unflinching justice demands that we make answer for our sin. “There is never just one transgression,” says the wise preacher John Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, “There is a wound in the flesh of human life that scars when it heals and often enough seems never to heal at all.” Count it up, Jesus is saying. How do you reckon yourself on that day when the books are opened and all stands revealed? Can you possibly measure up?
None of us can measure up. That’s why don’t just need a comforter, we need a Redeemer. We need one who will lay down His life in our place, and then come back from death to bind us to Himself forever. We don’t just need wisdom or strength, we need conversion, baptism—to be put to death, the old man cast behind us, and to be reborn by God’s grace to an entirely new way of life. We need Jesus as the master of our life, the One whose guidance we seek in all things, the One on whose grace we depend. Saint Paul described it perfectly, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Maybe a little comfort was all you really wanted from Jesus today, an assurance that the Big Guy would give you some help in that life you think you control. But what Jesus offers is the healing and renewal of your soul that you really need. But that’s the life that comes through taking up the cross, through surrendering control. Only then can we be open to receive the boundless joy and peace which Jesus shares.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.