Let’s be honest, this week’s Gospel reading is a tough one. We love that Jesus is full of infinite love and perfectly accepting. But it’s not much fun to follow the Jesus who tells people to hate (we’ll talk about that) their families and to count the potentially lethal cost of becoming a disciple. Yet, warning people about counting the cost before they embark on a difficult journey is love.
First, we need to note that large crowds had begun to follow Jesus (Luke 14:25). He didn’t say to them, “Go away and leave me alone” or “I didn’t choose you.” Instead, Jesus turned to them and offered some advice. Presumably, the crowds had been following Jesus in order to become his disciples. A master teaching disciples how to live was the whole point of the discipleship system. By teaching the people how to make important decisions, Jesus immediately honored their requests to follow him.
In Luke 9:22-24, we read that Jesus has already predicted his death for the disciples. He knows what is coming for him and for almost all his chosen disciples. They have been warned, and Jesus extends that same courtesy to the massive crowds that have begun following him of their own accord.
Jesus told the people that whoever does not hate their own family cannot become his disciple. We must ask, did Jesus hate his family? Well, he prioritized the kingdom of heaven over his natal family, to be sure (Luke 8:19-21). But Jesus provided family for his devastated mother from the cross (John 19:26-27) and at least a few of his brothers followed their sibling (Acts 1:14) and led portions of the church (James, Joses and Jude were bishops or heads of municipal churches, according to Paul and Greek historian Eusebius, and potentially Simon was as well). Jesus’ actions and his siblings’ faithfulness point not to hatred but to priorities. He put the kingdom of God ahead of familial expectations and ordered his followers to do the same, even knowing the dangers.
The discipleship of Jesus is a difficult task that doesn’t lead to self-aggrandizement or easy power. If we think it does, we probably aren’t following Jesus.
Following him, Jesus pointed out, may even include execution via the intentionally barbarous and dehumanizing Roman crucifixion (Luke 14:27). He then appealed to common wisdom. One does not begin a difficult and/or expensive task without first estimating if the resources exist to finish that task. The discipleship of Jesus is a difficult task that doesn’t lead to self-aggrandizement or easy power. If we think it does, we probably aren’t following Jesus. To make his point explicit, Jesus told his potential followers that they must renounce their possessions (33).
What do we make of this? It’s a bleak picture of discipleship unless you’re already given to monastic poverty. To contextualize Jesus’ instructions for his potential followers, let’s turn to the Hebrew Bible reading for this week.
In Deuteronomy 30, Moses spoke for God to the Israelites, asking them to choose between life and good on the one hand, and death and evil on the other (15). To do this, the Israelites would either choose to follow God’s commandments or not. Following God’s instructions would enable the Holy Community to live (16). This is one of many passages (e.g., Leviticus 18:5, Ezekiel 20:11) which insists that following God should lead to life, not death. In the Talmud (Yoma 85b), Samuel of Nehardea cites the example verses above to justify understanding that if following a commandment would lead to death or even acute suffering, one must not obey that commandment. Preserving and protecting human life is more important than following almost all other commandments. Jesus taught this same principle repeatedly when he healed on the Sabbath (i.e., Luke 13:10-17).
Most of us in the Western World/Global North will never be called to die for Jesus. Some American Christians talk about being persecuted for their beliefs, but we should be careful not confuse losing the ability to force others to do what we think they should with actual persecution. Many of my colleagues across North Africa have faced violent persecution for their faith in Jesus. And the thing that always surprises me is how joyful they are. Before I met folks who suffered for their faith, I never understood passages like Act 5:41, where people rejoiced after being beaten for faith in Jesus.
Obviously, no one likes being hurt, and Jesus himself sought to avoid crucifixion (Luke 22:42). But choosing life in Christ, even with its costs, is a source of great joy. An elderly woman in one of my Sunday school classes, who had been repeatedly beaten by security forces in her country because she converted to Christianity, told me, “I have life that no baton or gun can ever take from me. I counted the cost a long time ago, and I am going to live, even if I die.” I think this is the kind of cost-counting that Jesus is asking us to undertake.
Real discipleship is expensive. Our own Lutheran Christian saints like German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer teach us this. So let us count the cost, choose to follow God and live, even after we die.