Walter Brueggemann: Discipleship That Inconveniences

Complete, unwavering discipleship to Jesus is costly, eventually leading to a risky contradiction with dominant culture. Most of us, surely, are not much inclined to that costliness that seems nothing short of heroic. Most of us will settle for a lesser discipleship. Even that lesser discipleship, however, inconveniences. Here I reflect on that inconvenience because one of the great gifts of contemporary consumer culture is that everything is made convenient for those who have money for access.

Convenience is the major selling point for technology. Our technology-supported lives have now become so convenient that we experience the practices of neighborliness as being greatly inconvenient. Walking. Handwriting. Borrowing sugar. Convenience is what the market sells. It is a surcharge added to the cost of community. The market’s promised convenience and speed turn out to have a hidden cost … Speed and convenience don’t build neighborliness (Peter Block, Walter Brueggemann, John McKnight, An Other Kingdom: Departing the Consumer Society 26).

At the very least, the call of Jesus is to inconvenience.

I could think of two texts that concern a call to inconvenience. In Joshua 24, Joshua asserts that he and his household are committed to covenantal obedience to YHWH:

“As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (v. 15)

He also invites his listeners to choose for the God of the covenant:

“Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living.” (v. 15)

In response, the assembly answers Joshua by reciting the narrative “credo” of past history with YHWH (vv. 16-18), and concludes:

“Therefore we will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” (v. 18)

That ready response, however, strikes Joshua as too facile. So he warns the community:

“You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” (vv. 19-20)

A second time the community indicates its readiness for covenant:

“No, we will serve the Lord!” (v. 21)

Joshua then warns of the high risk of their decision for YHWH:

“You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord to serve him.” (v. 22)

They answer yet again:

“We are witnesses.” (v. 22)

Joshua then insists that they put away foreign gods; they answer one more time:

The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey. (v. 24)

Then and only then does Joshua make covenant:

So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem. (v. 25)

The “statutes and ordinances” are surely an inconvenience for those who embrace the covenant. This is a curious give-and-take that must have exasperated the community. But Joshua is insistent. Entering into covenant with YHWH is no easy or light thing and must not be entered easily or lightly.

Joshua’s insistence shows the risk and demand of this faith, and seeks to make clear that covenant with YHWH is inconvenient and a serious disruption of business as usual.

What follows in the Book of Judges makes clear that they had not understood how inconvenient faith in YHWH is, for they persistently “went after other gods.” We might well offer a riff on the “gods of our ancestors” that can no longer be practiced because this covenant is mutually exclusive! Those “gods of our ancestors” might include racism and nationalism and the entire inventory of oppressions. That they are “gods” is indicated by the fact that they have been taken among us for so long as absolute and beyond question, so much endorsed and affirmed by so much of the church!

A second text to consider is the narrative of Jesus with his disciples in Mark 10:35-45. It is clear that at this point in Mark’s gospel that the disciples had not understood Jesus’ teaching or mission. They “innocently” request places of privilege in his coming kingdom of glory (v. 37). They imagined that in Christ’s new rule they would, as his faithful followers, be ascendant in power and honor, all so convenient as a pay-out for discipleship.

Jesus, however, contradicts this fairy tale of convenience. He reminds them of the “baptism” and the “cup.” The baptism is recruitment into the new regime that will frontally contradict the ways of all old regimes. Indeed, this baptism is not unlike Joshua’s “put away foreign gods.” The “cup” that must be drunk is the destiny that in the case of Jesus led to his execution at the hands of the state (Mark 14:37).

The disciples had understood neither baptism nor cup, both of which concern obedient suffering. They still do not, for they much too readily answer, “We are able” (Mark 10:39). They still imagined privilege in the coming regime, recognizing nothing of the disruption, risk, or cost. But of course in their lack of understanding, they grossly misjudged. Jesus had to tell them that all he had to offer was a baptism and a cup, not any privileged seating in time to come:

“The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” (v. 40)

The baptism and the cup are much more than an inconvenience. But they are, at the outset, at least that. It is from this text that Bonhoeffer could declare, “He bids us come die with him.”

The two narratives of Joshua and Jesus make clear that embrace of this faith as a living practice cannot go along with business as usual. For Joshua, it means abandonment of “foreign gods,” loyalties inimical to covenant. For Jesus, it entails practical contradiction to the dominant culture. That contradiction led him to the conclusion that greatness is textured as servanthood. Both narratives concern convenience interrupted.

I have thought of two instances of such an interruption of convenience. First, a friend of mine had ordered a book from Amazon. I gently reprimanded her for financially supporting Amazon, that subverter of democracy that depends on cheap labor and that is about the work of destroying local economies everywhere. Her response was, “But it is so convenient.” Of course it is! It intends to be. It intends to outflank local shopping with convenience and so to remove money from the local economy toward those who have no interest in or investment in local society. Local shopping is inconvenient, something like handwriting and borrowing sugar mentioned above. I suggest then that local shopping (with its extra costs) and refusal of online convenience is a modest act of discipleship, a readiness to be inconvenienced for the sake of the neighborhood.

Second, I can think of nothing more inconvenient than the practice of sabbath. If and when we keep sabbath seriously and faithfully, it exacts the foregoing of many favorite activities we like and prefer to do. But sabbath is meant to be inconvenient. It is meant to interrupt our favorite activities and now surely our favorite electronic connections. It means to interrupt our initiative-taking actions in order that we might for an instant be, without distraction, on the receiving end of the generosity of God.

It is likely that the social economy of the well-off will become, with technological advances we can scarcely anticipate, more and more convenient for us. But such ever-advancing convenience is like a screen that causes us not to notice the world around us. With convenience as a narcotic, we do not notice those who are, by policy as well as by practice, not included in our orbit of convenience. We do not notice the cheap labor of those upon whom our convenience depends.

Thus, it occurs to me that we might focus more closely on the ways in which our convenience undermines our neighborliness and thereby detracts from our capacity for obedience to the Gospel. The path of some inconvenience just might be a way of inviting us away from the gods that would make ourselves the center of the universe. It might be a way to embrace the baptism that inducts us into an alternative world.

The path of inconvenience just might be a first sip of the cup of discipleship that we may drink as participants in the new regime. It is clear, is it not, that the gods of convenience do not care for mercy, justice, righteousness, or neighborliness, that is, do not care for the realities of covenantal life. Inconvenience is not radical discipleship, and it must not be confused with that. It might, however, be a way whereby we become a bit more “woke” about our life of faith.


Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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