“Last minute lectionary” is a series of short thoughts on the week’s narrative/Gospel lectionary reading.
Luke 14:25-33 (NIV)
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 their own life—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.
A few years ago the empty field across my house was converted into a functioning school in the two months between school terms. The land had been set aside for a school for more than a decade, but it was only when there were issues in our town’s biggest high school that the local council actually sprung into action. You can imagine the chaos.
This week’s reading reflects a similar scene. Jesus was at the height of his popularity – or notoriety, depending which sector of society you were from. The gospel author notes that Jesus addressed this speech and parable to a “large crowd.” People were curious; they flocked, they listened, they gawked. Wandering rabbis were quite common, but Jesus was much more well-known than most. And Jesus understood that many of them, while they liked his message and his miracles, wouldn’t become disciples. So he told them what isn’t exactly a best-seller message: being a disciple carries a significant cost. There isn’t anything slapdash about it; it isn’t a willy-nilly decision, to be undertaken lightly or abandoned easily.
I don’t think this is or should be a comfortable message to read or convey, and if it is, I dare say it’s because we’ve lapsed into law mentality and legalism, which just loves concepts like cost and pay. This reading should be understood in conjunction with the “lost” parables (in Luke 12:22-34, 13:10-17, 14:1-24, 15:1-31) and the “narrow door” parables (Luke 12:13-21, 12:35-58, Luke 13:1-9, 13:22-30). Perhaps what Jesus was attempting to convey was that the process of being found isn’t simply about being saved.
Jesus starts this address by telling the crowd that if people seek him but do not hate their family or aren’t prepared to take up their cross, they can’t be Jesus’ disciples. If we who are mostly Westernised in our way of thinking about individuality read this and blanch, I think the impact it had on Jesus’ original hearers would have been even greater. A large part of any individual’s identity in those times was found in their family. Jesus was not telling them to hate their family, nor was he telling them to “hate their family by comparison to their love for him”, which is the typical interpretation. Rather, Jesus was telling them to hate their self. The “possessions” to be given up (in v 33, although the NIV has it as “everything”) is their self-possession.
Perhaps it isn’t so curious that the two parables that follow are war metaphors. Surely the greatest war we wage is against prioritising our self above Jesus. In that sense, then, following Jesus requires a lot of intentionality, planning and commitment. Salvation is an act of pure grace on God’s part and one that we all have access to. But it also becomes the wellspring that inspires, guides and feeds our discipleship, as a way to return a love I don’t think we will ever lose – even if ultimately we do not pursue discipleship in earnest.
The uncomfortable truth is that discipleship is optional, but when it is, I don’t think grace has been fully understood. But then again, grace doesn’t have to be understood or indeed appreciated for it to be received. I think that’s this week’s challenge as far as sermon-prep is concerned: we are all sorely tempted to use words like “must”, as Prof. Malan Nel pointed out in a recent seminar. But imperatives should not be the foundation of our preaching or our faith, merely the result of it.
Blessings for your sermons and listeners,