In our last essay we studied Luke 14:1-24. That study ended with the Parable of the Great Dinner, which Jesus told at a Pharisee’s house (vv. 15-24). In this essay we are studying 14:25-35, a segment that has a very general setting and has to do with the cost of discipleship. As you can see in verses 25-27, this segment took place in a different location and had a different audience. But Luke saw a connection of theme. In the parable of the Great Dinner, the invited guests made excuses and refused to attend the meal. For Jesus, their refusal symbolized a refusal to attend the end-time messianic banquet; and he applied the parable by saying that none of the originally invited ones would taste of his dinner, meaning they would not be saved. Those originally invited people obviously did not grasp the cost of discipleship. So Luke placed this segment on the cost of discipleship right after the parable in order to impress upon his readers the fact that discipleship is quite costly.
After leaving the Pharisee’s house, a rather large crowd was accompanying Jesus to Jerusalem when he turned to them and said, “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.” Wow! In Matthew’s parallel, which was given in a different context, Jesus doesn’t use the word “hate.” Rather he is quoted as saying, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt. 10:37-38). Thus in Matthew’s version, the point simply is that love for God must take priority over love for family.
But here in Luke, Jesus uses the word “hate”: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, etc.” That is a bit shocking at first glance. It’s one thing to put love of God ahead of love of family, but it seems to be something else altogether to hate one’s family. So we must get to the bottom of the meaning of that word.
One way that scholars deal with the word “hate” is to point out that the underlying Hebrew word often was used to mean, “to love less.” If that was Jesus’ intention when he used the word, then this version in Luke means basically the same thing as in Matthew. The word also was sometimes used to mean, “to leave aside,” or “abandon.” If that was what Jesus had in mind, then he was talking about leaving one’s family to follow Jesus. Either way, Jesus was not talking about psychologically hating our families.
Coming back to the crowd to whom Jesus made the statement, Jesus was well aware that most of the people in the crowd were not really committed to him. Some of them were curiosity seekers who were hoping to see a miracle. Others probably had heard that he miraculously fed people and were hoping to get a free meal. Still others were hoping he would be the one to overthrow the hated Romans. None of those reasons represented true discipleship. So Jesus gave this teaching on the cost of discipleship. One must be willing to give up one’s family, or even one’s life, to be a disciple. Obviously, we need to ask ourselves, “Are we willing to pay this price?”
Jesus added something else to this teaching. Not only must we be willing to abandon our family and give up our life to be a disciple, we also must be willing to bear our cross as we follow Jesus. The NRSV translates badly here when it translates “does not carry the cross.” The Greek clearly says, as the NIV translates, “does not carry his cross.” In other words each of us has a cross to carry as we follow Jesus. It is not Jesus’ cross, which is the cross. Simon of Cyrene literally did carry Jesus cross (Lk. 23:26). But we are not called to do that. We are called to bear our own crosses.
Now Jesus does not spell out what that means, but at the very least it means hardship that comes our way because of the ministry, or ministries, to which we have been called. I do not believe that it means our physical problems, our unappreciative in laws, or a cranky boss, and the like. There are certain things in life that are unpleasant, and we have to learn to put up with them. But those are not our crosses.
Our crosses have to do with Christ’s ministry in the world and our part in that ministry. I said that physical problems are not a cross. But if those physical problems are a result of our ministry for Christ, then they do constitute a cross to carry. I believe that persecution because of faith in Jesus is a cross. And I believe financial hardship that is due to our decision to follow Jesus is a cross. You may be able to think of other examples.
Now then, after giving this basic teaching on the cost of discipleship, in verses 28-35 Jesus gives three parables to illustrate the teaching: a man building a tower, a king fighting a war, and salt that loses its flavor.
The first illustration is that of a man building a tower. Jesus indicates that one who undertakes such a project will at the very beginning ascertain what the tower will cost and evaluate whether or not he has the money to complete it. Otherwise he will open himself to ridicule.
The second parable is similar to the first, and yet quite different. It is that of a king who is faced with a war against an opponent who has twice as large an army, 20,000 as opposed to his 10,000. Jesus suggests that such a king would consider whether or not he could win with half as many troops as the other king; and if not, he would send a delegation to work out terms of peace.
The two parables are similar in that they both emphasize counting the cost. Traditionally, interpreters have seen the parables as symbolic of the Christian life. Like the man desiring to build a tower and the king faced with a war, we must count the cost of discipleship so that we will not fail as disciples of Jesus, due to an unwillingness to pay the price. Christ wants us to succeed. Therefore he wants us to understand that we must sacrifice everything: our families, our possessions, and even our lives in order to be his disciple. And we also must be willing to carry our cross for his sake.
G. Campbell Morgan took a different view. He taught that the tower builder and the king represent Jesus rather than the Christian life. Thus Jesus is the one who must count the cost. He must decide whether or not we believers provide him with adequate material with which to build his Church and battle the enemy. We are not adequate material unless we are willing to pay the price and are completely committed. Morgan’s interpretation may appeal to you, but I prefer the traditional interpretation. And I’ll explain why in a moment.
Now then, having seen how the parables are similar, let’s now look at how they differ. The parables differ in that the second one about the king involves suing for peace with the enemy, which adds an element not present in the parable about building a tower. This is the main reason why I prefer the traditional interpretation of these parables. If the king represents Jesus, as Morgan says, that means that if we prove to be a weaker army, then Jesus would sue for peace with the enemy. I cannot accept that interpretation. In the traditional interpretation, we believers must realize that we are weak and that we need to sue for peace with God in order to become effective disciples.
Verse 33 is Jesus’ application: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Obviously, Jesus is using the word “possessions” here broadly. And from what we have just studied, Jesus includes literally everything in the term. We must give up our material possessions, which are on the surface of the term. But we also must give up our families in the sense of putting them in a secondary place in our affection. And we must give up our very lives in the sense that we dedicate them completely to Christ. There are no exceptions. In order to be a disciple of Jesus, we must give up everything.
The third parable closes out Jesus’ little discourse on the cost of discipleship: “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”
Mark and Matthew record similar sayings, but they are in totally different contexts. In Matthew, for example, it appears in the Sermon on the Mount, after Jesus declared that the disciples were the “salt of the earth.” Here in Luke, as we have just seen, Jesus spoke the parable as a third illustration of the cost of discipleship.
Salt was valuable in ancient times. Indeed salt sometimes was given to soldiers as part of their pay. Thus the term “salary” is related to the term “salt.” And that led to the expression, “He isn’t worth his salt.” Jesus says, “Salt is good.” Why is salt good?
First, it is a flavoring agent. Indeed that is its most common use. Salt also is a preservative. Mankind has used salt to preserve meat and fish for generations. Actually one can go to a more basic level of preservation. Salt is necessary for life. We would die if we didn’t have access to salt. Salt also has an antiseptic or healing quality. I suspect that many of you readers as children, when you had a sore throat, were given salt water with which to gargle?
Now you may aware of the fact that salt technically cannot lose its flavor. But that is true only of salt that is pure. In ancient Palestine, much of their salt was obtained by evaporation from the Dead Sea. That salt was not pure. Other substances present in the water contaminated the salt [carnallite, also known as gypsum]. The salt often was contaminated by fine soil as well. If enough of these substances were in the salt, it could lose its flavor, in which case it was useless and could only be thrown out.
To sum up, discipleship is serious business. It is a costly business, so we must count the cost. And it will cost us everything. We must put Christ ahead of our families, our possessions, and even our lives. And we must be salt to the world.