The Cost of Discipleship
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. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. … So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
A few years (2000) ago my wife and I were on vacation visiting Nova Scotia. We enjoy hiking. One afternoon we decided to go on a hike; we had a limited window of time so it needed to be a short hike. So we parked the car at the trail head and off we went. As circumstances would unfold, this hike turned out to be much longer and more rigorous than anticipated and we were ill prepared. We had carried no water, had not put on our best hiking footwear, and the map we had lacked much crucial detail. It was just going to be a short hike, after all.
Have you ever done something like that? You launched to do something and were ill-prepared for the actuality that unfolded? Both my wife and I know how to prepare for a hike. But that day we were so sure it was just going to be a quick walk in the woods. No need to agonize over which trail to take. Let’s park the car and get going. This is going to be easy.
1. Jesus said that if you want to be his follower (disciple) that it is important to count the cost. He knows his listeners are experienced at counting the cost when it comes to many of life’s undertakings. He illustrated his point with two stories of cost counting with which his hearers could easily identify. The same practical cost-counting considerations that were true for construction and waging war needed to be applied to this matter of being his disciple.
“Now large crowds were travelling with Jesus,” Luke tells us. This is the occasion of Jesus cost-counting message. I wonder if people thought that following Jesus was going to be “a quick walk in the woods.” Jesus’ popularity was peaking and many were joining the crowd travelling with him. It’s easy to join a crowd. Think about how easy it is to join the fan club of a sports team when they are winning. I will confess that my interest in Major League Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays is like this; I am not a fan of the game of baseball; but I am a fan of winning. I enjoy the bragging rights that goes with a winning Toronto team. Are people following Jesus because they like the bragging rights of “backing a winner”?
“Now large crowds were travelling with Jesus.” Underline the word “travelling” for a moment. So, where are they going? Travelling typically implies a destination. Luke has told us, earlier in his gospel, that “when the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:51) Jesus is travelling to Jerusalem for Passover. He knows what is going to happen to him there—he has told the disciples that he will be betrayed, killed, and on the third day rise again.
This is the context of his cost-counting sayings. Large crowds are on the road with him heading for Jerusalem—in Jesus all their Messianic hopes are brought to the surface. There are likely many in this crowd who will shout after Jesus on the day of triumphal entry into the city—“blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Jesus wants them to count the cost; wants them to realistically assess the nature of being his follower.
As we consider what Jesus said about the cost of discipleship let us be clear that this in only one aspect of discipleship. Jesus promises rest for the weary and those carrying heavy burdens. (Matthew 11:28) He also said that kingdom is like finding the one pearl that surpasses the value of all others. (Matthew 13:46) The cost of discipleship isn’t the defining aspect of discipleship; still it is one aspect.
The greater our love for Jesus and our loyalty to him; the less of a gap there is between him and us; the more clearly we are identified with him. And there is a cost to being identified with our Lord in a world hostile to him. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things, the figure of him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger.” And so loyalty to him will look strange to the world. Occasionally the price of discipleship is paid dramatically. Far more often the price is paid quietly in how we exercise priorities, in giving our time and finances to the church, in upholding truthfulness while many around us treat such truthfulness as optional. Discipleship exacts a price.
2. Our Lord’s description of the cost may sound harsh to many; things like “hating family” and “give up all your possessions” sounds rather extreme. “Carrying the cross” would have been heard as even more shocking to his hearers then because it brought to mind the despicable practise of crucifixion. Does Jesus really want his followers to hate their family and sell all possessions?
(a) 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. I have shared with you before the point that this saying comes from a Hebraism where the word hate means to love less. The story of Jacob and his two wives Leah and Rachel is a case in point where the idea is not that Leah was hated by Jacob, but loved less. (Genesis 29:30-31) Jesus saying here is not calling for psychological hate, but renunciation.
Remember too that Jesus reiterated the command to honour your father and mother and also commended the care of his mother to the Apostle John as he was dying. Now while his brother James does not become a follower until after the resurrection, James does become a key leader in the Jerusalem church—clearly Jesus has not alienated his siblings and does not “hate” them nor his mother.
Our Lord is pointing out that for the one who follows him all other loyalties and ties are subordinate to loyalty and devotion to him. While family values are important they are not necessarily the kingdom of heaven. I could imagine that for many who were travelling with Jesus to Jerusalem they were happy to join the throng because they were already heading that way; attaching to the throng following Jesus could be a benefit for them. Some see Christian faith in the same way. Jesus will support my agenda of success and happy family. Jesus wants followers to be clear that such is not always the case. Happy family relationships is never something our Lord disdains. At the same time his kingdom is not merely for the service of those relationships. Some make family the top loyalty of life; as precious as family ties are there is a tie even more precious—the one with our Saviour.
