Jesus encourages his disciples to choose Jesus over relationships with other people, to face rejection because of the Gospel and to use their resources for the Kingdom. True disciples will influence their society.
Jesus encourages his disciples to choose Jesus over relationships with other people, to face rejection because of the Gospel and to use their resources for the Kingdom. True disciples will influence their society.
Hello and welcome to Series 9 and Episode 3, ‘Counting the Cost of Discipleship’. We're in Luke 14: 25 to 35.
Introduction and Recap
Series 8 and Series 9 are very closely connected. Some of you will be following this teaching through episode by episode, series by series, others of you will be dipping in and out, so I'm just going to make one or two of those connections clear again before we start on this challenging and exciting passage that we're going to study today. Series 8 consists of material from John's Gospel and Luke's Gospel - mostly from Luke's Gospel - and Luke explains to us clearly that part of Jesus' ministry, the second part of his ministry, is a travelling ministry heading south from the northern province of Galilee to Jerusalem in a very purposeful way. Jesus decided, as we saw in Series 7, that the time had come for him to leave Galilee after approximately three years of very fruitful ministry there, and to head to Jerusalem and ultimately to a confrontation with the religious authorities, which would lead to him suffering, dying and rising again from the dead. Luke spends a lot of time explaining the events that take place on this long journey - a journey which we can imagine took quite a few months - because Jesus stopped at so many different places. We don't know how fast he went; we know there was a lot of territory to cover. We know that he went to many towns and villages because that's described very clearly in Luke 13: 22, ‘Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem’. We also know he sent out 72 disciples to go to the places he couldn't get to, or to go to the places he was going to come to, and proclaim the Gospel all the way through the country. It looks like he was trying to saturate the whole country with his message while he still had the opportunity to do so, before his earthly ministry came to an end. Series 8 has been filling in many of the details of that and, as we approach Series 9, we're getting a little bit closer to Jerusalem, a little bit closer to those final and decisive events that are described in great detail in the Gospels when Jesus makes a very big public Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, confronts the religious authorities and this leads to his arrest, trial and execution by crucifixion.
Let's think about the significance of the context. There are quite a few things that are happening as Jesus is on the road, which are very relevant to the text that we're going to study today. First of all, Jesus makes clear the urgency to make a decision to follow him. This comes out time and time again. For example: whilst he is teaching in Luke 13: 24 and is asked the question,
“Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” (His answer is), “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to.”Luke 13:22-24, NIV
‘Make every effort’ - the urgency to decide. It's very clear from this particular part of Jesus' teaching that neutrality is not an option. There is a real danger of making excuses as Jesus' claims come to your life. We read and studied in the last episode, the Parable of the Great Banquet, you'll remember vividly the fact that Jesus tells the story of a man who prepared a great banquet, invited lots of guests and to his amazement, he had excuse after excuse. People said, ‘I'm too busy’, ‘I've bought a field’, ‘I bought some oxen’, ‘I've just got married’, ‘I'm too busy, I can't come to your feast’, and so they missed a great opportunity because they were making excuses. Jesus uses this parable to warn people that you shouldn't make excuses or delay in responding to the Gospel. That invitation to the feast only came to them once. Once they turned it down, the invitation went to other people. There was never a second invitation that came back. There is a danger of making excuses.
We also see on the road that there are very large crowds, even the beginning of this passage gives another example of it, verse 25,
‘Large crowds were travelling with Jesus, and then he turned to them and spoke’.Luke 14:25, NIV
This echoes what was said in chapter 12: 1,
‘Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples.’Luke 12:1, NIV
‘A crowd of many thousands’ - that's one of the largest recorded crowds in the whole gospel story, and here we have a general statement, ‘large crowds were travelling with him.’ This is really interesting. The interest in Jesus is very great wherever he travels in Samaria, and particularly Judea, the southern district where Jerusalem is the capital city, and the surrounding areas. People are really interested. Many of them, of course, have not had the opportunity to see Jesus before because he didn't travel in that area very much. He lived in Galilee and worked there. If you were a Galilean, you'd have very likely seen Jesus during the three years of his ministry, but if you are a Judean in the south, you probably haven't seen him. Very exciting; large crowds of people coming and going all the time; a very intense situation because people could tell that he was travelling south, and they got to know that he was heading for Jerusalem for a major public entry into the city. We'll see as the story goes on, the nearer that moment comes, the more excitement and anticipation we find in the crowds. The intensity of this final march in Jerusalem is added to very significantly by the fact that the religious leadership are making very clear opposition to Jesus, making it difficult for him.
