Count the Cost
Count the Cost
A week or two ago I was reminded of a game I’d long since forgotten: Oregon Trail. It was the first computer game I ever played and I played it on the Apple II computer that was donated to my elementary school back in the 1970s. Apparently you can now play it on the Internet. Back then it was a primitive educational game aimed at giving kids some idea of the perils of the Oregon Trail. Our lesson today from Luke 14:25-35 is about counting the cost of discipleship and reminded me again of the computer game. For folks like me who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s Oregon Trail’s “You have died…” screen become a joke and cliché, because everyone died. I never made it to Oregon. First my digital kids died, then my digital wife, and finally I died: dysentery, typhoid, Indians, drowning, starvation...all sorts of ways to die and in that it did give us a sense of what it cost people to make that long journey 150 or more years ago.
Last year we visited several spots along the Oregon Trail in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon. It was still a long way from the Willamette Valley and the end of the Trail, but by the time they got there the pioneers had learned something of the cost. Many died before they got that far. When they did get that far, their wagons were much lighter. Pioneers often left Missouri with wagons full of furniture and family heirlooms, but usually somewhere in the eastern Rockies all but the necessities were dumped along the side of the Trail. They arrived at the destination having given up everything, but they did it for what they hoped would be a new and better life.
My family moved to Oregon in a U-Haul and a station-wagon, but I think of my Great-Great-Grandfather, Atone Perreira. He was a poor farmer on the island of Pico in the Azores. At the time pioneers were travelling the Oregon Trail, Antone left his family and farm to hitch a lift on a whaling ship headed to Massachusetts. It was dangerous. He probably had to swim out to a ship at night because of Portuguese restrictions on emigration. His three older brothers had left Pico when he was a little boy, trying to get to Rio. All three of them had died en-route. And it meant leaving everything—not just the land he owned, but his family, with whom he would never have contact again. It was a costly decision, but he was hoping for a better life.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus offers us life—and it’s a life far better than anything that awaited immigrants to the New World or in Oregon. Jesus offers us forgiveness of sin, reconciliation with God, and restoration to the kingdom of God. Our sin bars us from the tree of life, but through Jesus we have a promise of one day eating from it again and living forever. But friends, Jesus calls us to count the cost. To take hold of new and everlasting life, we have to let go of our old life and everything about it. And that’s a challenge. The promise of life sounds good to everyone, but letting go of what we have now in order to lay hold of Jesus and the future hope he offers—that’s not always so easy. And so many of us tend to sit on the fence. We grab hold of Jesus with one hand, while still holding onto our old life with the other. We think good thoughts about Jesus, we try to live better and more moral lives, we come to Church—at least when it doesn’t conflict with other things—maybe we give a little money to church and to good causes, we pray a little and we read our Bibles a little, and we think that’s enough. But this is what so many of the people around Jesus were doing two thousand years ago. They ate and partied with him. They listened to his teaching and nodded in their heads in agreement at the things he said. They tried to be a little more moral. But they never really understood the true cost of discipleship. And this is what Jesus gets at in our lesson. Look at verses 25-26:
Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.
All of these people are following Jesus. Some of them might just have been curious onlookers, but most of them were, no doubt, excited to be following Jesus. He claimed to be the Messiah. He said he was on his way to Jerusalem. Even if he didn’t match up with their expectations, all of this meant one thing: the Lord was coming to vindicate his people and to crush their enemies. The Son of David was going to take his throne and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity. They were excited to be following the King in his victory march to the throne.
That all seems good, but Jesus stops and turns to the crowd following him and gives them a warning or maybe even a rebuke: “Unless you hate your mother and father and your whole family—even yourself—stop following me!” Lest Jesus’ talk about “hating” father and mother get us into trouble, let me clarify what he’s saying and what he’s not saying. He’s not calling on the people to disobey the commandment to honour father and mother. George Caird writes, “The semitic way of saying ‘I prefer this to that’ is ‘I like this and hate that’. Thus for the followers of Jesus, to hate their families meant giving the family second place in their affections. Ties of kinship must not be allowed to interfere with their absolute commitment to the kingdom.”
What Jesus is really getting at is their core identity as the people of God. As I’ve said before, family was everything for Jews—not just father and mother, but their status as the biological heirs and children of Abraham. To be a Jew, to be an Israelite, was to be part of God’s people, part of God’s kingdom, and to look forward to his blessings. To be a Jew was to have a guaranteed seat at the great banquet that was to come on the Day of the Lord. Or so they thought. But all along Jesus has been calling his disciples to a new identity. Israel had failed. She was happy to receive God’s blessings, but she had lost sight of her calling to share those blessings with the world. She had put her light under a basket, kept it to herself, and turned it into something used to condemn the nations rather than to call them out of darkness. And so Jesus has come to take up Israel’s mission and to bring it to completion. He’s become Israel himself and anyone seeking to be part of Israel—part of God’s kingdom and part of God’s people—must give up their old attachments to the biological family of Abraham and instead lay hold of Jesus. To take hold of Jesus is to become part of the new family and the new Israel that the Lord is establishing.
