WHO CAN BE JESUS’ DISCIPLE?
Luke 14:25-35, Key Verse 14:27
“And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
Are you Jesus’ disciple? Do you have any time in your life when you thought really hard about what it means to follow Jesus and then made a decision? Today’s passage can definitely help us to do that hard thinking. The teaching in today’s passage is so challenging that it may seem not many people are qualified to be Jesus’ disciple. Is Jesus trying to discourage people from being his disciples? No, and in fact Jesus’ invitation to be his disciple is open to everyone. But the life of being Jesus’ disciple is a big commitment and long-term project, and Jesus wants us to go into it our eyes open. Let’s pray that Jesus’ words may open our eyes today.
The events of last week’s passage took place while Jesus was at dinner in a Pharisee’s house. Today’s passage has Jesus on the road again, continuing his approach to Jerusalem. The passage begins by saying that large crowds were traveling with Jesus (25). Jesus seemed to have a great many “followers” at this time. But as he thought about what he was going to Jerusalem to do, he realized that most of the people in the crowd did not really understand why they were following Jesus or what they should expect from him. Jesus wanted to help them understand what following him really meant, that it was not just a chance to see if they could get something for themselves. In verse 26 we see what Jesus said to the crowds: “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.”
We have heard some difficult sayings of Jesus as we’ve studied Luke’s gospel, but this one might top them all. Hate your father and mother, wife and children? It seems so strange that Jesus could even use the word “hate”. We know that Jesus teaches love, that he taught us to even love our enemies. Then, why does he say this? Is Jesus teaching us to love our enemies and hate our family?
No, of course not. But Jesus is using this strong language to show what resolve is necessary to follow him to the end. We know that we are called to love Jesus most, more than anything. As the greatest commandment from Deuteronomy 6:5 says: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” We also know that Jesus’ calling often requires us to leave people and things in our life behind. This is not easy, and so we need to be very clear. If following Jesus means we need to let go of those things, then we have to do it with such a clear priority that it may seem that, by comparison, we hate those other things.
We have to be careful that we don’t use this saying of Jesus as an excuse to neglect our responsibilities for our families. Jesus himself harshly rebuked the religious leaders who were doing this, using their devotion to God as an escape clause to get out of obeying the command “honor your father and your mother.” (Mk 7:10-12). In 1 Timothy 5:8, Paul said, “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” These other passages help us to clarify what Jesus is really getting at here. As we said, it’s about the priority.
Even though we don’t actually hate anyone, I think Jesus’ choice of words is very meaningful, because it shows that he understands the pain involved. In fact, if we have unbelievers among our family members, they may indeed think that we hate them when we change our lifestyle to follow Jesus. I’ve heard many stories of parents saying to their children something like, “Why do you hate me so much that you want to abandon me to follow Jesus?” Hearing this hurts us so badly because we do love our family members and want them to be saved. However, that cannot be done just by meeting their present expectations of us. The paradox is that, in the long term, we often win over the people that we disappoint at first, when they see how we are blessed as a result of following Jesus. When we deeply learn from Jesus, we are empowered to love others even better than if we had just loved them in a humanistic way. So let’s pray for courage to follow Jesus even when it causes painful divisions in the short term.
The rest of the passage also helps us understand the life of following Jesus. Look at verse 27. “And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” The word “disciple” simply means “learner” or student. Many people throughout history and today as well have wanted to learn from Jesus and get some wisdom from him. But here Jesus wants us to know that there is no way to learn from him without following him, and not just following him but following him while carrying our cross.
Carrying our cross means enduring all the sufferings and troubles of our life, while still going forward. Following Jesus means going his way, and his way involves sufferings. Picking up our crosses day after day involves self-denial. We need to know that Jesus’ disciple is not a ticket to escape from the troubles of the world. Sometimes the thing we want to get away from so we can follow Jesus may actually be part of following Jesus. There’s no way to make carrying one’s cross sound nice and pleasant. But the great benefit is that when we grow through this sometimes-painful process, we gain the spiritual strength to overcome the world.
Continuing his point, Jesus gives two very interesting illustrations showing why it’s so important to be “all in” on being his disciple, to make a full commitment. The first one is about a construction project. Look at verses 28-30. “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.’”
This story is very relevant to us because we are in the middle of a construction project right now, in remodeling this Bible House—though our Bible house is not as big as a tower, it only has two stories. Building a tower is a very expensive project that takes a long time to complete. No one with any sense would dare to start on such a project without first estimating the cost to see if they had enough to finish it.
Jesus is saying here that our life of faith is similar to such a big, expensive, long-term project as building a tower. This is not the only passage in the New Testament that compares the life of faith to a building project. The most famous might be “The wise man built his house upon the rock.” The foundation of the life of faith is Jesus himself. Then we, as stewards of our lives, build upon that foundation through our actions. The cost we pay for it is not strictly speaking in dollars, but in the sufferings and sacrifices of the life of discipleship.
