Friday, August 17, 2007

Dispossession and the Cost of Discipleship: Luke 14:25-35, Part 1

"I used to think when I was a child that Christ might have been exaggerating when he warned about the dangers of wealth. Today I know better. I know how very hard it is to be rich and still keep the milk of human kindness. Money has a dangerous way of putting scales on one's eyes, a dangerous way of freezing people's hands, eyes, lips, and hearts." - Dom Helder Camara

"It is not scientific doubt, not atheism, not pantheism, not agnosticism, that in our day and in this land is likely to quench the light of the gospel. It is a proud, sensuous, selfish, luxurious, church-going, hollow-hearted prosperity." - Frederick D. Huntington

I would be curious to discover what most Christians understand to be the necessary characteristics of discipleship. Perhaps church attendance and evidence of personal morality would make the top of the list, followed closely by the giving of money and maybe even charitable works for those in need.

Yet, as he is portrayed in Luke’s gospel, Jesus himself painted a very different picture of discipleship. Hence, the difficulty most readers have with his teaching found in Luke 14:25-35. Hate parents, spouse, and children? Shoulder an instrument of humiliation, suffering, and death? Say good-bye to all possessions? Assuredly, these are severe and radical demands, a fact that should give the eager interpreter reason to proceed with care.

For this reason, I find it important to consider thoroughly this difficult passage, with the aim of better understanding what Luke intends to communicate about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. I hope that my study in several parts will be of benefit to my readers and they ponder their discipleship to Jesus as well.

Literary Context
Luke 14:25-35 is located in the middle of the third gospel’s journey section (9:51-19:44), at the center of Jesus’ trek to Jerusalem. It reveals a subtle shift in emphasis from confrontation with Jewish leadership to preparing the disciples for his departure. The more immediate context portrays Jesus eating a meal at the house of a leading Pharisee. He instructs the invited guests about the perils of exalting oneself and grasping after the “place of honor” (14:7-11), and the Pharisee about the blessedness of table fellowship with “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” (14:12-14).(1) Then, in response to a dinner guest, Jesus relates a parable about the Kingdom of God that serves as a pointed illustration that God’s reign has extended beyond the bounds of Israel (14:15-24). Because of their obstinacy, those who were first extended the invitation shall be rejected while those who had not been invited before shall be compelled to come in.

Since it directly follows the dinner discussion in the Pharisee’s home, with little to no narrated transition, there is some debate whether 14:25-35 takes place within the previous scene or constitutes a change in scene. The parable of the large banquet, told during a meal in the Pharisee’s home, is addressed to Israel’s leadership. Yet, 14:25 shifts the focus to the “large crowds” (cf. 5:15) who are traveling with Jesus to Jerusalem. It is possible that the teaching on discipleship in 14:25-35 is addressed to the crowds while Jesus is still at the home of the Pharisee, but definitive proof for or against this possibility is lacking from the text. The point for the narrator, it seems, is to draw the attention away from the dinner scene and back to the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem; the setting in which most of his teaching on discipleship takes place.(2)

The section in question is also thematically related to several other passages in the gospel of Luke. The subject of taking up one’s cross is first presented in 9:23-24, when Jesus is teaching his disciples about his coming death. Then, the demands to forsake family and material security are introduced in 9:57-62, when Jesus responds to three potential followers. In 12:49-53, Jesus emphasizes the divisiveness of his message, again explaining that even families will be divided and relatives will be forced to oppose each other. Finally, in 18:18-30, Jesus addresses “a certain ruler” who becomes very sad at Jesus’ demand that he sell everything he owns. Jesus relates to his disciples the seeming impossibility of “the rich” entering the Kingdom, followed by an assurance to them that whoever has left home and family for the sake of the Kingdom will surely “receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.” This final promise is a comforting word in light of the stark message of 14:25-35, which includes no such assurance.

Main Idea
In my opinion, the main idea of Luke 14:25-35 is as follows: To be a disciple of Jesus Christ, one must abandon all of one’s resources, including family heritage, social standing, material possessions, and physical life itself. These resources are ultimately inadequate, and one’s retention of them means one’s exclusion from discipleship and, by implication, the Kingdom of God.

For the purpose of facilitating a better understanding of the text, the following is my paraphrase of Luke 14:25-35, based upon my study of the passage:

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate their own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even life itself—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

“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? For if you lay a foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began and wasn’t able to finish.’

“Or suppose a king sets out to go against another king in battle. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? For if he is not strong enough, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will negotiate a truce.

“In the same way, those of you who do not say good-bye to everything you have cannot be my disciples.

“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, with what can it be made salty again? Salt without saltiness is good for nothing, not even for the soil or manure pile. It is thrown away.

“Anyone who is willing to listen should consider this carefully and act accordingly."

For the purpose of grasping the overall flow of thought in the text, the following is my outline of Luke 14:25-35.(3) This section consists of an introduction to those receiving instruction (v. 25), two parallel statements on discipleship (vs. 26-27), two parabolic illustrations (vs. 28-32), a third statement on discipleship (v. 33), and a concluding warning and call to obedience (vs. 34-35). This outline will also serve as the basic structure for the Explanation of the Text below:

I. Recipients of the instruction: Jesus turns to address the large crowds traveling with him (14:25).

II. First statement on discipleship: One cannot be a disciple of Jesus without hating one’s own family and even one’s own life (14:26).

