The Cost of Discipleship

Luke 14:25-35

And [there was the time when] with many in the crowds that followed him he turned and said:
“If anyone comes to me and does not repudiate [hate] his father, mother, wife, children, brothers and sisters, indeed his own life, that person cannot be my disciple. [Moreover] whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
“For which one of you intending to build a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? What is it going to be? Will you just lay the groundwork and that’s it? In that case you will be unable to finish what you started and all you will be left with is the record of those who have witnessed this your failure who say, ‘This man began to build and was unable to finish it!’
“Or what king on his way to engage in battle with another king does not first reckon with his ten thousand having to meet the twenty thousand coming toward them? Will he not send off a negotiator to arrange a peace deal? In the same way he who does not bid farewell to all that he has cannot be my disciple.
“Salt is good, but if salt has lost its bite with what shall it be restored? It is no good for either the soil or the compost. It is simply thrown out.
“The one with ears should listen up!”

Again we are presented with sayings of Jesus that Luke tells us were uttered “along the way”. Much of what appears here (vv. 25-33) readily lends itself to our view that these statements need to be read in terms of Luke’s appreciation for how Jesus revealed himself and the work he had been sent to do. Could we say that part of the revelation of his coming among the people of Israel included the disclosure of Jesus’ own self-understanding  as he taught and healed, as he continued his journey from town to town on his way up to Jerusalem?

In this passage we have four or five distinct statements. The first three are clearly linked together and were uttered in relation to the significant crowds that were aligning themselves with him as his journey unfolded.

It is all about a “what do you think you are doing?” warning. “You want to be my disciple? Truly? Here’s what it will mean!”

It may well be that, with these words the Rabbi from Nazareth is passing on what has, then only recently, begun to dawn upon him about the consequences for those following him in his unremitting desire to “walk in the ways of the Lord”. We do no harm to Jesus’ ministry by recognizing that the wider implications of his obedience could only become apparent to him as he proceeded along the path on which he was called to walk. We have already noted how he came to appreciate his own familial ties in relation to the healing and teaching work he had before him (8:19-21). He did not suspend his work just because his mother and siblings wanted to have a word.

And now we read how he warned the moshpit of adherents, by deepening their appreciation for the way his ministry will provoke deep anxiety from any true disciple’s family.

If you follow me you will have to be prepared to utterly repudiate any other relationship that would – in whatever seemingly small and insignificant ways – erode your loyalty to me. There is no room here for anything less than total commitment.

Jesus is actually making a claim to being the only Lord of any disciple. This is a path that not only challenges family obligations and loyalties, it might mean serious disruption to taken-for-granted family networks. Presumably, the disciple will be following Jesus, walking with him, and it seems that Jesus was alerting his disciples to the very real possibility that the disciple’s kindred will not be pleased. He is saying that their displeasure – though obviously painful – is neither here nor there. Such adherence as Jesus calls forth requires familial relationships to be repudiated, hated.

The cost of discipleship is going to be extremely high. It requires one to take up a cross.
Your obligation to me, says Jesus, may well pull you in the opposite direction to your family – following me requires a preparedness to even engage in an utter repudiation of all the benefits of your family life.

I would like to think that we do not lessen the stringency of Jesus’ statement here if we were to add: “… if it comes to that,” although it is certainly a “tough saying” and Jesus clearly entertains no mitigation on the loyalty that is required if one is to serve him truly. I would also like to think that by giving such total allegiance to Israel’s Messiah we will learn in time that Jesus himself by no means hates a disciple’s parents or spouse, or siblings. Here we find a further elaboration of Jesus’ promise to his disciples that we have previously considered:

So go on in search of His Kingly domain and all these things will be added to you. Do not be afraid little flock [of my gathering]; the Father is well-delighted to endow His kingdom upon you (Luke 12:31-32).

Such total loyalty to Jesus means a confession that it is he who has given parents, spouse, siblings, children to the disciple. They are his to dispose of and they are to be honoured as his. “Coming to Jesus”, Jesus says, is a very singular affair, and the “hate” is not only linked to oneself, but to the cross you will also necessarily have to carry.

This is the best I can do with respect to the warning Jesus gave that unless a disciple coming to him is willing to hate his parents, wife, children, siblings even his/her own life then he or she might as well forget about being Jesus’ disciple. This “hate”, as Jesus expounds it, must be an appropriate issue for further discussion. How is Christian discipleship to manifest itself in marriage, family and family networks?

This is a total loyalty that is then elaborated by two examples – the building of a tower and the negotiation of peace terms with a rival monasrch and his superior army.

The first – sitting down before embarking upon any project to count the cost – warns the aspiring disciple against a following that simply “goes with the flow.” It is as if Jesus asks:

Do you have the heart for this? Can your ticker cope? If you don’t, stop and consider carefully what you have before you. Is all that you are doing merely preparing for embarrassment when your commitment runs out, when you run out of energy, when your resources are depleted? Are you truly committed to me for as long as it takes, or are you simply committed to saying you are committed because it is the “religiously correct” thing to say. You need to engage in a proper self-assessment? Are you trying to keep yourself committed perhaps by saying that you are committed?

The second example Jesus gives suggests an even more stringent circumstance.
What King marching out to battle against another King and his army … ?

Are we to hear this as Jesus’ suggestion that in confronting him and his call to discipleship we are like a King armed and ready for war? Is not this other King, therefore, Jesus himself? And is he not asking the erstwhile follower;
Are you truly willing to negotiate terms recognising that all the resources at your disposal are now going to be the effective booty of the One who conquers you?

Jesus’ answer to the erstwhile disciple is clearly, “Yes!” Wanting to follow Jesus is like going on to the field of battle with an inadequate army to do battle with him. To ask the question of whether one is willing to concede utterly depends upon whether one is prepared to assess the resources one has to engage this King in battle. So then it is a matter of answering Jesus’ question:

So are you willing to put yourself on my side, and are you willing to have all your resources handed over for me to dispose of them as I wish?
Unless you bid farewell to all your armaments, unless you go all out for unilateral disarmament on your side, unless you renounce ownership and sovereignty over everything, then this discipleship, this desire to be following me is simply not going to happen, you’re playing with it and it just cannot come to fulfillment.

The demands are clear enough. Devastatingly so. But then we have this aphorism about salt. How does this follow at this point in Luke’s narrative? Luke seems to be telling us that the large crowds that were travelling with Jesus (14:25) walked along with the customary wisdom that they were, Israelites all, God’s own people, “the salt of the earth.” The phrase is also used by Matthew (5:13) and Mark (9:50). Jesus takes this common term used by Israelites to designate their identity and suggests reflection upon it. They should ask themselves: are we like salt that has lost its savour? What is to be done then if this salt, which we claim to be, no longer tastes like salt? It’s worthless, thrown out. It’s not even compost!

The reference to salt is a call to self-examination. Listen up! If you can hear that, Jesus says, don’t only listen to what I am saying, but think about what you are truly claiming about yourselves. It is as if he is saying that those listening to him should be thinking about themselves as living parables and derive the wisdom therefrom.

Jesus’ parables are framed to encourage listeners to reflect upon their own thinking, their own attitudes. Here Jesus counsels listeners to listen with open ears to what it is that they are actually saying.

5th January 2017

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