And it’s not just a matter of following the king to his throne and enjoying his blessings. To be a disciple means to give up everything, just as Jesus has. To be a disciple means to take the path of suffering and death. Most of these people weren’t ready to do that. They weren’t even expecting it. People today still struggle with this: they want the blessings of the kingdom, but they aren’t ready to count the true cost of discipleship—they aren’t ready to really let go of everything that they might lay hold of Jesus with both hands. And so Jesus goes on in verse 27:
Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
Again, this is a strong rebuke. Everyone had seen criminals carrying their heavy crosses as they were driven by Roman soldiers to their own crucifixions. It was the most humiliating death the Romans could mete out and not only that, but the most cruel and painful too. It was the polar opposite of what these excited people expected of the Messiah. He was on his way to take his throne, but now he tells them that they can’t be his disciples—they can’t follow him—unless they’re willing to suffer the most humiliating and painful death imaginable. They were following him and anticipating a party, but Jesus is telling them that they need to expect and even look forward to suffering.
Jesus says what we in the Church are often too afraid to say. All too often we’re so obsessed with numbers that we’re afraid to call on new Christians to count the cost of following Jesus. We throw evangelistic pitches that promise God’s blessings, but we neglect the part about discipleship requiring our all. We promise blessings without calling people to repentance. We promise blessings without calling people to holiness. We promise blessings and neglect to mention Jesus’ promise of persecution and suffering. And because we pitch the Good News to new Christians this way, we end up with old Christians who still don’t fully grasp the real cost of discipleship. And the frightening thing and the thing that ought to make us stop and think is that fact that Jesus says that unless we’re willing to forsake all and unless we’re willing to follow his example as he takes up his cross, we cannot be his disciples. If we’re not willing to give up our lives and follow him, even in suffering and death, friends, we’re deceiving ourselves when we call ourselves Christians.
It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of it all. At one point it was easy to be a Christian because it was the cultural thing to do. That’s not so much the case anymore, but we can still follow the crowd with Jesus for the wrong reasons. We’re still just as prone to following him so long as it makes us feel good or so long as God is putting good things in our laps, but when the suffering comes, when the persecution comes, our excitement sputters out. To follow Jesus all the way requires something more. It requires counting the cost. Brothers and sisters, we live in an extremely wealthy society and I think our biggest obstacle is our material prosperity: our money and all of our “stuff”. Jesus’ warning about the difficulty of rich people entering the kingdom of heaven—that it’s like trying to get a camel through the eye of a needle—is something we especially need to hear. We hold family ties much more loosely than people did in Jesus’ day. But we’re immensely richer—even our poor—and we hold onto our possessions for security the way Jews held tightly to their family. We need to hear Jesus’ warning. If we aren’t willing to let go of it all and simply trust Jesus, even if he leads us through suffering, we are not worthy to be his disciples.
Jesus goes on to give two examples. Look at verses 28-30:
For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’
Jesus could be talking about any kind of tower. If you’re going to start a major building project, you’ve got to count the cost—you’ve got to figure out how much it’s going to cost and then make a commitment to following through. If you don’t you’ll end up being mocked as a fool. But Jesus almost certainly isn’t talking about any building project. We’ve seen how, over and over, Jesus uses thinly veiled parables to expose the foolishness of the Jews of his day in trusting in their heritage or in their land or even in their religious observances. The biggest building project of the day was the rebuilding and refurbishing of the temple by Herod the Great. As Jesus was speaking Herod’s son was continuing the project. It was an incredibly costly building project and Jesus exposes it as a complete waste. In 13:35 he had declared: “your house is forsaken”. The Lord was no longer present in the temple. He hadn’t been since before the Exile. And Herod’s project would never be completed. In another forty years the Romans would tear the temple down, stone by stone. To trust in the temple and the corrupt religious system operating out of it was foolish—and yet that’s where the crowds placed their spiritual trust.
Just as Jesus is establishing a new family centred in his person, he’s also establishing a new temple. Herod’s temple was a grand edifice of cedar, stone, gold, and bronze, but God was nowhere to be found there. In contrast, Jesus’ temple—as the writer of Hebrews puts it, a temple not made with hands —is filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit. To be in the presence of God is to be united with Jesus. The people need to let go of the temple and everything associated with it and instead, in faith, lay hold of Jesus.
In the same way they need to let go of all their false ideas about the kingdom and about how it is to come. Jesus gives a second example:
Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. (Luke 14:31-32)
Many of the people following Jesus in the crowd were itching for a fight with the Romans. In their thinking, the kingdom of God was about the parcel of land that had been promised to Abraham and his descendants and their first priority was to get the Romans out of it. We see almost exactly the same mindset in modern-day Israel. Attachment to that piece of land is so important and so tied to identity and security that Israel has shown total disregard of her covenant obligations in order to hold on with violence to that one covenant promise of land. And yet Jesus has been pointing to the Lord’s promise to Abraham being fulfilled in him. Just as the family making up the people of God is now to be found through union with Jesus and just as the temple and the presence of God are to be found through union with Jesus, so the Lord’s promise of the land is being both fulfilled and broadened through Jesus. David was lord of Palestine; the Son of David is Lord of the whole earth.
