On the Cost of Discipleship
Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?
When The Great War (first) broke out in 1914 the Canadian government began appealing for young men. They were needed as soldiers. Hundreds of thousands responded. Motivation for joining up varied. Some young men volunteered because they wanted to beat back the conflagration engulfing Europe. Others volunteered inasmuch as soldiering appealed to their sense of adventure. Some signed up in that they would have been ashamed to remain at home when friends and neighbours and colleagues were enlisting.
When Jesus sounded his call to discipleship women and men responded; Luke tells us that “large crowds were travelling with him” (Luke 14:25). People responded for all the reasons young men signed up to join the military. Some wanted to be part of God’s campaign to beat back, ultimately defeat, that evil one who was destroying human bodies and minds and spirits. Others, less profound, wanted adventure. And some were shamed into offering themselves when they saw friends and relatives signing on with Jesus.
There was, however, an important difference between the Canadian government’s recruiting of soldiers and our Lord’s recruiting of disciples: the Canadian government never attempted to impress upon its recruits what the cost of soldiering might be. Nowhere on the recruit poster could one find the sentence, even as a footnote, “Warning: soldiering may be dangerous to your health.” No government has ever announced the hardship, pain, mud and blood that’s inevitably part of war-time service. I suppose many presume this to be one of those things that goes without saying; war can cost you your life.
Jesus, on the other hand, always warned his recruits. “If all you want is adventure”, he cautioned, “there’s less painful adventure to be had elsewhere, elsehow.” If you take up following me unthinkingly, you won’t last two weeks.” As a matter of fact, Jesus everywhere insisted that discipleship entailed crossbearing, and crossbearing, metaphorically speaking, could turn into crossbearing literally at any moment. Jesus never covered up the cost involved in identifying oneself with him.
“The crowds were travelling with him”, writes Luke. Travelling with him where? Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Knowing what is ahead Jesus is clear with all these recruits. There is a cost in following him and followers ought to count the cost.
1. “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,” said our Lord to this crowd travelling with him. If Jesus had “handlers” who advised him on his public pronouncements this one would never had made it to the teleprompter or the final edition of a speech. It sounds harsh to us, even strange coming from his lips, telling followers that they had to “hate” to be his follower. After all Jesus would give his chief command to his disciples to love one another as he loved them. If he said to “hate” enemies we might concur; but family members? Now, we all have family members who are a little “out there,” so to speak, but hate them? It seem so, well, un-Jesus-like! If you had a “what-would-Jesus-do” bracelet, on hearing this pronouncement by Jesus, you might be inclined to throw it away.
Jesus does not mean psychological hate. Clearly his disciples concluded otherwise. They did not become a society of people whose common characteristic was marked by the poor treatment of relatives. The Apostle Paul’s admonition to husbands to “love their wives and Christ loves the church” as the outworking of Jesus’ teaching for domestic life also shows they never understood this statement by Jesus to be sanctioning psychological hatred.
Jesus is using a Semitism that the Jewish crowd he speaks to understands to mean to “love something less”. In the book of Genesis (29:31-33) we read the story of Jacob who had two wives (sisters) Rachel and Leah; in that Genesis text Leah says said is “hated” by her husband. Jacob was in-love with Rachel but never with Leah. In Proverbs 13:24 we read, “Those who spare the rod hate their child.” There are a number of other cases in the older testament where the word hate is used in this way to refer to love that is not as strong as love as other love.
This word in Hebrew also has the sense of “to leave aside”. Jesus is making reference to competing loyalties. There is only one of him for the place he is to occupy in the disciple’s life. Love for Jesus comes first and Jesus tells his followers there is a cost to be counted here. Yes, there are times when even family can distract or compete for the attention we need to be giving in service to our Lord. Do we encourage our children, for example, to consider a calling to serve Christ in the church or other related ministry or are we prone to push more lucrative profession? In our modern setting all kinds of things compete for our Sunday morning time slot—and sometimes family life is one of those things. Anything that takes Jesus’ rightful place in our lives as the highest priority is effectively to make it an idol. Yes, even family can be such an idol.
Let me be clear that love for Jesus lifts and orders all other loves. Having Jesus as our first and primary love never diminishes love for others. At the same time, or seen from another angle of vision, there is a cost to be calculated here. Some will resent your love for Jesus. Some will challenge you to choose between them and your service of Christ. Further, we need to admit that our love vacillates. The Apostle Peter professed great love and loyalty and denied Jesus when challenged. When Jesus later asked him if he loved him (agape) using the strongest word for love the best Peter could say was the he was fond of Jesus (philios). The wonder of that story was that Jesus’ love for us does not change though our love for him vacillates. In this text Jesus tells his followers the love that is to be primary in the kingdom is love for him.
