Context and “can”

This coming Sunday is the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time for Lectionary Cycle C. Take a moment to consider the sequence of recent Sunday gospels. After having critiqued host and guests alike at the human banquet of the times, the Sunday selection passes over the description and invitation to the heavenly banquet

Luke        Pericope                                  Sunday Year C Reading
14:1-14    Honor and Humility at Table        vv. 7-14 from 22nd Sunday
14:15-24  Invitation to the Great Banquet    passed over
14:25-33  The Cost of Discipleship              vv. 25-33 from 23rd Sunday (our gospel)
15:1-32    Parables of the Lost and Found   vv. 1-32 from 24th Sunday

In the skipped verses (Luke 14:15-24) regarding the invitation to the banquet, Jesus tells a parable about those who take a banquet invitation too lightly and because of their casual attitude lose their own right to a share at the table and are replaced by others. This echoes Jesus’ earlier lament over Jerusalem (13:31-35). There is an important connection between those verses and our reading. Jesus’ story of the great banquet introduces the possibility that ties to one’s possessions and family might bar, hinder or exclude one from enjoying the feast. Jesus lists those allegiances to family and possessions as impediments to authentic discipleship. Contra this cultural practice of familial allegiances, Jesus speaks of the necessity of a life transformed. These new practices must flow out of a transformed disposition reflecting new commitments, attitudes and new allegiances. That is, the conversion that characterizes genuine discipleship is itself generative, giving rise to new forms of being in the world.

One phrase that stands out in this gospel reading is: “cannot be my disciple.” (vv.26, 27, and 33). The word for “can” (or able; dynamai) used in the negative (cannot) generally carries with it the meaning of “not being able” to do something. That is, it refers to something that is impossible for one to do; e.g., Zechariah is unable to speak (Luke 1:20,22). He may want to speak, but he can’t. However, Luke also uses this phrase to refer to something the person is able to do but chooses not to do: the man who cannot get up and give his neighbor some bread (11:7) and the man who has just gotten married and cannot come to the great dinner to which he had been invited (14:20). In both cases it was possible for them to do the task, but they just didn’t want to do it.

How should the phrase be understood in our verses? On one hand, when the king invites people to the great banquet, they are able to come, but choose not to come. This interplay of human choice continues into our gospel. That is, what Jesus asks is within their ability: prioritize Jesus over family, carry one’s cross, set aside possessions that interfere with the mission. They can choose to do this or choose not to do it.

On the other hand, ou dynamai can refer to something that is impossible for the crowd to do. That is, it is impossible for humans to meet the demands of discipleship even if they wanted to choose it. A related word, dynatos is used in v.31b to refer to the ability of the king’s army to defeat the more numerous enemy. If the king believes that it is possible to defeat them, he chooses to go to battle. If he believes that it is impossible to defeat them in battle, he chooses a diplomatic way to peace — which would be dependent upon the more powerful king’s willingness not to destroy the inferior forces.

In addition, Luke has told us near the beginning of this gospel that “nothing will be impossible (adynateo) with God.” Later, in Luke, after Jesus makes impossible demands on a wealthy ruler, he is asked, “Who can (dynamai) be saved.” He answers, “What is impossible (adynatos) for man is possible (dynatos) for God” [18:26-27].


Image: Apologia Studios CC-BY-SA

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