I will not speak for you but my own experience of family life is that there are estrangements that emerge that continue unresolved. For the person for whom family is everything such things crush the spirit. As a pastor, I see too how disease separates and plays havoc with these precious family ties. This word from our Lord about a greater loyalty to him is a word of hope; that these family crushing things are not the final word about us or family tie. In him a yet more glorious day awaits when all relationships will be resolved and perfected in him in that glorious future he has fashioned for us.
(b) Think with me now for a moment about cross bearing. “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” said our Lord. To be identified with Jesus Christ is to be identified with the crucified one. To be sure, only Jesus can carry his cross. Jesus is slandered, then put to death between two criminals at the city garbage dump. And of course he dies forsaken by his Father. Further, when Jesus is raised from the dead, he’s raised wounded (as the apostle John reminds us.) Ascended, seated at the right hand of the Father (i.e., declared the ruler of the entire creation), he suffers still (as the Newer Testament reminds us repeatedly.) In other words, to be identified with him in this world is not consider to be backing a winner.
Let us never forget that salvation comes via a cross and that all who want to experience the joy of that salvation walk under that symbol of death as a lifelong reminder of what matters and what does not and of the Only One who ever was so filled with truth and grace that he caused a light to shine in our darkness—a light that will never go out.
This idea of carrying our own cross is to live life dying to self. Put another way by the Psalmist, it is to live life convinced that “God’s steadfast love is better than life.” (Psalm 63:3) As Malcolm Muggeridge said of his faith in Jesus, “I never cared to live until I chose to die.” We see that it is our Lord’s self-forgetful, self-giving love that moves him towards Jerusalem. This message of cross bearing contradicts our world’s constant drum beat of self-fulfilment as the true source of happy living. Yet our Lord assures us that “those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:24)
(c) And now about possessions. “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” No doubt there were many in the crowd who saw Jesus as their chance for advancing themselves and their lot in life. To be on side with the Messiah was to be on the path to prosperity. Jesus makes clear that possessions are a problem if that is motivating their following.
Recall that our Lord was not against the meeting of our physical needs. In his sermon in the mount he declared, “Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Here, as he has on many occasions, he presses upon us the subtle allure of possessions. Our Lord calls for utmost allegiance and so we must relinquish possessions.
If we look at how the disciples lived their lives they did not understand Jesus to mean that Christians should own nothing but that nothing should own them except our Lord. The Apostle Paul said he knew what it was to be in plenty and impoverished. Paul wrote a letter to Philemon who was a wealthy man who owned the home in which the church met. Paul does not instruct him to give up ownership of the property. He does remind him of whose possession we are—our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
3. As we have been thinking about the cost aspect of discipleship it should be noted that everything in life exacts a price. Every choice about a direction to go has its price to be paid. All decisions and non-decisions commit us to a course of life that has its costs. This is to say that the cause of following Jesus isn’t the only thing that has costs. It the nature of the costs that are particular to following Jesus. Some may think that to live life going with the flow doesn’t cost anything, but it does. I think of the Psalm 77 where the Psalmist saw in his heart that he was envious of the prosperity of the wicked—they had no pain and their bodies were sound and sleek, he said. Why is the way of following God so difficult, he wondered? It was when he went into the sanctuary of God and perceived the end of wickedness that he knew it was good to be near God.
I find myself increasingly not at home in the direction of Western culture where freedom is now understood as the freedom an individual has to believe, do and choose whatever she wants. The liberalism of Western culture has finally unravelled itself after a long historical process from the Christian culture that bequeathed its notions of freedom and individual human dignity. There is a cost to such direction
4. Sometime we hear Jesus’ cost pronouncements and think that we could never achieve them. Some wonder if there are two levels of follower; disciples who are in the upper echelon and then the rest of us stumbling along. First, let us note, that Jesus is not giving us a measurement scale for how to be a disciple. He is describing the nature of walking in company with him—the one who the world despises. Still, there is an “all or none” sense; he is Lord of all and does not share that place with anything else.
I also note that Jesus’s disciples all deserted him when he came to the cross. They denied and doubted him. This is not to say that I take solace about my faltering discipleship because they stumbled. It is to note that our Lord does not abandon us even in the face of this faltering. Our Lord’s grip on us is always stronger than our strongest grip on him.
One of the things I find in coming again to this text is that I need reminding about the nature of being his disciple. Have I put other lesser loyalties ahead of my loyalty to him? And I again see that I am too much for myself; far too ready to set the cross aside and need reminding of my Lord’s self-forgetfulness for my sake. Further to be reminded that possessions have no lasting value—to hold them loosely; strengthen my grip of the Saviour.
Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.