< September 05, 2010 >

Commentary on Luke 14:25-33

 

We live in a market driven society, so it is not surprising that we feel the urge to "sell" Christianity in the marketplace of competing ideas and ways of life.

Yet, when Christian mission is shaped toward the "sell" mentality, it more often than not becomes a "low-cost" and "low-risk" commodity.1  How else will we persuade others to receive the faith, if not by coming in with a lower or better offer?

But is the Christian faith really a low-cost, low-risk endeavor? The lectionary text for this week, Luke 14:25-33, offers a challenge to a market driven approach to Christian mission. The text begins with two discipleship sayings that require absolute allegiance to Jesus (14:25-27). Then Jesus provides two brief stories or parables to illustrate the importance of "counting the cost" and giving up all for Jesus (14:28-33).

Jesus' first discipleship saying is framed in stark language: "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" (14:25). This saying fits thematically with Luke 12:51-53, where Jesus warns of families being divided over his message. Because Jesus in his person and message requires those who would follow him to answer the ultimate allegiance question, it is not surprising that he may inherently bring family strife.

The language of this particular saying, however, raises concern for many. Does Jesus really call us to hate our biological families and our very lives? Two observations are helpful in this regard. First, Jesus is using hyperbolic language here as he does frequently in his teachings (e.g., Matthew 18:8-9). This becomes clear when we compare this saying in Luke with its parallel in Matthew (10:37): "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." Matthew, drawing on the same Jesus tradition as Luke, seems to have interpreted the more stark language of "hate" to refer to primary allegiance. For Matthew, this saying indicates that our primary allegiance must be to Jesus rather than to family.

A second helpful observation: the use of "hate" in Luke might reflect an idiom that comes from Hebrew. In Genesis 29:30-31, we hear that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah and that Leah was "hated" by Jacob. A similar use of the Hebrew word for "hate" occurs in Deuteronomy 21:15-17 where it is also clear that the issue is one of preference or allegiance.2  This coheres with what we have seen in Luke and Matthew. Jesus is not calling his followers to hate their families in terms of emotional response; instead, he calls for undivided loyalty to himself above family loyalties.

The next saying emphasizes the same point about loyalty. Discipleship is defined by following Jesus and "carrying the cross." This phrase indicates that giving up self interest and competing loyalties are central to discipleship. Neither of these sayings of Jesus lend themselves to an "easy believism" or a "low-cost" form of faith. Instead, they stress the high cost of following Jesus.

The two brief parables that follow illustrate this cost by suggesting two scenarios. The first envisions a landowner building a tower, either for storing produce or guarding land and animals (14:28-30). If the landowner has not estimated how much the tower will cost, it is possible that the project will remain unfinished due to lack of funds. The end result will be ridicule from all who see the unfinished structure.

The second story is about a king who assesses the number of his troops in light of the greater number that his enemy possesses (14:31-32). If he cannot win with the number of soldiers he has, the only wise course will be to negotiate with his enemy long before they meet in battle. Jesus uses these two stories to illustrate the necessity of "counting the cost" of discipleship. Jesus extols a commitment to finishing the discipleship journey once begun or not beginning it at all. Following Jesus is an all or nothing proposition. The concluding summary makes the connections clear: "none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions" (14:33; for this theme see Luke 12).

In this passage, Luke's Jesus calls people to a kind of discipleship that is not cheap (akin to Bonhoeffer's aversion toward "cheap grace"), not easy, and not to be entered into without deep consideration of the consequences and costs. This passage speaks to the importance of loyalty and allegiance to Jesus over all other competing loyalties, including family, self-interest, and possessions.

While emphases in the earlier part of Luke 14 on the redemption and freedom that Jesus brings and the inclusive nature of God's kingdom are assumed in this last part of the chapter, those inclusive and redemptive themes should not dull our sense that here in 14:28-33 are some difficult sayings of Jesus. We will always prefer preaching and teaching about God's grace, that is, God's own covenant loyalty to redeem and save, but we ought not neglect preaching about the covenant loyalty that is expected from us in return. Salvation in Jesus is not merely a transaction. It is, at heart, a covenantal relationship. And no relationship lasts without loyal commitments and actions. Because the one who redeems us also calls us into costly discipleship, Jesus' command to "Follow me" is both gift and demand.



1This is Michael Knowles' language in "Everyone Who Hears These Words of Mine," in The Challenge of Jesus' Parables, ed. R. Longenecker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) 295.
2Robert H. Stein, The Method and Message of Jesus' Teachings, rev. ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994) 8-9.