The famous tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, who made a career in singing opera, is quoted as telling the following story from his youth:
“When I was a boy, my father, who was a baker, introduced me to the wonders of song. He urged me to work very hard to develop my voice. A professional tenor in my home town took me on as a student. I also enrolled in a teacher’s college. As graduation was nearing, I asked my father, ‘Shall I be a teacher or a singer?’
“’Luciano,’ my father replied, ‘if you try to sit on two chairs, you will fall between them. In life, you must choose. You can only sit in one chair.’
“’I chose one’, Pavarotti continued. ‘It took several years of study and frustration before I made my first professional appearance. It took another several years to reach the Metropolitan Opera. And now, I think, whether it’s laying bricks, writing a book—whatever we choose—we should give ourselves completely to it. Commitment—that’s the key. Choose one chair.’”
The words Jesus uses today is really his way of telling us much the same thing: we have to choose. “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.” These are hard words—hate our families? Hate even our own selves? These words have echoed through the centuries, leading to manifold abuses and misinterpretations along the way. These misinterpretations have distorted the core message–which is what, exactly??
Jesus is not talking about being emotionally at odds with our families, filled with animosity and bitterness. Language changes over time and words change as well. He is not telling us to hate anyone, he is making an emphatic point that we must make clear choices. Jesus is saying, as much as we might love our families and our own lives, what’s really important is to live for the full coming of the Reign of God. And sometimes, it is true, we allow human relationships to interfere with our higher calling, clinging to a girl or boyfriend when we know the relationship is not what God wants from us, living in a marriage where no one is fulfilled, when we are called to joyful service, not suffering in toxicity. That’s what Jesus means when he calls upon his followers to “hate” family and self—to love God and to manifest the Reign of God above all.
As Pavarotti says, we’ve got to “choose one chair”. We can’t waffle when it comes to what really matters in life, can’t remain indecisive and still hope to live a significant and meaningful life.
Jesus is placing himself within the Mosaic tradition here as evidenced in the book of Deuteronomy. Moses, knowing he is not going to survive to bring his people into the promised land, gives his final farewell before dying, and his message is the same: “Choose, people of God! Choose whom you will serve! Choose life, or choose death. Choose the God who has promised you countless blessings, and rescued you repeatedly, or choose false gods who will only give you chaos and destruction. “Choose one chair!”, we can hear Moses saying. “Choose life!”
When they hear these words from Moses, the children of Israel are at a crossroads, approaching a boundary that will change everything once they cross over it. God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt, led them through the wilderness, provided for them, disciplined the unfaithful ones, and repeated the ancient promise of the new land.
So here they are, at the boundary, looking ahead at their destiny. Their leader is not going to survive the journey into the land of promise. They are relieved to be leaving the wilderness, happy with their newly appointed leader, Joshua, but they are anxious about the unknown. They have only Moses’ words ringing in their ears as they begin the crossing: “Choose life. Choose life!”
The truth is, we are always on some kind of boundary, always on the horns of a dilemma, always at a crossroads. We experience change in our personal circumstances. A new academic year begins, a different career path is taken, we buy a new house, we meet someone new we think might actually be “the one” for us, we participate in the miracle of life by having a child. We also find ourselves facing chronic pain or illness, the painful ending of a relationship we thought was “the one”, the death of someone we loved so much, the ending of a long career and a move into retirement. Some changes are more welcome than others, but all of them are changes. All of them are boundaries. And, whether we cross the boundary willingly or resisting all the way, Moses and Jesus’ words challenge us: “Choose life!”
It’s not so simple, and yet it is the simplest thing in the world. It’s challenging to remain faithful to God. We know that. Our forebears’ experiences make that clear, and as the prophets continually reminded them, unfaithfulness and poor choices always bear bitter fruit. After all, we experience a powerful attraction to choose other than the way of life. For ancient Israel, the temptation was to follow the gods of their neighbors who promised fertility in a barren land, and practiced ritual prostitution in an effort to manipulate the gods into doing what they wanted.
We have our own false gods, the obvious ones of materialism and consumerism that drive our economy at the expense of others’ economies, but also the less obvious ones. We slavishly follow fashion, we engage in gossip and tearing each other down, we cling to our illusions and to relationships that are not of God, all the while trying to convince ourselves that we are, in fact, doing God’s will. We decide that if we dig in and stubbornly persist in the doing the wrong thing, God will relent and give his blessing. Our personal death toll mounts all around us, but still we resist crossing the boundary God has placed before us.
The choice is real, and we experience this tension again and again. It’s not always easy, but it’s always good; it’s the highest good for us in this moment, in this set of circumstances. Jesus not only teaches that this is true– he shows us. He takes the harder road—the lonely road that will lead to execution, even though he might have made the easier choice of just shutting his big mouth and trying to blend in with everyone else! The consequences of making the right decisions are sometimes dire, but the consequences of not following God’s call, of not choosing life, of not deciding here and now to move forward in faith, those consequences are far more detrimental. We are not immune to suffering (in case anyone hasn’t noticed!) and we weren’t promised an easy life. But we were promised God’s presence and grace and, as a bonus, a community of believers to support us.
There is always urgency in our choosing. We are always at the edge of a frontier, always at a crossing, always at the boundary between life and death, and the choice is always ours.
Theophane, an Orthodox monk and revered Abba, writes about this same challenge in his own life. “I had just one desire,” Theophane says, “to give myself completely to God. So I headed for the monastery. An old monk there asked me, ‘What is it that you want?’
“I said, ‘I just want to give myself to God.’
“I expected him to be gentle and fatherly, but he shouted at me, ‘NOW!’ I was stunned. He shouted again, ‘NOW!’ Then he reached for a club and came after me, brandishing his club and shouting, ‘NOW! NOW!
“That was years ago,” Theophane concludes. “He still follows me, wherever I go. Always with that stick, always with that ‘NOW!’”
Always with that now. Just like God says to us:“Live as my children—now! Live in my love—now! Follow me faithfully—now! Live in blessing and joy—now!”
Choose life. Choose life now! Now!”