In the last episode, we saw that Jesus was invited, one Sabbath, to the home of a prominent Pharisee, and he was given hospitality there. It notes, in Luke 14: 1, ‘He was being carefully watched’. That's a very sinister expression as I explained in the last episode. What that indicated was that they were looking to trap him, looking to find some accusations, so they could get him arrested and tried for some religious crime. If they were watching him, almost certainly these Pharisees and Teachers of the Law were in direct contact with their leaders in Jerusalem, and would be passing information through to them about what Jesus said and did, hoping to find some basis for accusation against him. It's quite an intense context - unpredictable, uncertain, you didn't know where Jesus was going to go next; you didn't know who was going to be in the crowd because people came and went all the time. These were places that Jesus had not spent any time in, in his previous ministry.
The theme today is the theme of discipleship. The theme of discipleship has been with us quite a lot in Series 8, particularly the second part of Series 8, as we've looked at various teachings that Jesus has given. For example, in chapter 12, Jesus encouraged people to stand up for their faith and to speak out, and not deny that they're Christians when they are under pressure. He encouraged them, secondarily, not to become materialist and live for money, possessions and security, but to seek first the Kingdom of God. He encouraged them also that they should live their lives in the context of the fact that Jesus is going to come again. The first coming and the second coming - Jesus teaches this very clearly in one of the central parts of Luke 12 with a couple of parables, saying that Jesus is looking for watchfulness and faithfulness, keeping going in the faith. That's part of discipleship. He also warns, towards the end of chapter 12, that he's come to bring, not peace but division; even families will be divided over the Gospel. There's a lot of material about discipleship already in the texts nearby in the area that we're looking at, and at the time that this particular teaching is given.
Jesus summarises, and focuses, some of his themes of discipleship in this famous, important and challenging passage which we are going to read together. Let's read Luke 14: 25 - 35,
‘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. 27And 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? 29For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, 30saying, ‘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? 32If 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. 33In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples. 34“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? 35It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out. “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”Luke 14:25-35, NIV
Choose Jesus Above Family
Jesus outlines three priorities for discipleship, in this passage. We're going to look at those briefly and think about the implications of them. The three priorities start in verse 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.’Luke 14:26, NIV
We have to put Jesus first above human relationships and our own personal comfort. The word ‘hate’ here needs to be carefully interpreted. It's not a word that relates to emotion, it's a word that relates to choice; it's a form of hyperbole that is sometimes used in the Bible. It reminds us of an occasion in the Old Testament, a famous occasion in the Old Testament, where a similar form of language is used. This is in Malachi 1: 2 - 3, where the prophet Malachi speaks to the people of Israel and compares them to one of the other nearby nations, Edom, whose ancestor was Esau. Malachi 1 :2 - 3,
“I have loved you,” says the Lord. “But you ask, ‘How have you loved us?’ Was not Esau Jacob's brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob, 3but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his hill country into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.”Malachi 1:2-3, NIV
Jacob is a reference to Israel, one of the patriarchs and father-figure of the nation of Israel, and Esau is a representation of the land of Edom, which was a nearby nation to the east of Israel in those days. This expression, love and hate, is a reference to choice, not emotion. God has chosen Jacob and he's chosen against Esau, or Edom, principally because of their long-standing, constant opposition to Israel. Keeping that meaning in mind, if we come back to our text when it says you have to ‘hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even your own life’, it means you choose Christ above your father and mother, above your husband and wife, above your children, above your family members, sisters, brothers, nephews, nieces, uncles, aunts, whoever they may be, and you choose Christ even above the security of your own life and preserving your own life. Jesus knew that the Gospel would often provoke conflict in families. This is a serious and important issue. It will directly affect many people who are listening to this message, so I'm speaking to you for your encouragement.
