Counting the Cost: Lectionary Reflections on Luke 14:25-33

Lectionary Reflections for September 5th, 2010: Luke 14:25-33

This text is a sandwich. Before it comes Luke’s version of the Great Banquet. After it comes Jesus’ teaching about salt.At this point in his ministry, in Luke’s account, the cross casts it shadow on his path. The cost of discipleship is at the forefront of his attention, now more than ever.  These two little parables about the man and the tower and the king and his war are about the cost of discipleship. Jesus is expanding his message of discipleship as sacrifice to those beyond his discipleship circle (9:18-27, 57-62). In these two parables, unique to Luke, Jesus is not discouraging people from following him. He is discouraging them from following him without counting the cost (Stein, 112).

The verse about hating one’s family and even life itself is a sharp pinprick of hyperbole meant to heighten our awareness of the single minded commitment, the supreme devotion required of the one who would follow Jesus all the way that lies ahead (14:26). We are to count the cost before we commit. Counting the cost doesn’t mean we have to pay up, that we have to come up with enough renunciation and enough pain to earn our way into Jesus’ good graces. Jesus is not saying that we must earn divine love by hating our family or by holding a contest to see whose cross contains the most pain.

Robert H. Stein, in his Introduction to the Parables of Jesus points out that “the kingdom of God is offered graciously by God to all” (112). God’s love provides us with the perseverance and energy to follow Jesus as we live in and into that kingdom. We need to view this passage in the context of Luke’s gospel which repeatedly emphasizes the compassion of a God who seeks out and saves the lost, who stands ready to forgive the sinner. Says Stein, “We aren’t excluded from God’s kingdom because it’s too hard to earn entrance. We exclude ourselves when we willfully reject God’s gracious invitation” (112) Luke 14:15-24).

The grace of God is not cheap grace. It requires a response. Says Stein “one can only receive the grace of God with open hands, and to open those hands one must let go of all that would frustrate the reception of that grace. Jesus refers to this letting go as repentance…It is foolish and damning to answer the invitation if one is not willing to repent” (Stein, 112). Half hearted disciples rsvp to the messianic banquet and then find excuses not to attend (14:18-10). They come to the shore but won’t get in the boat with Jesus because rough waters might await them (Matthew 8:18-22). They put their hand to the plough and look back (Luke 9:62).They “taste the heavenly gift, and share in the Holy Spirit …and then they fall away” (Hebrews 6:5,6).

Says biblical scholar Earl Ellis, “Jesus’ purpose in telling these 2 parables is not to dissuade prospective disciples, but to awaken half hearted followers to the disastrous consequences of such a path”(195). They will be thrown out like worthless salt (Luke 14:18). Matthew is the evangelist we usually associate with the consequences of not responding to Jesus. He is the one who likes to end his parables with people being thrown into outer darkness where they will weep and gnash their teeth. But Luke’s little verse about salt is ominous because it is so non dramatic, so matter of fact.  It makes me think of other things that get thrown out because they are past their prime. They include milk, cottage cheese, and all those slimy, unrecognizable vegetables in the bottom of your refrigerator produce drawers which you toss while wrinkling your nose in distaste. It’s too late. They can’t be made wholesome and edible again.

When I was growing up, my dad was big on perseverance proverbs. “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” He even had a picture over his desk in his study of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s battle flag that flew over the USS Niagra during the Battle of Lake Eerie in 1812. It read “Don’t Give Up the Ship.” There is a long history to this motto I won’t go into here except to note that it was the dying statement of James Lawrence to the crew of his USS Chesapeake. Growing up we were never allowed to quit anything. That’s enough to make you think twice before you join the marching band.

These parables don’t deserve to be reduced to a moralistic sermon in which the preacher, wagging her finger at the congregation, berates them for ever giving up on anything, for ever starting something they can’t finish. Some things we start we should finish. Others- not so much. Sometimes I counsel a student to drop a course. Sometimes we need to end an abusive relationship. I should definitely have quit the high school basketball team way earlier than I did.

These parables depict a man staring at a foundation he can’t build on and a king contemplating a war in which he is outnumbered 2 to 1. They call for a sermon that encourages people not to get themselves into this kind of spiritual situation: the kind in which they are faced with a task without means to complete it. These two parables call for a sermon that urges people to count the cost of discipleship and to commit to following Jesus all the way that lies ahead. This cost and this commitment can only be preached in the context of God’s commitment to us. The cross conveys God’s extreme commitment to us. The resurrection conveys God’s power to see us through every obstacle that litters the path ahead.

E. Earle Ellis, The New Century Bible Commentary on Luke

Robert H. Stein, An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus

Alyce M. McKenzie, Professor of Homiletics, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

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