Luke tells us that “crowds were traveling with Jesus,” (14:26), and that’s precisely the problem. Everyone had gotten on the Jesus bandwagon but few, if any, had any understanding of what it meant to be a follower of Him. Jesus remedies this with a hard hitting discussion of discipleship.
Three times He uses the phrase “cannot be My disciple” (v. 26,27,33). These form the parameters of what it means to follow Him. The language He employs is stark and startling. He speaks of hating family and self, carrying a cross, and surrendering all that we have. This gets our attention today and you have to think it had the same effect upon the people who first heard these words.
It’s clear enough what the words say, but what does Jesus mean by them?
The “hate” speech of v. 26 touches upon all immediate family relationships: father, mother, siblings, spouse, and children, before finally arriving at self. In the larger context of Jesus’ teachings (Matthew 22:34-40and other passages), no one could seriously believe that He is urging animosity toward anyone. It is obvious hyperbole that is designed to impress upon His listeners the truth that they cannot by “My disciple” if they relegate Jesus to a subordinate status. He is Lord of all or He is not Lord at all. Nothing comes before Him. The beauty of this is that when Jesus is enthroned in our lives, we become better spouses, fathers, mothers, etc., then we ever were before. Becoming a disciple of Jesus is not only the best thing we can do for ourselves–it is the best thing we can do for others.
“Carrying the cross“ (v. 27), serves to reinforce the previous teaching, simply changing the image from love/hate to life/death. Anyone seen carrying a cross in first century Palestine was on their way to being crucified. It was a particularly intense, painful death. It is an appropriate metaphor for the struggles and hardships a disciple faces in dying to self that he might live for Christ.
The two mini-stories that follow, illustrate two fundamental truths embedded in these parameters. The first is that the decision to follow Jesus should not be a frivolous one. It is not to be entered into lightly. Like the person building a tower, we must think seriously about what is involved. We must calculate the costs.
The second story includes that element but progresses to a surprising, unexpected truth. The king is outnumbered two to one. Since what had been mentioned in the first story had to do with counting the costs and making a commitment, the reader anticipates that he will hear something about the level of dedication required to defeat such a foe. But Jesus does not entertain the notion of a Thermopylae-like stand. Instead, the story turns in the opposite direction.
Jesus counsels that the wise course is to ask for terms of peace. He then adds, “In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be My disciples,”(v. 33). Note the picture has now gone from hating your life, to dying to self, to commitment, to surrender. But who is it that we are surrendering to?
The answer is God.
This is instructive because in the story the one king surrenders to another king he has been fighting. As long as we are trying to do everything on our own terms and by our own ability, we are fighting against God. (In other words, being committed to our commitment is just as futile in terms of discipleship as not being committed). What Jesus is teaching here is not about raw, blind commitment–it is about commitment to God and His grace. In counting the costs, we see our inability to please God on our own and surrender to His grace. As Jesus said in Matthew 19:26, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible,”
There’s a story told about Muhammad Ali during his glory years of boxing when he was the undisputed heavy weight champion of boxing and about as close as any human could be to feeling invulnerable. He was on a plane that was preparing to take off. The attendants were checking everyone’s seat belts and his was not fastened. When asked to do so he said, “Superman doesn’t need a seat belt.” The unblinking attendant replied, “Superman also doesn’t need an airplane. Fasten your seat belt please.” Ali did as he was told.
That’s exactly our situation. We cannot get off the ground on our own. This sell-out commitment to God and His grace is what makes us salt (v. 34). Anything else or anything less makes our faith an insipid imitation of the real thing.