Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Dispossession and the Cost of Discipleship: Luke 14:25-35, Part 4

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Third Statement on Discipleship (14:33)
The connection of v. 33 to the parables preceding it has been argued above, but its specific injunction remains to be explored fully. On the one hand, v. 33 may be intended as a third condition of discipleship, parallel to the hatred of family and self, and cross-bearing (vs. 26-27), but demanding a step beyond these. This view understands the object of dispossession very specifically, as “all things one possesses” or “all things one owns.”(1) On the other hand, v. 33 may be intended as a summarization of the first two conditions of discipleship, thus broadening the scope to include everything connected to a person. This view would understand the object of dispossession very broadly, as “all that one has.”(2)

In the end, both viewpoints can be argued reasonably from the text. The scales shift toward the first perspective, however, when one considers the way the word translated “possessions” is used elsewhere in Luke’s gospel. Every time that “possessions” appears in Luke, it clearly refers to the material things in one’s custody (8:3; 11:21; 12:15, 33, 44; 16:1; 19:8). Furthermore, if v. 33 is a command to give up all of one’s material possessions, then it is a concept already introduced by Jesus, for 12:33 records him instructing his disciples, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” It is also consistent with the perspective of 12:29, which forbids the quest for food and clothing; as well as 16:13, where God and money are set in stark opposition. It seems, then, that the best way to understand v. 33 is as a third condition of discipleship. Following the abandonment of family ties, the rejection of self-interest, and the assumption of a life-style of cross-bearing, the final source of security left to renounce is that of material possessions.

Either perspective one chooses, however, v. 33 remains the strongest dispossession command in the Synoptic tradition. This is especially apparent in light of the verb, which literally means “to say good-bye to,” “to forsake,” or “to renounce.”(3) The tense of this verb is also important, because in the present, it stresses not that “the disciple must be continually ready... to give up all that he has,”(4) but that the disciple must be in a constant state of giving up all that he has.(5) This is a very difficult teaching, indeed, especially in light of the uncompromising tone, which “goes beyond calling for the right use of wealth in generosity to the poor and calls for its abandonment.”(6) The consequence of refusing to do so is severe: “you cannot be my disciple.”

What is the best way to understand this aspect of discipleship? One must resist the urge to over-spiritualize Jesus’ teaching, thus minimizing the constraint and lessening the sacrifice involved. Jesus has harsh words for the “rich” elsewhere in Luke’s gospel (cf. 6:24-26; 12:16-21; 16:19-31; 18:24-27) and there is a clear expectation throughout that one’s acceptance of discipleship will necessarily effect a change in one’s financial priorities and socio-economic standing (cf. 3:10-14; 5:27-29; 8:2-3; 18:18-22; 19:2-10). The book of Acts further reveals the conclusions of Jesus’ earliest disciples regarding this teaching: “No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had” (Acts 4:32b). Clearly, Luke understands the expectation of Jesus to be more than “spiritual” dispossession.

Yet, it is not faithful to Luke or the Luke-Acts tradition to over-literalize Jesus’ teaching either, thus making economic poverty a necessary requirement of discipleship. Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus surely transforms his attitude toward and use of his possessions, but he comes short of literally forsaking all of them (Lk. 19:2-10). Other exemplary characters in the gospel and Acts reveal the same pattern, with the emphasis on their generosity and self-sacrifice, but not their adoption of voluntary poverty (e.g., 8:2-3; Acts 4:36; 11:27). Even the Jerusalem church, which “shared everything they had,” and cared for their member so that “there were no needy persons among them,” did not dispense with possessions altogether.

If these two extremes are to be rejected, then what is the intended application of v. 33? The best understanding is to be found somewhere in the middle, with a balanced combination of the spiritual and the literal. On the one hand, it must be recognized that what Jesus calls for is rooted foremost in a spiritual change of heart (Lk. 6:43-45). It is possible for a person to give away all of her possessions, yet remain obsessively absorbed in their acquisition. Merely doing any of the “marks” of discipleship described in this passage, whether denunciation of family or giving oneself up to death, does not qualify as genuine obedience to Jesus’ expectation. Thus, it is rightly granted that without a radical transformation of the heart away from the trappings of material security, one cannot be Jesus’ disciple.

