Two Illustrations: A Tower-Builder (14:28-30) and a War-Making King (14:31-32)
Jesus’ two statements on discipleship are followed by two parables unique to Luke’s gospel. It is not uncommon for the gospels to present two parables containing the same or a closely related message, such as the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven in Luke 13:18-21 or the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl in Matt. 13:44-46. Still, the parables of the tower-builder and the war-making king have been persistently difficult to interpret. This problem seems to have arisen for two reasons: (1) from the hypothesis that the two parables have been haphazardly inserted by Luke into an unrelated discourse,(1) and (2) from the unnecessary association of the two parables with one in the gospel of Thomas.(2)
It appears, however, that the first underestimates the aptitude of the author-editor and virtually ignores the parables’ connection to the strong application statement that follows (v. 33);(3) and the second results in unnecessarily “pigeon-holing” the parables into a fixed interpretation provided by a non-canonical source, with an entirely different context.(4) Regardless, the author-editor of Luke perceived a relationship between the parables and the context, as the word “for,” indicates that they are intended as illustrations of the prior teaching. It seems, therefore, that one should begin with the assumption that the parables are indeed related to the context, rather than the opposite, unless the evidence proves to be overwhelmingly clear to the contrary. It is from this perspective that the two parables will be considered.
The intended subjects of the parables, the tower-builder and the king, are rightly understood as Jesus’ audience. The phrase, “which of you,” beginning v. 28, parallels the phrase, “anyone of you” in v. 33, and compels the listener to identify with the parables’ protagonists.(5) The first is a landowner wishing to build a “tower” (v. 28), which, depending on his available resources, could indicate a watchtower in a vineyard, a tower for a city wall, or something even more elaborate.(6) Jesus’ audience most likely included more small farmers than wealthy landowners, so the “tower” probably indicates a type of farm building, but one of significant enough size that even laying the foundation has the potential to tax the builder’s full resources.(7) The second protagonist is a “king” preparing to go to war against another king (v. 31). Although the language changes in v. 31 and the inclusive “which of you” (v. 28), is absent, there is no need for members of Jesus’ audience to be “kings” to appreciate the situation.(8)
Both parables contain a plot of sorts constructed along parallel lines: a hypothetical, demanding enterprise + an analysis of existing resources in comparison with the requisite resources for achieving a successful conclusion to the enterprise + a negative outcome when available resources fall short.(9) A person who wants to build a “tower” will first “sit down and estimate the cost” to be sure they have sufficient resources to finish the project (v. 28). For the person who cannot finish the project once begun will be ridiculed and humiliated by on-lookers (v. 29). A king who prepares to go to war against another king first will “sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand” (v. 31). Realizing he is not able, though, the king will be forced to send a delegation and submit to terms of peace or, more likely, terms of surrender (v. 32).(10)
It is apparent that a parallel phraseology between the stories is “sit down and estimate the cost” in the case of the tower-builder and “sit down and consider whether he is able” in the case of the warring king. This has caused many to conclude that the interpretive crux lies in “sitting down,” and “counting the cost,” which is then understood as the conduct Jesus intends for the hearer to emulate. Hence, the explanation of the passage usually takes the form, “Do not act without mature consideration, for a thing half done is worse than a thing never begun.”(11) Or, more specifically, “becoming a disciple was the most important enterprise a man could undertake and deserved at least as much consideration as he would give to business or politics.”(12)
Yet, this interpretation is in serious tension with the emphasis on decisive action associated with discipleship elsewhere in the gospel (esp. 9:57-62),(13) and modeled by the examples of Simon Peter, James, and John (5:11), Levi the tax collector (5:28), and Zacchaeus the chief tax collector (19:6, 8-10). It also does not take into consideration the word “able,” which serves as a connection between vs. 29 and 31, and 26-27, 33.(14) This verbal link means that the concept of ability with respect to resources is common to the parables and their applications. The concept of “cost-counting” has no such commonality throughout the passage.
Furthermore, Jesus’ conclusion to the two parables is the declaration, “In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciple.” Purely from a text-linguistic perspective, it is more likely that the “in the same way” of v. 33 refers to the endings of the parables, which depict mockery and surrender, rather than the beginnings of the parables, which depict cost counting.(15) Finally, the inference of failure found in both parabolic endeavors are, in both cases, the result of insufficient resources. The connection of this theme to the application statement in v. 33 is made clear when the converse of the statement is shown: whoever remains attached to their possessions cannot be my disciple.(16)
A better interpretation, therefore, views the parables as illustrations that one’s resources are, however one calculates or considers them, necessarily inadequate and must be abandoned in order to follow Jesus in discipleship.(17) Schmidt offers the following summary: “As tower-building with inadequate resources results in mockery, and as war-making with inadequate troops results in surrender, so retention of inadequate means of security results in exclusion from the kingdom.”(18) This understanding of the two parables does not preclude careful consideration and reasoned forethought, but it places the emphasis where Jesus (via Luke) chooses: at the point of surrender and self-sacrifice.
