In the gospel reading for Trinity 12 in Year C, Luke 14.25–33, we complete our navigation through this section of Jesus’ intermingled teaching and action until we hit the landfall of the ‘parables of the lost’ next week in Luke 15. The double focus on the crowds and discipleship, the drawing together of teaching found in different places in the other gospels, and the lack of specific location all continue as hallmarks of Luke’s record of Jesus in this section.
The first saying here, about ‘hating’ one’s kinship group, is found in Matt 10.37–39, following on in that gospel from the saying about bringing division and a sword that we heard earlier in this one in Luke 12.51–53. In both Luke and Matthew, it is immediately followed by the saying about taking up one’s cross, which echoes the pivotal saying in Mark 8.34 = Matt 16.24 = Luke 9.23. The middle pair of sayings, about the person building a tower and the king going to war and first assessing the cost of the respective projects, is found in Luke alone—which is interesting, since when I first read it, it seemed so familiar I was sure it was in the other Synoptics as well. It isn’t. The final saying in this section, which belongs to it but is cut off by the arbitrary snip of the lectionary scissors, is found in Matt 5.13 connected to the sayings about the disciples being the ‘light of the world’ and ‘salt of the earth’. Since the lectionary is ‘advisory’, then when reading this together you should really continue to the end of the chapter, and consider all these sayings together.
As is common in this section of Luke, the scene shifts abruptly without any explanation or any attempt to locate accurately the place where this teaching happens. Jesus has been at dinner in the preceding verses, and teaching about the kingdom of God in relation to the table; now it appears he is on the road again. Crowds follow him on the road, as they have done previously—but once more there is a distinction to be made between the crowds and the disciples of Jesus. The crowds form the potential pool of those who might ‘follow’ him in the stricter sense, but for many that decision of discipleship has not yet been realised.
Jesus then repeats one of many ‘anti-family’ sayings sprinkled through Luke’s gospel (Luke 8.19–21, 9.52–69, 12.51–53, 18.29, 21.16), but it is also worth noting the implicit connection with the politics of the table in the previous episode. If the kingdom of God and loyalty to Jesus are going to redraw the boundaries of honour, social stratification and kinship allegiance, then traditional ties of family are going to be strained by the demands of discipleship. We need to remember that Jesus said this in a culture where family and tribal identity and loyalty were much stronger than they are in modern Western culture—and it is quite hard to think ourselves into such a context.
The language of ‘hate’ sounds very disturbing to the ordinary reader’s ear—but in fact Jesus is here deploying common Jewish hyperbole to contrast two different attitudes. The roots of this language are found in the OT: in Gen 29.31, Laban’s greater love for Rachel is described (in Hebrew and Greek) as ‘hatred’ of Leah. (See also the similar comparison in Deut 21.15–17). Jesus is insisting that his disciples ‘must put Jesus so strongly at the centre of their thinking that they will appear to others as despisers or haters of their closest relatives’ (Danker, 1988, p 272 cited in Parsons, Paideia, p 229).
Jeff Robinson over at The Gospel Coalition explores this:
Matthew 10:37 may provide the interpretational key to unlock what Jesus means by “hate” here: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Yes, we are to exhibit deep affections for our closest earthly kin, but Jesus is saying we must love even them less than we do him if we would prove to be genuine disciples. Of course, it’s also true that I will love my family and friends well in direct to proportion to the depth of my love for Jesus.
Jesus is not demanding that you literally hate your family. He is using hyperbole to illustrate the steep cost of following him. Any prospective follower must be glad to give up everything, to love him unreservedly—to sell all in order to have him as your highest treasure (Matt. 13:44–46). Our affections for Christ must be of such an intensity and quality that, by comparison, all other loves seem like hate.
This is the first of three sobering warnings in Luke 14:26-33 against making a hasty decision to follow Jesus. A genuine disciple must:
- Love Jesus even more than your earthly family (v. 26).
- Take up your cross and follow him (v. 27).
- Be willing to lay down everything—even your life—and go hard after him (v. 33).
The image of bearing one’s cross is not at all connected with putting up with natural burdens, as is suggested by the common use of the saying now; crucifixion was an everyday reality, and if you saw someone carrying their cross you knew that their life had come to an end. (‘Every criminal condemned to death bears his cross on his back’, Plutarch Sera 554A–B.) Note the personal emphasis in Jesus’ saying: each must carry his or her own cross.
