Lots of television ads sell products by associating them with images and music that stir tender emotions.
Take for instance this Subaru commercial:
A young man pulls his Subaru to a stop in the woods, opens the door, and a chocolate lab puppy bounces out.
Time passes. The same Subaru rolls up to a cabin in the woods. Looking into the front seat we see a slightly older version of the man kissing his spouse. The young adult brown lab looks over their shoulder from the back seat.
More time passes. The same Subaru—luggage carrier now mounted on the top—delivers the couple and their toddler to their familiar wooded retreat. The same, yet more mature man opens the back hatch and out jumps the chocolate lab, his face now white with age.
With sentimental music playing in the background, a narrator says, “It’s not every day you find a companion as loyal as a Subaru. Love. It’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru.”
The idea is that we’ll buy a life that we wish we had or that we want others to think that we have. The advertisers never mention the sticker price, to say nothing of the operating costs, the maintenance costs, or the cost of insurance coverage.
A Subaru might be a terrific bargain on all these counts. But the automaker’s executives figure that talk about the cost of the car won’t sell people on their product.
And even when car commercials push cost to attract buyers, they’re telling you how much money you’ll save. They want to make any price look so low that it’s almost a steal.
Apparently Jesus missed that day in Yeshiva when the rabbi discussed marketing. Jesus not only talks about the cost of following him, he does so in the starkest possible terms.
“Being one of my followers is unimaginably expensive,” he says. “It can cost you your boat, your lake house, your car, your LSU season tickets, and that necklace handed down from your great, great grandmother.”
“And that’s not the half of it,” he says, “Following me can wreck your reputation at work, bring you grief from your in-laws, irritate your siblings, disappoint your parents, perplex your spouse, and drive your kids to spend a lot of time at that annoyingly fun neighbor’s house.”
It’s almost as if Jesus isn’t trying very hard to sell himself. And strictly speaking, Jesus isn’t trying to sell anybody anything.
On the contrary, Jesus offers to give us a life. A life transformed by love to be a conduit of love. But before we take on a love-saturated, love-imparting life, Jesus wants us to be clear about what a life like this will really look like. What it will cost us.
Casting about for an image to symbolize the love he has in mind, Jesus says nothing about moonbeams, rainbows, and valentine hearts. He mentions the cross. And he goes on to say that each of his followers will bear a cross.
What he means by cross-bearing has been obscured by the common phrase, “Everybody has a cross to bear.” When people say this, they are usually referring to some persistent pain or chronic illness or maybe a burdensome family member. That’s not at all what Jesus meant.
As an expression of and a response to God’s love, Jesus gives his life to heal the world. Most people think that the world could use some healing. The problem comes in how they think about it.
It is true that every individual soul needs Christ’s healing touch. We each have plenty of room to grow in forgiveness and compassion, generosity and humility. And let me tell you, personal spiritual growth involves some seriously painful stretching. But that’s not really the cross-bearing that Jesus has in mind.
To be sure, following Jesus involves learning new spiritual practices and spiritual habits, but it also means striving for justice. Jesus has come to displace the Empires of this world—Empires like Egypt and Babylon and Persia and Rome and their contemporary counterparts—with the Kingdom of God.
Empires secure a place of comfort and privilege for a few while consigning a majority to struggle for even basic human needs. In an Empire, it can be hard to tell the police force from the military. Some citizens are treated like the enemy. And Empires seem always to be at war in some foreign place.
Luke intentionally portrays Jesus’ work as a great reversal. Jesus came to turn things upside down. The first will be last and the last will be first.
Before he was even born, his mother Mary sang this song:
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53)
In the Kingdom of God, everyone is equal. No one is better than anyone else, because everyone derives their infinite worth from the unwavering love of our Redeemer.
This sounds like a no-lose proposition. Unless, of course, you believe that your worth derives from occupying a loftier place in the political, social, and economic order than someone else. In that case, you’ll mistakenly believe that elevating the downcast will diminish you. You lose when they gain.
This is Empire logic. And this is where the cross enters the story. The cross is how Caesar and Pharaoh and the Fuhrer and Oligarchs react to the love that heals the world. Empires ancient and modern seek any means available to stifle that love. To discredit it. To annihilate it.
You may be sent to a gulag, or mocked on social media. Punched at a political rally, jailed for a peaceful protest, or shoved onto a dead end career track. Maybe you’ll lose your vote, or you’ll just get scratched off a lot of dinner party lists.
If Christ’s love courses through our veins, his cross will press hard upon our backs. But we persevere. The powers and principalities may believe that we are turning the world upside down. But Christ’s own resurrection assures us that through us he is turning the world rightside up.