2. So, as if it weren’t straining enough for Jesus to say that in the kingdom family is to be loved less (hated) he also adds, “yes, even life itself.” But doesn’t God love life in that he created it, blessed it, and gave his own life to redeem life? The answer is yes. Here Jesus is, I think, speaking in part about the tendency we have for self-love, self-preoccupation. The essence of love—God’s love—is self-forgetful, self-giving. Love of Jesus is even to be ahead of love for self.
There is also an echo of Psalm 63:3 in Jesus saying here. The Psalmist exclaims of God, “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.” Do we believe that Jesus’ love for us is “better than life” itself? There are martyrs who have testified to this truth; gratefully not every believer is called upon to make such sacrifice. Most of us cannot imagine what we might do if confronted with that actuality—to choose life or faith in Jesus.
Most of us, however, have sat with dying loved ones. Many have experienced that scene—family gathered in a palliative care room surrounding the loved one’s bed waiting for the inevitable. Is this not a moment when we cling to the truth that God’s steadfast love is better than life? “Getting old isn’t for sissies,” many seniors affirm. The Psalms (90:10) puts it this way: “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span* is only toil and trouble.” Indeed, O Lord, your steadfast love is better than life.
It is the love of God that endures forever; and to be loved by him is to have life eternal. The late Malcolm Muggeridge, wrote “I can say that I never knew what joy was like until I gave up pursuing happiness, or cared to live until I chose to die. For these two discoveries I am beholden to Jesus.”
3. To drive the point home this section in Luke’s gospel about counting the cost ends with Jesus saying, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Such a saying makes many people in North America gasp; we have much and seem ever driven to acquire more. Does Jesus really mean that we should divest ourselves of every asset and live hermit-like in life?
Again I point you to Jesus’ first followers; the people who lived in his world with him and heard him speak. We have noted already with the previous sayings these followers were not lead to be people marked by shabby treatment of relatives nor to promote self-loathing nor martyrdom for its own sake. So too here these followers did not understand Jesus to mean “have no worldly possessions.” Indeed they knew they did not live by bread alone; but also knew that without bread they did not live at all. The idea of giving up possessions does not mean sell and divest but to relinquish your hold, everything subordinated or turned over to Christ.
This saying by Jesus speaks to the same issue of loyalty that his statement from the Sermon on the Mount addresses: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth (Matthew 6:24).” There is a cost to living in the kingdom of God; we do not share the priorities of the kingdom of this world.
4. Having said all this about counting the cost I want to make something clear. The cost of discipleship isn’t the defining characteristic of discipleship. The word translated “cost” in our reading today is used only once in the entire New Testament. To be sure the same sentiment is expressed in other terms. Still the cost isn’t the defining aspect of discipleship; it is, however, one aspect. The New Testament has many glowing things to say about the nature of discipleship. But there is a cost, an aspect of discipleship concerning which the North American church is so often silent.
Discipleship exacts a price. Occasionally the price is paid dramatically, including the ultimate drama of martyrdom. Far more often the price is paid quietly. Consider the Sunday school teacher who week by week prepares and leads a group of children in learning; the choir member who prepares and leads our praise of God; the church committee chair person who prepares agenda and leads the committee in the work of the committee. There is a cost to all of this.
Consider other costs in following out Lord; we are going to uphold truthfulness when most of the people around us will lie for any reason at all and couldn’t care less in any case when their phoniness is exposed; we aren’t going to permit our fourteen year-old daughter to go camping with her boyfriend; we are going to continue speaking up on behalf of all whom our society deems expendable – the intellectually challenged, the mentally ill, the poor, even the voiceless, defenceless unborn – and continue to speak up on behalf of these people just because the image of God that they bear.
“The things that are dearest to us have cost us the most,” wrote essayist Michel de Montaigne. There is a truth to that; things that are easily acquired are often discounted. We produce the most when much is demanded.
It is clear from our text that the categorical claim Jesus makes on the believer’s life cannot be shared with anything or anyone else. But whose hands would you rather be in? Your insurer—“you’re in good hands with Allstate”?; how about the economy?; your economic advisor?; perhaps you prefer your government?; the health care system?; your family?; what about your own hands?
“Because, O Lord, your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.”