Counting the Cost
Pentecost 16 (Luke 14:25-33)
Some of us here today have come out of faith traditions that included the practice of an altar call. (If you are a cradle Episcopalian, this may be a somewhat foreign concept to you.) As I remember it, the altar call was a part of the worship service, generally after the sermon and just before the close of the service. The congregation would sing a quiet hymn (i.e. Just as I Am) several times over and anyone who wanted to come to the altar to profess his/her faith could do so. It was a quiet time of prayer where, surrounded by supportive members of the congregation and a welcoming pastor down front, you could almost hear Jesus himself say: “Come unto me.”
What we hear from Jesus in today’s Gospel reading sounds just a little bit different…
In fact, when I first read today’s reading from Luke (with the idea of preaching on it!), the closest reference that came to mind for me was: HBO’s Game of Thrones.
If you haven’t watched this very popular TV series, I’ll just say it includes a lot of fighting between family dynasties, a lot of fighting within family dynasties, and, generally speaking, a lot of fighting, especially on the battlefield. There are some very noble heroes and very dastardly villains, but they all have in common exactly what Jesus describes in this passage:
Faced with waging war against a strong foe, these characters consider carefully whether or not they have the means to defeat the enemy. If they do not, they find allies. They will send a delegation and look for terms of peace. They look at their resources, weigh the costs that may be required of them, and take action.
What does “counting the costs” have to do for us in terms of stepping out in faith and becoming a believer or a follower of Jesus? What does today’s passage have to do with becoming, not just believers or followers, but disciples of Jesus?
It is important to remember that this passage was directed to a large crowd following Jesus and not specifically to his inner circle of disciples. It’s probably safe to assume that many of the folks there were curiosity seekers, onlookers who were there to see what miracle Jesus might do next. These were people who might have “liked” Jesus’ Facebook page but they weren’t prepared to follow him in the true sense of the word.
Jesus turns to the crowd and says this curious thing about hating father, mother, wife, children, and even life itself. How are we to interpret that?
First of all, we can consider this as a use of hyperbole, an exaggeration. This is not the only time Jesus makes some broad statements that we don’t generally take literally.
(For example, consider the admonition to “pluck out your eye” or “cut off your hand” if either causes you to sin. We don’t usually take that literally.)
Also, the word translated here as “hate” is a Semitic expression meaning “to turn away from” or “detach oneself from.” In Genesis, we are told that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah and then that he “hated” Leah, the bride he was tricked into marrying. This same word translated as “hate” doesn’t carry the extreme animosity that we associate with it. Rather, in Jacob’s case, he turned away from Leah and loved her less than Rachel. What Jesus says in today’s passage from Luke is alternatively stated in Matthew 10:37: “Whoever loves father or mother (or any other family member) more than me is not worthy of me….”
If this passage still sounds a bit shocking to us, think about how the crowd around Jesus would have interpreted it. Remember that in Jesus’ day, your family ties defined your personal identity. Being part of a Jewish family gave you status, provided your salvation, and offered security. Think about how shocking it must have been for the crowd to have Jesus state that dependence on God must be primary over even the most basic of human connections–family ties.
Choose wisely–where is your ultimate commitment?
What does it mean, then, to “carry the cross” and follow Jesus? Again, probably not how we typically use the expression today.
When we say “well, that’s a cross I have to bear,” we are often referring to burdens that are involuntarily placed upon us, many of them merely inconveniences and daily irritations in the larger scheme of things. Even Simon of Cyrene, who carried the cross for Jesus, had cross bearing forced upon him. As followers of Jesus–disciples–are we willing to pick up the cross and endure exposure to risk, ridicule, and even extreme suffering for what we believe?
Which brings us back to our tower builder and Game of Thrones king….
Both the builder and king must be careful that they do not commit to action without having counted the cost. Both may discover that they don’t have the resources they need to accomplish their goal.
The builder, if he is not able to finish his project, ends in public ridicule and shame. The king risks loss of his troops and surrender to a stronger opponent, and probably death.
Both characters need to reflect before they act. The price of action is high and the risks are great. Choose wisely. Choose purposefully.
In terms of discipleship, we also know that the one who succeeds is the one who chooses wisely and purposefully, who knows what he is getting into. But we also know that when the cost is high and the sacrifice great, that person will ultimately come to the realization that, on his own, he lacks the resources. When Jesus says to give away all of your possessions, maybe this is what he is talking about. None of the possessions you own, none of the resources you have, will bring you success on this battlefield. Might has well give those up as to count on them for any guarantee of strength and security.
I think choosing the path of discipleship (really picking up the cross) might be compared to other life changing decisions we face: getting married, having a child, committing to a vocation. We are drawn to something beyond ourselves, something that demands all we have to offer. It is important that we think carefully about what we are getting into, that we choose wisely and purposefully. At some point, however, usually after we have started on the new path, we realize that we do not carry the resources to succeed on our own. We are called to something more, something beyond ourselves.
The call to discipleship is a call to Someone beyond ourselves and when we answer that call, we will find all we need for whatever the road ahead may bring.
St Catherine’s Episcopal Church (9/4/16)