Jarrod Longbons: Jesus: Not a Good Pitchman

My brother-in-law is a creative guy. In fact, he owns a 3-D printer and makes all sorts of novelty items on it. With this, he has now produced a company and employs several people with full-time jobs. The biggest novelty item in his catalogue is called the “Toilette Timer,” which is a whimsical little sand timer meant to keep people from hogging time in the restroom. I’ll spare you any more details, but suffice it to say I am endlessly tickled by the interest and sales associated with this product. There are actual doctors that recommend it to their patients, department stores that stock it on their shelves, and loads of units are flying out of a warehouse via e-commerce.

He and my sister-in-law even found their way onto the entrepreneur-driven television program, “Shark Tank.” You know the one. It features creators as they seek funding from “Sharks” who are wealthy financial investors, putting up their own money for a piece of the action. I was impressed when they got invited to this program. But I’ll admit to some worry for them when our whole clan spent an evening of the extended family vacation hearing and giving feedback on their sales pitch. I imagined some of the Sharks saying things like, “This isn’t a company, this is a product,” or “I don’t do novelty stuff,” or “I wish you well, but this isn’t for me.”

I even advised my two intrepid in-laws on which Shark to go after. Being somewhat of an expert on this program, I thought I knew whom their best chances were with. They flew to Vegas, participated in a COVID lockdown taping, and were told not to utter a word until it aired on television. And when I finally got to see the program, I took delight in their winsome presentation, and was heartily surprised that they made a deal with the least likely, and most well-known Shark of them all – Mark Cuban!

“Oh, ye of little faith!” Why should I have been so concerned? This couple is adorable, smart, winsome, and hilarious – and the sales have been coming out of their ears.

Jesus, on the other hand, was not a good pitchman – not at least in the Gospel story we are reflecting on today. Now, he has just spent quality time eating at a prominent Pharisee’s house, the setting must have been small – even intimate. And where we pick up the tale, he is on the road again… still heading toward Jerusalem. The crowds multiply around him, for word has spread – his deeds have gone “viral” in the community. At the corner shop, a boy tells his father of a miraculous healing Jesus was said to have completed. The watering hole was filled with patriots yearning for someone to mobilize the beleaguered masses in order to begin the counter-insurgence upon Roman despotism. Whispers of hope and the dreams of the “good ol’ days” filled the air – Jesus’ popularity made it easy to follow him, to be one of his faithful disciples - or so it seemed.

It is like that when something fresh and new enters into our imagination. It is a version of what I call the “if only story.” If only this or that, then I would get what I want, or be happy, or what have you. It took me about 10 years to finish my Ph.D. in theology, what with a move across the country, a growing family, and all the rest of life getting in the way. I remember one dark night of the soul. I was working at 3:00 a.m. on my writing, uttering quietly to myself, “If only I could complete this degree, then I would feel accomplished.” Well, I did finish. I am happy to have done so, but such feelings are moving targets. I once again have other things I want to do… and I am not sure that I have ever lived in the feeling of accomplishment… for very long.

If only Jesus would do the thing – lead us into battle, with the miracles God gave the likes of Moses… then we would be who we were called to be! In the promise of fulfillment, it is easy to start off strong, making promises with optimism and joy – just think of your New Year’s resolutions! It appears that Jesus has a chance to sell the joys of discipleship to the marching masses, and would not that be the most expedient thing to do? Like one of those pitchmen from late night infomercials, Jesus could turn with great enthusiasm and sell the promise of something so unbelievable – ala those electronic abdominal machines that do the work out for you. Well, then he could have closed the deal that very day!

He looks to them rather serenely and simply says that they cannot be his disciple unless they “hate” their families: father, mother, wife, children, brothers and sisters, and even life itself. The likes of carnival barkers and pitchmen of all stripes would conclude that Jesus dropped the ball on this one. Hate! Wait, Jesus, I thought you were about love. Haven’t we been taught that Christianity is a “safe for the whole family” sort of religion?

I remember serving in a church as an intern. The senior minister and I met with a single, young adult male volunteer for lunch one day. Amidst the theological questions asked and answered were also questions about the church’s vision. The minister laid out for the young man that the church’s target demographic was: a young, upwardly mobile married couple, with 2.5 kids, a dog, living in a nice home in the expensive neighborhood around the church; then he added that our ministries would be done in order to reach them. He continued, “We want to teach men how to be better fathers and husbands; we want to support wives so they can stay at home if they like; we want to help children to obey and respect their parents – the church can be tools for this family unit!” The young man was crestfallen; I could see the look on his face. So later that evening, I asked him for a coffee. And in that coffee chain he asked me, “Do I have a place in the church’s vision, if I am not in that target demographic? I don’t have a family!”

What would Jesus think of a church having a target demographic, or the relegation of our religion into a faith FOR the family? I’ll admit, it is confusing… this language of hate! How can one hate their mom and dad, if in the commandments the people of God were instructed to honor mother and father? How is one supposed to square this teaching with others from Jesus, like “love your neighbor as yourself?”