On the other hand, it must be recognized that what Jesus’ calls for does not end at a change of heart. The only true verification of a would-be disciple’s heart condition is concrete evidence. The person obeying Jesus’ call to relinquish ownership of his possessions spiritually will demonstrate the truth of the matter physically. For some, this means literally selling everything and giving it to the poor, as Jesus expected of the rich young ruler (Lk. 18:22). For others, this means supporting the work of the Kingdom of God out of their earnings, as the women who followed Jesus did (8:3). In the end, the individual acts of obedience that evidence the heart transformation of the disciple will vary from person to person. What matters is that one is listening to the Master-Teacher and seeking to live every day in submission to his instructions.(6)

Before moving on, it would be beneficial to return to the theme of the entire passage, for v. 33, discussed above, completes Jesus’ three-fold expectations for discipleship: (1) abandon family ties and the security of kinship; (2) abandon self and all aspects of physical life; and (3) abandon possessions and their trappings. The association of these three requirements with the two parables reveals that the objects of abandonment (family, self, and possessions) ultimately represent inadequate resources. That is, these things constitute common sources of identity and security, but they will prove to be insufficient, and even destructive, in the end. Therefore, to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, one must abandon all of one’s inadequate resources, because retention of them means one’s exclusion from discipleship and, by implication, the Kingdom of God.

Warning and Call to Obedience (14:34-35)
Jesus’ three-fold requisites for discipleship are followed by a saying about “salt,” the only appearance of this parabolic saying in Luke’s gospel.(7) The parallels in Mark and Matthew occur in very different contexts (Matt. 5:13; Mk. 9:50), so it is probable that this was a well-known saying in the early Jesus tradition.(8) Why does Luke choose to include this saying in the present discourse? The image of salt is probably being used to underscore the tragic end of those who do not commit to the way of discipleship, the abandonment of inadequate resources, outlined in the previous verses.

Analyses in the field of soil chemistry have suggested the possibility that Jesus is bearing in mind a property of Palestinian salt that permits the gradual leaching away of salt content from the crystals; allowing the salt to “lose its saltiness.”(9) Yet, there is also evidence that the idea of “salt” losing its “saltiness” was considered impossible and ridiculous by the people of Jesus’ day. A second-century rabbinic dialogue compares the absurdity of salt losing its saltiness with that of a mule bearing a foal.(10) There seems to be little difficulty either way, though. If Jesus’ hearers considered it a frustrating possibility for salt to lose its flavor, then they would be able to understand the reality of its uselessness. If Jesus’ hearers considered it impossible for salt to lose its flavor, then they would understand both the absurdity of this notion and its obvious worthlessness.

In either case, it seems the point remains constant. Though “salt is good,” if it were to lose its “saltiness” it could not be “re-salted.” Salt-less salt is completely useless, not even for purposes of crude agriculture or waste disposal (v. 35a).(11) A person who desires to be a disciple of Jesus, yet does not forsake allegiance to all other sources of identity and security, simply cannot be a disciple. These would-be disciples are ultimately good-for-nothing, as they lack the distinctive characteristics that constitute true disciples and can contribute little to the Kingdom of God. To paraphrase vs. 34-35a: “Disciples are surely good things to have, but if they do not obtain their defining characteristics, how possibly can they be re-defined or ‘re-discipled’? Such non-disciples are not useful, even for the smallest of tasks, and ultimately will be excluded from the work of Jesus.”

To conclude the discourse on discipleship, Luke includes the frequent appeal of Jesus, that “whoever has ears to hear, let them hear” (v. 35b). This injunction first appeared in 8:8, following the parable of the sower, and this is the second and last time it will occur in Luke. The connection to the parable of the sower is instructive, for that parable draws attention to the possible obstructions to “hearing,” including troubles, riches, and pleasures (8:14). Thus, one must listen to the teachings of Jesus with “clear-eyed deliberation.”(12) This call to “hear” is not an invitation to debate the requirements set forth, or to attempt compromise with Jesus on their severity. It is a prophetic charge for those with the willingness to listen and the motivation to understand, to consider carefully and act in appropriate obedience.