If we turn back to Luke 12, to other teaching on discipleship as I referred to a few moments ago, we'll find this startling statement: Luke 12:51,
‘“Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three.”’Luke 12:51-52, NIV
Family division comes not because God wants to create division but because the Gospel inevitably creates division, on the basis of people's response. It's the response to the Gospel that will divide families and communities. That division can be very permanent and fundamental. Sometimes a non-Christian partner can divorce a Christian partner because of their new-found faith. Paul anticipates the situation happening in the church when he speaks in 1 Corinthians 7: 12 -16, and it's happened ever since. Sometimes, in an extreme case, people are disowned, disinherited, asked to leave the family home, denied the support of their family, their wider family, because of their faith. Sometimes that conflict is more subtle. It's about different time priorities, different financial priorities. It's about jealousy that people have sometimes in families when they find that they have Christian members of families, have got this whole rich network of relationships they're not part of. In some cultures, it's a shame to the family; it's a matter of honour that people should retain their previous religion status and then shame comes on the family when a member or two become disciples of Jesus Christ. For our encouragement, Jesus anticipated this could happen but he asked us to prioritise our relationship with him; to obey him, even at the cost sometimes of some family relationships.
Jesus was not unaware of the feelings that come in this situation. Very difficult and profound feelings can come to us when these divisions take place. He had the same problem in his own family. We know that his brothers, particularly four brothers, were not believing and supporting his ministry until almost certainly after the resurrection. We know that they didn't like the fact that he'd left the family home, gone on his ministry; we know that sometimes they came to see him and they couldn't get access to him; and we can guess that there would have been disappointment in the family that the older son never married which would be a very unusual circumstance in those days, therefore not producing children and heirs for the family. In Luke 8: 19 - 21, we have one of several incidents in the Gospels that give a little glimpse into the situation:
‘Now Jesus' mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd. 20Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.” 21He replied, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God's word and put it into practice.”Luke 8:19-21, NIV
There is no sign here of Jesus saying ‘family first’. ‘I'm going to stop everything, I'm going to go and see my family.’ No, he is putting into practice the priorities of his ministry, and he is saying that there are closer relationships for him than his biological relationships with his family. The spiritual relationships of the community of faith turn out to be stronger than family relationships. That's very challenging. It needs some thinking through on our part but we need to take on board the significance of this teaching. Paul himself, the great Apostle who appears in the pages of the epistles and in the book of Acts as a single man, may well have been married and his wife may well have deserted him when he adopted the Christian faith. One priority is the willingness to put Jesus above other relationships and personal comfort.
Accept Rejection from Other People
The second is the willingness to accept rejection from other people, verse 27, ‘Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple’. This phrase ‘carrying the cross’ means identifying with the rejection of Christ. It could have physical suffering implications but it's more general than that. It's about taking on the reputation of Jesus and accepting the rejection that sometimes comes our way as a result of our faith in Jesus.
Counting the Cost
The third priority, above the question of relationships, and the question of potential rejection, the third priority is with our resources. These two little stories about building a house and a king going to war are interesting, aren't they? This world is littered with people who started to build houses and never finish them and in some countries it is commonplace for the authorities to allow this to happen. In other countries, the rules are much stricter but many people start building a house when they have not got the resources to finish it because getting started is better to them than making no start at all. Some of you will understand what that means. From Jesus' point of view, we have to commit our resources, commit our hearts wholeheartedly, to the task of following Jesus. We're not going to be able to summon up fresh resources later on down the journey necessarily. We need to start at the beginning and say, ‘If I follow Jesus, I calculate that this is going to be the cost, these are the risks, and these are the things I may have to let go of’, and we have to count the cost at the beginning, rather like the man building a house or the king planning to go to war with an army much smaller than his opponent. We don't want to be ridiculed; we don't want to be defeated; we don't want to be unable to continue with the walk of discipleship. That does happen to some people. You may well know stories of people who started out really strongly; they didn't count the cost; they felt the blessings of the Kingdom but they didn't count the cost; they didn't read these kinds of passages and absorb their implications. Of course, Jesus is recommending this way of life. He is not saying this is a reason not to be a disciple because he knows the rewards of discipleship are very great. They're spoken of frequently in his teaching. They're referenced, for example, in Luke 12 in the various different themes of discipleship. We may not have material treasure here, but we're storing up treasure in heaven by obedience to God and putting his Kingdom first.