Let me suggest that the language is confused by certain contexts. When you or I use the word hate, we mean more than lack of affection. It conjures up notions of distaste, despising another, or wishing for their death. But the language behind this word in St. Luke’s gospel has more to do with “turning away from,” or placing “less value” in these relationships. It is as if Jesus knows that his path requires a single-minded focus upon him… therefore, one must re-order their life’s values. What Jesus seems to be saying my friends, is that in order to be his disciple you have to turn away from all you hold dear, or put less value there, because to truly follow Jesus is a cost – and you must count the cost. This is not about hate in the conventional sense; it is about re-ordering our loves.

The crowds may think it will be easy or thrilling to follow this miracle worker – it’s the thing to do after all, because everyone is doing it. But Jesus knows what true discipleship looks like – taking up one’s own cross and following after the way of Christ.

Now, we read this bit after the crucifixion. I presume the crowds had no idea that Jesus would die a cross death. So, what would they have made of the cross language here? For starters, it was a shameful way to die for traitors and slaves. It was shameful for its caused humiliation of being mocked and ridiculed. It was shameful because on the cross one is displayed publicly in the nude – it did not merely cause physical pain, but emotional and social pain as well. Again, Jesus is not the pitchman that even many preachers are. Christ tells the truth at all cost!

On our side of this story, we know that the cross marks the death of Jesus. In order to be his disciple, you have to value all that you hold dear a little less, or you have to turn away some – this is not the hate we have come accustomed to – on account of the fact that to truly follow his ways, you will take on great suffering, estrangement, and may even be called to lay down your life for the sake of another. This is the sales pitch of the Gospel!

I don’t know, maybe many of the crowd remained undeterred – I am sure that many thought they would gladly suffer for the patriotic stance of sending Rome away. But Jesus was not fighting Rome. Jesus was peaceably ushering in a new way of being – God’s Kingdom. Flags, territories, victories in battle, and all that do not mark God’s Kingdom; rather, it is marked out by the kind of love for all (family included) that requires a handing over of oneself in death for the good of the other.

I suppose that in every generation of the church, there is something of a challenge that disciples must count what the cost of following Jesus really is. For the early church, it meant persecution and death, and at times it meant living into the identity of a group of strange ragamuffins that no one understands. Through the centuries the church gained power, and to be faithful it has had to negotiate its way through being co-opted by the interest of nations, states, and the powerful elite. In the Civil Rights era of our own country, many disciples counted the cost by staking their claim for equality even if it meant what the inimitable John Lewis called getting into “good trouble.”

Today’s generation of disciples have been witnessing the rise of secularity, church decline, and DIY spirituality – much to the chagrin of pastors and parishioners alike. NYU business professor Scott Galloway in his book Post Corona, which he published in the middle of the pandemic, argues that every trend we saw prior to COVID has been exponentially boosted as a result of it: e-commerce, tele-health, higher-education changes, etc. I think the same can be said for secularity and church decline.

Now there will always be a church – but many will close. And some churches will thrive. But in our day, we face changes about the future of the church, and what we can come to expect about a culture some think is a “Christian one.” We could respond to these challenges by taking up ideological arms and enter into a so-called culture war – deluding ourselves into thinking that will “win the world” for Jesus. We could imagine that legislating our faith values will fix the woes of the world – it won’t. The narrative can still be spun that if schools allowed prayer, then there would be a lot less school shootings. Doubtful. We could happily march with crowds sharing stories about the “good ol’ days” and how, if we just returned to them, that’ll get the young folk back into the pews. Yes, millennials and Gen Z respond the same way to the methods of ministry that Gen X, Boomers, and all before them have. Right? If only, then; if only, then; if… _only.

But I hear Jesus say, “Count the cost of following me in this time and season. Beloved, stop trying to win. Just follow me, and do the next faithful thing! Reassess what is most important to you… take up your cross and follow me – you may not look like the winner, but you may transform the world through self-giving love.”

In reassessing what is most important to us, we may find that we have to walk away from our heritage that we hold so dear, the heritage that gives us privilege in order to share equality with others. Take up your cross, good Christian.

In revaluing the important values of our lives, we may find that we need to lessen our political and party passions. Research indicates in our ever-polarized world, that people want to go to church that is filled with like-minded voters. But what good does that do for the Body of Christ and for the world for which it ministers to? Take up your cross, good Christian.

In counting the cost, you may need to be like an old friend of mine. Years ago, I asked him to help lead the youth ministry of our church. At this point in his life, he was a church wallflower at best – and only marginally living up to the beliefs he had assented to in his baptism. When I asked for his help, he stared at me like a deer looking at headlights. It rocked him in his spirit. He took time to think and pray before he committed. A week later he told me he felt like he needed to become ready; he had to put some old things behind him, and it was his time to get single-mindedly focused about following the way of Christ.

He, good Christian, counted the cost and took up his cross. Do the same.