Exposition in Application
Though the gospel of Luke is primarily the story of Jesus Christ, Savior of the world, it is also chiefly concerned with discipleship. Because Jesus is already Lord (e.g., 12:41-42) and his Kingdom is already present in his ministry (11:20; 17:21), the call to discipleship is fundamentally an invitation to swear allegiance to Jesus and the Kingdom he has inaugurated. According to Luke, membership among this new people of God is not based upon inherited status or financial ranking, but only the willingness to live as Jesus lives.

I think it is apparent that Luke wrote with pastoral concerns for the readers of his gospel, for the emphasis on wealth and possessions in 14:25-35 and elsewhere, suggests that the situation of his readers included those who were “relatively prosperous and inclined to find false security in their prosperity.”(13) Thus, in the broader theological context of Luke, the discourse on discipleship in 14:25-35 represents a “job description” of sorts, declaring to all, from those already following, to those weary in following, to those yet to follow, the manner of life and witness expected from anyone claiming to be a disciple of Jesus the Savior and Lord. The uncompromising language is intended to be shocking, thereby forcing all who hear to consider carefully their position in relation to the standard set forth and modeled by Jesus.(14)

In view of the scope of biblical theology, it will be troubling for some that the three-fold requirements for discipleship appear to suggest the performance of works to merit the Kingdom of God. Yet, this misunderstands the consistent emphasis of Jesus that all acts of obedience spring from a transformed heart. One need not perform tasks to gain God’s favor, for Jesus’ entire ministry demonstrates that God shows mercy to all who will receive it, regardless of their perceived worth. Jesus’ expectations of his disciples are predicated upon their broken, awestruck encounter will the grace of God. In each of the Gospels, near-nobodies are often portrayed as manifesting surprisingly insightful response to Jesus’ call. These very imperfect “disciples” reveal the truth that the works of discipleship only occur following a powerful encounter with the unearned grace of God.

For the contemporary interpreter, it is almost impossible to apply this passage in general ways. The threefold requirements of discipleship cover every possible area of life and communicate the truth that nothing is to be untouched by the demands of Jesus under the reign of God. The truth is that each person will hear the emphasis of Jesus differently.

A young man will hear 14:25-35 and realize that in order to “hate” his family he must give up his father’s claim upon his future, choosing to receive training in the Scriptures rather than go to medical school. This choice and the ones that follow will force him to cast his lot irreversibly with the way of Jesus and those who obey the Kingdom of God.

An older woman will hear this passage and realize that in order to truly carry her “cross” she must give up her comfortable middle-class, school-teacher existence and move to New York City to work among some of the poorest and most neglected children in the country. This choice and the ones that follow will force her to violate established social codes and embody the great reversal proclaimed by Jesus in God’s reign.

A child will hear this teaching and realize that she must be willing to help her younger brother with his homework and befriend the kid in her school who looks and speaks “funny.” Even in the world of children, such actions and those that follow as a result will inherently separate her from the typical ways of the world.

Yet, in the end, no one can tell these potential disciples precisely what must be done to obey Jesus’ call. Such things are left between them and the Master whose voice they are heeding.

Once again, it must be remembered that Jesus does not call the listener to something he himself has not undertaken. Luke’s gospel shows that when Jesus entered adulthood at the age of twelve, he operated with the understanding that the priorities of the Father supercede those of family and social network (2:49). This truth was affirmed again at his first recorded preaching experience in Nazareth, not only being rejected by the members of his hometown, but also enduring his kinsmen’s failed attempt to murder him (4:28-30). Later, Jesus explains to would-be disciples that he is without even the minimum material comforts of ordinary life (9:58), and it is evident throughout his ministry that he lives with the confident expectation of death (9:22, 44; 18:33; 20:15; 22:20-22).