And so Jesus again gives a thinly veiled warning to the crowd and especially to those who were so anxious to go to war with Rome. This isn’t what the kingdom of God is about. The temple was destroyed forty years later, but it was destroyed because itching for a fight finally turned into actual fighting and the Roman’s utterly crushed the Jewish rebels and destroyed both the city and the temple. The kingdom does not come by the sword. Judgement and destruction await those who refuse to give up their old sources of security and their old sources of identity. That was a hard thing for a Jewish person to do in light of the promises the Lord had made to Abraham, but Jesus promises a far better eternal inheritance in return. And so he says in verse 33:
So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
Let me read that again: “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” What are we holding back? What are we afraid or unwilling to give up? Our works, our reputation, our self-righteousness, our pride, our stuff, our money? Brothers and sisters, all of these things will someday pass away. Holding on to them and forfeiting Jesus’ offer of redemption and eternal life is like Herod rebuilding the temple even though God had abandoned it and even though he was going to destroy it a few years later. Holding on to all these passing things is like the Jewish rebels in a.d. 70, who refused to let go of their land, went to war, and wound up dead or exiled. No, it’s not easy to give up all these things that are so important to us in light of a promise of something so intangible as forgiveness or divine reconciliation or eternal life. We throw all sorts of “But what if’s?” at Jesus. The prospects of suffering or poverty or death aren’t very appealing, but brothers and sisters, this Jesus calling us to give up everything for his sake is the same Jesus who points to the birds and flowers and who reminds us that if the Lord takes care of them he will certainly take care of us. He’s the same Jesus who reminds us that even the birds sold in the market and roasted on a spit are nevertheless never forgotten by the Lord. This is the same Jesus who suffered and died, but then rose from the grave on the third day and whose resurrection, St. Paul excitedly tells us in First Corinthians, is the firstfruits—the earnest or the down-payment—of our own resurrection. Dear friends, we may find temporary security in things, but no hope. Hope comes only in the person of Jesus Christ. Hope comes only through forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God, and restoration to the tree of life, and this hope comes only as we let go of this world and lay hold of Jesus with both hands.
Jesus gives a last dire warning in verses 34-35:
“Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Salt flavours and preserves, which makes it a perfect metaphor for the people of God. Israel had been called to be the salt of the earth—the holy people through whom the Lord would be made manifest and known to the nations. But Israel had failed. Her light had become darkness. The nations knew about her God, but she had so failed in her mission and had so failed in her worship of him that the prophets describe the nations pointing at fallen, failed Israel and mocking her, jeering: “Where is your God?” Israel was the oxymoron, the thing that can’t exist: unsalty salt. And, of course, salt that isn’t salty serves no purpose, it’s worthless, and assuming it could even exist, would be thrown away. Jesus offers a warning to Israel here. But it’s also a warning to us. God didn’t give up. He sent his Son to fulfil Israel’s mission to be salt, and now his disciple are called to be the salt of the earth. But to be that salt means to give up everything in order to follow Jesus. To try to follow Jesus, to try to be a disciple, while still holding on to the things of this world is be unsalty salt. It’s an oxymoron. It’s a thing that cannot be. Brothers and sisters, Jesus is telling us that we can’t be his disciples if we aren’t willing to count the cost and if we aren’t willing to give up everything in order to follow him.
Let me end by taking you back to Genesis. Think back to Abraham, the childless old man to whom the Lord promised descendants like the stars in the night sky and like sand on the beach. For decades Abraham waited for a son through whom that promise would be fulfilled. When Isaac was finally born Abraham was the happiest man on earth. And then the Lord commanded him to sacrifice Isaac. And that didn’t just mean giving up his son; it meant giving up God’s promise. No son; no descendants, no stars, no sand, no nations. Why? Because the Lord needed to know that Abraham was following him for who he was, not just for the blessings that had been promised. The Lord needed to know that he alone—no promises, no blessings, just the Lord alone—was enough for Abraham. When Abraham proved that the Lord alone was enough, Isaac was given back.
Jesus calls us to give up our blessings and our sources of security too. Is God himself—forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with the Lord—is that enough for us? Dear friends, it ought to be. From a worldly perspective the cost is immense, but from an eternal perspective the cost is small. Jim Elliot, the well-known missionary-martyr put it so well in his journal: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, as you have paid the greatest price in giving your own Son as a sacrifice for our sins, let us in faith count the cost of discipleship, letting go of the things of this worldly kingdom, that we might by faith take hold of Jesus and the life of your eternal kingdom. Strengthen our weak faith and change our perspective that we might value the world less and your kingdom more. We ask this through Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord. Amen.