Three priorities for discipleship are stated in this passage, and then in the conclusion comes this very enigmatic statement about salt. Let's read this again and try and work out what it means, verses 34 and 35,
“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? 35It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out. “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”Luke 14:34-35, NIV
If you've studied the New Testament carefully you'll know that this discussion about salt is connected to Jesus's teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5: 13, where he also talks about salt as a metaphor for Christians. If you've been following systematically through, you'll know that in Series 4, we covered this teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and at that point in Episode 3, I made reference to the fact that we need to look at this passage here in Luke and connect it with the one in Matthew in order to understand what Jesus is talking about. What I'm going to do now is to reiterate that teaching. We saw it from the point of view of the Sermon on the Mount in Series 4, and we're now seeing it from the point of view of some further teaching of Jesus while he is on the way to Jerusalem in Series 9. Referring very quickly to that verse in Matthew to start off our explanation, just to remind you of this well-known verse - many of you will be very familiar with it - Matthew 5: 13,
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”Matthew 5:13, NIV
He then goes on to say,
“You are the light of the world.”Matthew 5:14, NIV
These are metaphors, or images, of the nature of the Christian faith, the Christian community and the disciples of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount is a discipleship textbook, as we discussed in Series 4. “You are the salt of the earth” - the saltiness must not be lost. As we explained when we were looking at that passage, the immediate context is very interesting. You see, salt was a readily available commodity in ancient Israel for the simple reason that in the south and the east was the Dead Sea; the Jordan River flowed north to south and at its exit, it went into an inland lake which has no exit to the sea, and therefore the water was stagnant and the water became highly filled with salt. It became so salty that no living creatures, virtually, could live in that salt water. If any of you have been to the Dead Sea, you'll know what I mean. You feel the water and felt the saltiness in it; it is intensely salty but the significance of that is that near the Dead Sea there are many deposits of salt that appear on the ground and you can get access to salt fairly easily.
What was salt used for at the time, and why is it a significant image of the Christian life, in particular the life of discipleship? Many people reading Matthew 5: 13, think that salt's primary function was to act as a food preservative, particularly a preservative for meat before the days of refrigeration and other technologies. That may well have been true but if you compare the verse in Matthew 5: 13 with these two verses in Luke 14: 34 - 35, you'll see that Jesus has two different applications for this image that he has in mind when he's saying that we are ‘the salt of the earth’; we should be like salt in society. Verse 35 gives us the clue - if it loses its saltiness it's fit neither for the soil nor the manure pile - two different uses. What do we mean by salt in the soil? In the ancient world, very small amounts of salt were used as a fertiliser for the soil in certain situations and that continued throughout human history until the advent of modern agrochemicals, which we use in many parts of the world today. Salt can be for the soil as a fertiliser and it can also be, secondly, for the manure pile, the place of human excrement in this situation before water was used for human sanitation. Of course, that method of dealing with excrement is still used in many societies where there isn't ready access to water and sanitation. Salt would be put on the manure pile as a disinfectant. We have here two primary uses of salt in their society - a fertiliser for the soil, and a disinfectant for the manure heap. Discipleship should have two impacts on society - fertilising, or encouraging what is good, and disinfecting what is evil in our society. If Christians are effective disciples, they will be functioning like salt in society - influencing and changing society, preserving what is good through fertilisation and diminishing the evil tendencies in that society.
There could be many different applications to that reality in your country and in my country. There might be very different applications of that truth. The bottom line is, it takes wholly committed disciples to make a difference. Nominal Christians - Christians who are unconnected with the Gospel narrative and the teachings of Jesus, who only go to church and just name themselves as Christians - have very little impact on society.
Let me bring some final reflections. This is a challenging passage yet again. We've seen quite a few as we've studied the Gospels, particularly in some of the recent material. Here are some reflections. Many Christians face tough opposition in different parts of the world today. That might be you. This teaching is for you. The encouragement to take up the cross, to embrace rejection and difficulty freely, is actually a strengthening of faith of those who have real opposition to come to terms with.
My second reflection is that discipleship truly does have the power to change people and societies. Christians can exercise a critical influence in everything from sexual morality to financial practices, honesty, and integrity, truth-telling and good governance, good education, and good medical services, good public services and good business practices, and peaceful communities. There are all sorts of ways that Christians can affect society for the good and they can discourage the tendencies of evil.
Where do you fit in today? Are you an inquirer, thinking about the Christian faith? Are you a nominal Christian? Are you a secret Christian? Are you a new convert? Are you a committed disciple? Whoever you are, this passage is for you. Jesus calls us, is literally calling us, and saying, ‘Come and follow me. Take up your cross.’ It's not going to be an easy life but it can be a very worthwhile life - full of meaning and purpose with incredible eternal rewards as well as the possibility of seeing other people's lives changed through the quality of our own. Let's embrace the cost of discipleship.