III. Second statement on discipleship: One cannot be a disciple of Jesus without carrying one’s own cross (14:27).
A. First Illustration: A tower-builder cannot complete a tower with inadequate resources, and will be mocked and ridiculed for his attempt to do so (14:28-30).
B. Second Illustration: A war-making king cannot defeat an enemy with inadequate resources, and will be forced to surrender for his attempt to do so (14:31-32).

IV. Third statement on discipleship: Like the tower-builder and the war-making king, one cannot be a disciple of Jesus without giving up every (inadequate) resource that one possesses (14:33).

V. Warning and call to obedience: The disciple who is unwilling to obey Jesus’ teaching is like salt without saltiness, which cannot be remedied, is useless, and must be thrown away (14:34-35a). Anyone willing to listen should consider this teaching carefully and act accordingly (14:35b).

Explanation of the Text
After concentrated study of Luke 14:25-35, I have concluded that the passage’s meaning is deceptively simple and, therefore, quite easy to miss. It is commonly suggested that the theme is “counting the cost of discipleship,” so much so that most Bible translations begin this section with the same, or a similar, heading.(4) This appears to be correct at first, for the two illustrative parables contain identical references to “sitting down” and “considering the cost.”

Yet, this common interpretation does not explain effectively Jesus’ essential point of application in v. 33, which compels the listener to abandon all possessions. For this reason, as the teaching of Jesus in this passage is explored below, I recommend that the conventional understanding of “counting the cost” be set aside and that receptiveness to an alternative explanation be maintained. In keeping with the above outline, therefore, I will provide a broad exposition of Luke 14:25-35 in several parts in the coming days. Please join in the conversation.

(1) Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are from Today’s New International Version.
(2) Though it is not integral to the present discussion, it also appears that the disparate scenes appear to be joined by a common theme. The issue introduced in the parable to Israel’s leadership—that illegitimate attachments prevent obedience to the call of the Kingdom—is elaborated upon in a slightly different way to the crowds in 14:25-35. Johnson is right, therefore, when he says, “Having told this parable of rejection to the leaders in which an over-involvement with possessions and relationships closes those invited to the call of God, Luke has Jesus ‘turn to the crowds,’ (14:25) and repeat the same warning for those who would wish to follow him,” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991], 232). Thus, in the literary context of chapter 14, the cautionary message of Jesus continues from the parable of the large banquet, but now it is modified and developed in more detailed instruction to those from the “large crowds” who would seek to become his disciples.
(3) Detailed structural analyses of Luke 14:25-25 are difficult to locate, therefore, the following outline was constructed in consultation with these sources: Thomas E. Schmidt, Hostility to Wealth in the Synoptic Gospels (JSNTSup 15; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1987): 150-153; Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997): 564-568; and Herman Hendrickx, The Third Gospel for the Third World, Vol. 3-B (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000): 77-88.
(4) As is often the case, readers of the New Testament frequently are so familiar with the text or teaching that they neglect a detailed and focused investigation. In the course of study, it appears that even the majority of commentators consistently make this unintentional mistake. The two stand-out exceptions among the commentaries were Green, The Gospel of Luke, 564-568; and Hendrickx, The Third Gospel for the Third World, 77-88. In all fairness to commentators, however, the breadth of study necessary for writing a commentary inherently works against the deliberate, concentrated study of every passage in the gospel of Luke. Perhaps it is for this reason that the best explanations of the present text came from the following two monographs: Schmidt, Hostility to Wealth in the Synoptic Gospels, 150-153; and Brian E. Beck, Christian Character in the Gospel of Luke (London: Epworth Press, 1989), 36, 51, 98-102, 153.


traveller said...

I look forward to your thoughts on this passage.

For those of us, me in particular, who live in the United States it is difficult not to rely on our own inadequate resources instead of God. It is an area of constantly nudging by the Holy Spirit with me. How to live simply and humbly in reliance on God in the midst of a culture that glorifies wealth (and showing it off) and self-assertion, is not easy.

Thank you for taking the time to write on this topic and offer your insights.

allhokie said...

Your "Main Idea" is both thrilling and terrifying.
To be a disciple of Jesus Christ, one must abandon all of one’s resources, including family heritage, social standing, material possessions, and physical life itself. These resources are ultimately inadequate, and one’s retention of them means one’s exclusion from discipleship and, by implication, the Kingdom of God.

Yes, retention of resources is lack of discipleship and the scary part, being left out of the kingdom.

The only one I have heard really address this and follow it in 21st century America is Shane Claiborne. In his book he discusses giving away these resources. He is a true disciple, but most people would consider him a freak. I guess that means he is doing it right!

I'm interested to hear more about counting the cost. I'm sure it is more than an accounting procedure. In most Baptist churches, discipleship means having a "quiet time" and reading the Bible everyday, maybe some witnessing. But clearly there is more to following Jesus than that.