The twin illustrations of building a tower and going to war would have been easily understood by Jesus’ listeners, and need not imply anything about the context or the audience. Towers were not only built to protect city walls, but were a common site in fields for use as a look-out to guard crops from those who might steal them. Some commentators focus on the question of humiliation; after all, the person with an incomplete tower would look a fool, and a king who sued for peace without the strength to fight a war might find him and his people enslaved. To follow Jesus might also involved humiliation, as Jesus himself was humiliated on the cross, so the stories could be read as an invitation to ‘choose your humiliation’. But surely the more important point is this: that neither the builder nor the king actually achieved their goal. If we do not count the cost of discipleship at the point of commitment, then we are in danger of missing out on the goal of following Jesus at all—which is eternal life in the kingdom.
The final saying about saltiness makes less sense to us than to Jesus and his audience, since we cannot quite imagine salt becoming unsalty. But salt from the Dead Sea was in fact a mixture of all sorts of things, salt itself only being one ingredient. If the salt crystals themselves were dissolved away, then the remaining residue would be useless, fit for nothing. ‘The Lukan Jesus is here concerned with commitment, not with chemistry’ (Parsons, p 231). (Note that the final summary to pay attention, ‘Those with ears to hear, let them here’, parallels the saying at the end of each of the messages to the seven assemblies in Revelation, yet another connection between the two works.)
There are a number of very practical implications of Jesus’ teaching here, both for the wider church and for each of us as disciples.
First is the question of crowds. Numbers matter, because numbers represent people. Crowds are good, if that means that many will hear the challenging invitation to hear the good news of Jesus and to follow him. You might not yet be planning to install a helter-skelter or a mini golf course in your church building, but if you do then the crowds will come. The question, though, is what you do with those crowds. Will some of them make the transition to become disciples? If not, want was the point in creating a crowd in the first place?
Second is the question of grace. There has been some controversy about the message of Nadia Bolz Weber, and her call that we should cast off the moralistic burden of purity culture and feel no shame about sex and sexuality, even if that means have multiple sexual partners. There are some serious questions to be asked of her approach, but I was struck by a comment online by a good friend whom I respect:
I think it’s wise to take time to reflect on the discomfort she creates and to appreciate the good. She is certainly right about being more honest – the lack of honesty for generations is a key issue in all C of E arguments about sexuality. I liked this quote: “I believe in grace so much that I have no shame in admitting why I need it, so there are very few things that I really carry shame about in my life. Not that I haven’t: I have, but I just believe in grace.” She talks very openly about the grace that she has discovered in God, and that is appealing to many people.
Radical forgiveness undoubtedly is an essential part of grace—but on its own it is not grace. If it were, then the Jesus of Luke 14 is not gracious, and that is a problem, since consistently in the NT Jesus is the measure and the embodiment of grace. This grace, if it really is the grace of God, moves beyond forgiveness and calls us into the life of Jesus. ‘The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher’ (Luke 6.40). If the life of grace was costly for him, then it will costly for us too if it really is the grace of God.
The third point follows on from this, and relates to the way we understand Jesus’ costly call to us. Jesus does not demand our totally loyalty because he is some tinpot despot, who will remove the party whip from us if we do not vote for him in every motion. He demands our totally loyalty because he loves us, and knows that this alone is the path of fulness of life that he longs for us to walk. If Jesus really is ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14.6) then if we refuse to follow in costly obedience, then we are actually refusing his gift of grace.
When I came to faith in an evangelical church, I was taught the mantra ‘If Jesus is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all’. The aim of this saying was to challenge us to total commitment to Jesus in every area of our life. But I wonder now if it has a different significance: if we don’t follow Jesus in every area of our life, we are in danger of missing out on the life that his Lordship brings. There are two kingdoms: the kingdom of this world, which is passing away, and the kingdom of God, the world to come that is breaking in in the ministry of Jesus and is made real by the Spirit at work in our lives. Jesus here teaches us: you cannot have joint citizenship. You belong in the one kingdom or the other—and only one leads to life eternal.
‘The cross is laid on every Christian. It begins with the call to abandon the attachments of this world… When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die’ (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p 73). Thus German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer captures the stark demands made by the gospel. This radical obedience and absolute allegiance may sound harsh and impossible to most contemporary Christians in the West. And yet the history of the church is filled with those who have heard this call and responded with utter abandonment. (Parsons, Paideia, p 231).