(1) This is the perspective of a number of scholars, represented by Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, Revised Ed. (New York: Scribner, 1962), 106; and Peter G. Jarvis, “The Tower-builder and the King going to War,” ExpTim 77 (1966): 196-198, both of whom begin their interpretation of the parables with the presumption that they cannot trust the authenticity of the application statement that follows in v. 33.
(2) This method is also represented by Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 196-197; along with Norman Perrin, Rediscovering the Teachings of Jesus (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 126-127; and, among German language works, C. H. Hunzinger “Unbekante Gleichnisse Jesu aus dem Thomas Evangelium,” Festschrift Joachim Jeremias, BZNW 26 (Berlin: 1960), 209-217.
(3) Verse 33 is potentially the strongest dispossession command in the Synoptics and for this reason alone should be given greater weight in the interpretation of the preceding parables. This does not preclude, however, the real probability that v. 33 and its connection to the parables are redactional, though as will be seen, the connection is not untrue to the sense of the parables. Ultimately, it is the separation of v. 33 from vs. 26-27 (cf. Matt. 10:37-39; 16:24-25; Mk. 8:34; 10:28-30) and its placement as the culmination of the passage that suggest Luke’s editorial handiwork, particularly in the interest of portraying the relationship between wealth and discipleship.
(4) The Thomas parable is number 95 in the collection by Robert M. Grant, et. al., The Secret Sayings of Jesus (London: Collins, 1960), and it says: “The kingdom of the Father is like a man who wanted to kill a great man. He drew the sword in his house and ran it through the wall in order to know whether his hand was strong enough. Then he killed the great man.” Hunzinger was an early proponent of the relationship between the Lukan parables and the parable of the assassin in Thomas, but the parable of the assassin portrays the measuring of strength for a successful end, while the Lukan parables portray the calculation of resources to avoid a humiliating end. This difference alone recommends caution when positing a comparison.
(5) J. Duncan M. Derrett, ‘Nisi Dominus Aedificaverit Domum: Towers and Wars (Lk XIV 28-32),’ NovT 19 (1977): 264-265, argues that the parables are a midrash on Prov. 24:3-6, and contends that the tower-builder and king represent God, who will succeed in his endeavor. This conclusion simply cannot be supported by the evidence. Prov. 24:3-6 does not mention a tower, and it serves as a recommendation of wise counselors (not troops) for war. Furthermore, the parables of Jesus assume failure, not success. Similar problems plague the ineffective argument of J. Louw that the primary reference of the parables is Jesus (“The Parables of the Tower-Builder and the King going to War,” ExpTim 48 (1936-37): 478. For a more thorough discussion of this issue, see the Schmidt, 150-151, 222.
(6) Cleon L. Rogers, Jr. and Cleon L. Rogers, III, The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 147. See also Green, 566. For instances of “towers” in the Old Testament, see Gen. 11:5; 2 Ch. 26:9, 10; Is. 2:15; Zech. 14:10.
(7) I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans/Paternoster Press, 1979), 593.
(8) Furthermore, Luke has shown elsewhere the presence of military personnel among those who hear the preaching of Jesus (Cf. 3:10-14; 7:1-10).
(9) Adapted from Green, 566.
(10) H. St. J. Thackeray, “A Study in the Parable of the Two Kings,” Journal of Theological Studies 14 (1913): 389-399, suggests that the common translation of this phrase, “ask for terms of peace,” is not merited in light of the evidence from the Septuagint and examples of ancient near eastern diplomacy. Citing 2 Sam. 8:9-12 in particular, he suggests that the Greek phrase is a translation of a Semitic idiom meaning “to offer unconditional surrender.” Thackeray’s arguments are convincing and his conclusion certainly has implications for the depth of humiliation involved in the king’s decision to “send a delegation” to the opposing king. Moreover, it lends further support to the understanding that failure and humiliation is assumed in both parables.
(11) Jeremias, 196; and Marshall, 591.
(12) Caird, The Gospel of St. Luke, 179.
(13) Schmidt, 150.
(14) Technically the word translated “able” in v. 29 is not the same as the one appearing in vs. 26-27, 31, 33, but the semantic domain of the words are similar and they are sometimes interchangeable in the New Testament.
(15) Ibid., 151.
(17) Ibid., 150. See also, Hendrickx, 84; and Green, 566, n. 183.
(18) Schmidt, 151.