How is your tower-building going? When I thought of my life as a tower being built, I thought the floors of the tower might be like the seasons or time periods of life. We might have to build many floors on our tower: the 20s, the 30s, the 40s. Most of us will be called to maintain our life of discipleship for many years in order to finish building our life on Jesus. We don’t want to give up halfway through.
In the gospels, we see many decisions to follow Jesus that look very sudden, even spontaneous, like Matthew jumping up from his tax collector’s booth, or James and John leaving their father in the boat to follow Jesus. Well, it’s true that the decision to follow Jesus can happen quickly, but it doesn’t mean that we should make the decision blindly. The architect in this passage seriously thought ahead about what it would cost to build his tower, and Jesus wants us to enter into the life of discipleship with eyes open. Jesus reminds us that if someone starts building a physical tower but can’t finish it, leaving a half-built building behind, that person will be ridiculed. (Jesus is not above using a little bit of shame to motivate us.) Jesus wants us to think at the beginning, so that when we do start to follow him, it is a proper decision to give our whole life to him from the beginning to the end. If we just sort of drift into discipleship without really facing up to the cost of it, then it will be too tempting to give up at some later date when we find the cost is more than what we expected.
In the true spiritual sense, the price we pay to build this tower is our life itself. It doesn’t mean that we need to be martyred right away, but that the life of faith is a life of giving all the way through. Why does Jesus charge such high tuition for discipleship? It’s because Jesus knows that, one way or the other, life must be spent on something. Trying to save our lives for ourselves is the surest way to lose everything. The motive of discipleship cannot be to get something earthly out of it, but to give our life away, because that’s the only thing that will really make it count for something. With this attitude, we can live a very powerful and influential life. Our tower will be complete when we finish giving our whole life to Jesus, and it will be a spiritual building that looks most magnificent in the eyes of God.
The second illustration Jesus brings out is about warfare. Look at verses 31-32. 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.”
No king with any common sense would send his troops to fight a battle he knew they could not win. This is similar to the parable of the tower because the king here is thinking about the cost of what he’s about to engage in. But I feel like it’s a little trickier to match up the elements of this parable with our life of faith. What is the army of twenty thousand men coming against us, that we cannot face with our ten thousand? Maybe it’s all the spiritual battles we have to face against the world, the flesh, and the devil. So, is Jesus saying we should realize the life of discipleship is too hard for us and give up before even starting? No, of course not. Then, who is it that we should find a way to avoid fighting against? We should stop trying to fight against God.
The king in this story sending a delegation to ask for terms of peace reminds me of Romans 5:1: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” It means that while we were God’s enemies, Christ died for us to pay the price for the forgiveness of our sins. As a result, by faith in Jesus, we can ask God for peace and receive the best possible terms—free forgiveness of our sins and adoption as children of God. How could we delay or put off seeking such a peace that has been offered to us? In verse 33, Jesus concludes by saying, “In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.” Asking Jesus for terms of peace really means surrendering our lives to him. If we surrender our lives to Jesus, we will be on his side, in his army. He will fight for us and strengthen us. Jesus will win the victory through us, no matter what the odds are. And Jesus gives us true inner peace even in the midst of the spiritual battle of life.
The last verses in this passage are also about perseverance in following Jesus. Look at verses 34-35. “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? 35 It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out. Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” Jesus says salt is good. What is salt good for? It gives flavor to food, actually making it more edible. Also, it’s a preservative. Here, Jesus is using salt as another analogy of a spiritual quality of life. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus told his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth,” meaning that Jesus’ disciples are a good influence through their distinctive, holy life.
Food without any salt can taste so bland that we even lose our desire to eat. No one wants to live a bland life. Though life is hard for many people, it’s also true that for many people their life problem is that they are so bored. Life to them is tasteless, like food with no salt. People try to solve their boredom of life by adding artificial excitements to their life, or even doing foolish things that add trouble to their life. Or they just eat a lot of salty food and get high blood pressure. But real salt has to come from the inside. In Jesus we have the Holy Spirit as a source of saltiness. Then, if we follow Jesus by the leading of the Spirit, we will have the most interesting life.
Jesus warns us that there is a spiritual danger of losing our saltiness as his disciple. It happens if, over time, we start to conform to the pattern of this world and its empty way of life. As salty water becomes less salty as more un-salty water is added to it, drinking too much of the world’s spirit makes us become spiritually diluted. How can we avoid this? Our saltiness is fed by the love of God burning in our hearts. If that grows cold, our saltiness disappears too. In the end, we may even stop making a difference to Jesus in this world. Losing saltiness is the thing we shouldn’t let happen. Lots of things change externally in our life as years go by. The way we think about certain things also changes as we pass through life and hopefully grow mature. But no matter what, our most important responsibility is to keep living before God, keeping the flame of spiritual life and truth-seeking burning.
I hope we got a clearer picture of discipleship through Jesus’ words and illustrations in this passage. Let’s pray we may willingly decide to pay the price of following Jesus, knowing that the benefit in the end is far beyond what we lose. Let’s ask Jesus for his wonderful terms of peace and surrender our lives to him as his disciples. Then we will be truly salty and a source of blessing. May Jesus’ grace be with us to follow him to the end.