Jesus calls all members of the crowd, both in the first century and the twenty-first century, to abandon the many resources to which they cling and commit themselves to the mission that Jesus himself models. As the parables make clear, to neglect the call is to ensure failure and humiliation. The only way to ensure one’s “success” in the Kingdom of God is to surrender all emblems of success from the kingdoms of this world, and solely commit oneself to follow after Jesus. Once the reader better comprehends these demands, more often than not he will find himself, not amongst the inner circle of disciples, but standing amid the large crowds, perplexed and conflicted regarding the proper course of action. To follow Jesus entails daily sacrifice and total surrender, but to stay means missing out on the reign of God, a prospect that is far worse.

(1) This is the perspective of Schmidt, 152; Beck, Christian Character in the Gospel of Luke, 36; and Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, 230, 233.
(2) This is the perspective of Marshall, 594; Green, 567; and Hendrickx, 86.
Rogers and Rogers, The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament, 147. The same verb form occurs five times in the New Testament, and in each instance an individual leaves another individual or group (Mk. 6:46; Lk. 9:61; Acts 18:18, 21; 2 Cor. 2:13).
(3) Marshall, 594.
(4) See the detailed argument for this understanding in Schmidt, 152. Beck (36) and Hendrickx (86) agree.
(5) Beck, 36.
(6) The discussions of wealth and discipleship in Luke-Acts provided by Beck (46-54) and Schmidt (133-162), were very helpful in my attempt to discern the proper interpretation of Luke 14:33.
(7) Technically, Jesus’ saying is not cast in the form of a parable, but it is parabolic in function as the concluding admonition shows: “whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” The same admonition is found only one other place in Luke’s gospel, following the parable of the sower in 8:8.
(8) Marshall, 595.
(9) See the summary of this study in Marshall, 596.
(10) See the helpful discussion of this rabbinic tradition in Wolfgang Nauck, “Salt as a Metaphor in Instruction for Discipleship,” Studia Theologica 6 (1952): 171; although Nauck’s overall conclusion that salt is a metaphor for “wisdom” in the New Testament, does not readily fit the context of the present passage.
(11) For a discussion of the uses for salt in ancient Palestine, and the possibility of using salt for “the soil” or “the manure pile” (v. 35a), see Marshall, 596-597.
(12) Caird, 179.
(13) Beck, 52.
(14) Ibid., 98.


Boyd Luter said...


Wow! Brilliant and practical, too.
That's a rare balance.

Continue your amazing balancing act! Doc

Strider said...

I would say good work on this except that the good work is not to exegete this passage as much as it is to live it. If you are doing that then I say good work indeed!
The greatest compliment I ever received was when a mentor introduced me on my first homeleave in his church. He said that he knew Strider and his wife were going to make it on the M field because as a pastor he noted that at any given associational event my car was the oldest and sadest in the parking lot. He went on to make the point you have made here- that he was not praising my choice of a poor car, but rather that by refusing to go into debt for a car we were prepared to go when God said go.
I have failed many times since then but I pray that we will all continually divest ourselves of worldly entanglements so that we are ready to be obedient to everything He is calling us to.
Thanks for this post.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...



My husband and I are attempting to live an intentionally simple lifestyle. The success of our attempt remains to be seen, I suppose. Its very difficult to go against the "consumer" grain of our society, but I believe that our discipleship to Jesus must affect everything, including our spending and lifestyle.

Thank you for your testimony.

Grace and peace,


peter lumpkins said...

Dear Emily,

Sweet, Lord, my Emily. Tell us how we may withstand such poundings of the Inspired Hammer?

You write:

"….To “carry one’s own cross” means to embrace daily the humiliation, degradation, and suffering, that come from a life devoted to the priorities of God’s Kingdom and not the priorities of self or the kingdoms of this world."

And: "…Jesus’ three-fold expectations for discipleship: (1) abandon family ties and the security of kinship; (2) abandon self and all aspects of physical life; and (3) abandon possessions and their trappings."

Then forcefully conclude that a would-be disciple must "...forsake allegiance to all other sources of identity and security, [or he/she]simply cannot be a disciple."

With such pulverizing pressure on one's heart, it becomes impossible to sit at ease in our cozy Zions, sipping away at our feel-good potables.

This series, Emily, rescues Bonhoeffer's 'cheap grace' from obscurity.

Biblical Grace for all of us. With that, I am...