The Cost of Being a Disciple
25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 "If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even life itself—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
28 "Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won't you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? 29 For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, 30 saying, 'This person began to build and wasn't able to finish.'
31 "Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won't he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. 33 In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
34 "Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? 35 It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out.
"Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear."
One of the most coveted positions in my high school was a spot on the boy’s varsity basketball team. It seemed like every boy on our side of town grew up wanting and hoping to be a Cougar basketball player one day and play for the legendary Coach Suiter. The team, until just recently, was consistently good and the games were incredibly well attended for high school games. One of the problems that came along with that, though, was that an enormous number of the boys would go out for the team every year. Oh sure, there were a lot of people who tried out for the team that were never going to be good enough to play but there were certainly many more guys that were good enough to make the team than there were actual spots available on the varsity team. So, what was a coach to do? Coach Suiter’s solution was to run. He spent the first week or so of try-outs for the basketball team having the guys do almost exclusively running drills and repetitions. The running was intense and seemed non-stop for those trying out and it had its desired effect. Those who weren’t real serious about playing on the team or were only partially committed quit. The try-outs were so rigorous that they had the effect of thinning out the ranks a great deal. All of this running, the coaches would promise, was just a taste of things to come. It would get worse as the team was formed and the season wore on. Anyone who wanted to continue with the try-outs had better add up the cost and make sure they were truly committed right then and there. Most weren’t but the few who were knew what they were getting into and were ready.
In the previous passages in Luke, Jesus has radically and controversially thrown open the doors of access to the kingdom of God. It wasn’t just for the right people but it was the fulfillment of the promise that God had given to Abraham of a family of his descendants that would consist of all nations. All nations of the world, God told Abraham, would be blessed through his descendant, and that time had now come. But with a message like that, there is a risk that people begin to confuse the universality of the access with the challenge of the task. The time was soon coming when God’s family would be thrown open to anyone but they should not make the mistake of thinking this would be easy. The road was dangerous and demanding and people would need to seriously add up the cost before they committed. Most wouldn’t, but those who did would need to be ready for what they were entering into.
We have already seen, because of the immediacy of the mission that Jesus is on, that many of the passages in Luke since Jesus set out for Jerusalem have Israel and her response to Jesus’ kingdom message as the primary object of Jesus’ teaching. Now though, we are told that, rather than speaking to a small group of his disciples or a specific group of Jewish religious leaders and influence-makers, Jesus has turned his attention to the large crowds that were traveling with him and following him. Although we must still consider that Jesus is on his mission to Jerusalem, the fact that he is addressing large crowds indicates that his words here are a little more directly universal in their scope as they apply to the heart of the nature of being a disciple of Jesus anywhere at any time.
Jesus begins right away by laying out the demands of what it will really mean to follow him. To truly come to Jesus one must hate their father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, and yes, even their own life. This sounds, at the surface, quite harsh and even at odds with Jesus’ message of love and peace. When understood in context, though, it makes perfect sense. Jesus did, after all, say that he came not to bring peace to families but that his message would divide family members (Luke 12:51-53). This statement was part of Jesus’ systematic redefinition of family. He was brining about a new family that would replace the normal concept of family. This was the promised family that God had declared to Abraham.
But was Jesus seriously calling people to hate their families and their own lives? It is one thing to say that he was redefining family in his call for people to follow him, but to hate? Really? Many commentators have puzzled over this section over the years and concluded that Jesus was really saying that our love for Jesus must be so great that it makes our affection for our families look like hate. But, quite frankly, I don’t believe that or many similar solutions to this “hate” problem to be the answer.
The simple answer, I believe, is found in Malachi 1:2-3 where we find these words, “’I have loved you,’ says the LORD. But you ask, 'How have you loved us? Was not Esau Jacob's brother?’ declares the LORD. ‘Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his hill country into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals." The passage goes on to make clear that when God spoke of Esau he spoke of him representatively for the people of Edom and he did likewise in speaking of Jacob as Judah’s representative. The language used was a seemingly common figure of speech that was used in reference to inheritance and the covenant. God was saying that he had “hated” or “rejected” Esau and his descendants as the people of his covenant promises. They had been severed or cut-off and would not be his people, but he had chosen Jacob’s descendants as the ones that he would love.
This was the language that Jesus was using here and his point was sharp. They must reject their family heritage as the marker that they were automatically God’s people. They must reject that concept of family and embrace Jesus’ new family as the boundary marker for God’s people. They must reject their belief and confidence that as the physical descendants of Israel they were automatically part of God’s family of free people (see John 8:31-58 where Jesus has this precise argument with a crowd of Jews). This would have been particularly demanding in a culture where loyalty to family was considered of the highest importance and your identity as a member of your Jewish family brought you identity, security, comfort, and your status as part of God’s people. That must all be surrendered, said Jesus to embrace his new family.
Following Jesus would demand a rejection of everything else as a means to identify themselves as God’s people, including their own lives (see Philippians 3:1-11 where Paul describes this exact realization in his own life). Following Jesus means the realization that we have to pick up and carry our own cross. We often reduce the meaning of that statement to simply referring to our need to sacrifice our own desires for the sake of Jesus but it is actually much richer and more demanding than that. When we talk of dying on a cross these days we tend to think of the pain and suffering of it, but for the people of Jesus’ day, the shame and stigma of dying on a cross was much more significant. The cross was Rome’s way of saying “we completely control you and we will put you to death on our terms.” To carry your cross, then, meant to die to self and to give complete control of one’s life up. It meant to recognize that you were about to surrender everything about your identity and self and embrace only the life of Christ and his new family. It meant that you were committing to no longer be true to the self of your own will but to embrace a new “you” that would begin the process of doing God’s will and turning complete control of your life over to God.
So now that they saw the true demands of following Jesus they had better carefully consider making that choice. Before building a tower it would be wise to sit down and consider whether you really were able to finish the construction. In a like manner, if you had a small army and knew that a bigger one was making its way towards you, you had better carefully consider the outcome before you make the potentially fatal decision to oppose that army rather than trying to make peace.
On a national level, these examples would have probably struck home with the nation of Israel in an obvious way. As Jesus spoke of considering whether it was worth finishing a large building project and the specter of a large army making its way towards you bent on destruction, it likely brought to mind the great construction project on the Temple that had been going on for over forty years as well as the national fervor to throw off Roman impression. Jesus was apparently challenging them on both accounts. Building a physical Temple and going to war with Rome was not going to bring back the presence of God as they hoped. If they wanted to be united with the presence of God and truly be his people then they needed to weigh out the reality that it was going to cost them a complete self-denial and a willingness to carry their cross of shame and rejection and willingly march to their own death (which for those who were deciding to follow Jesus right then and there it would have been a very real possibility to literally die for doing so).
Israel was formed by God to be his people through whom the Messiah would come. They were to show people what it looked like to be God’s people and be the salt of the earth. But if they failed to do that what good would they be? Failing to carefully consider what it meant to follow Jesus and making the right choice would mean a complete loss of purpose for the nation of Israel. But it would be an equal tragedy for any human being who was made with the purpose of being God’s image bearers. If we cling to our own lives then we are unable to bear Gods’ image, unable to be the salt of the earth that he want his people to be.
For most people today, following Jesus does not mean the same sort of rejection of family and identity that it was for the people of his day. Yet, we tend to find our security, comfort, identity, and even connection to God in our own individual selves. That is the challenge for most of us. Have you truly rejected your own self and autonomy to follow Jesus and be part of his family?