(Luke 14: 25-33)
Today’s scripture comes from the heart of Luke’s Gospel, Chapter 14, during the time that Jesus and his disciples were traveling to Jerusalem. At the end of Chapter 9, Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem,” and in Chapter 19, he arrived. In between, he traveled, sending out disciples before him to the places that he planned to visit, teaching about the kingdom of God and the requirements of discipleship, engaging with the Pharisees and lawyers who sought to discredit him and later to arrest him. Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors, healed the sick, cast out demons, and, throughout the journey, he taught. As Luke 13:22 said, “Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.” Luke does not write of the journey to Jerusalem as a series of chronological events, “this and then this,” but rather as a collection of anecdotes that share Jesus’s teachings. As Steve mentioned last Sunday, “And then there was one time when…” is how Luke frames and compiles the narrative, a narrative which jumps between Jesus addressing the large crowds that followed him and smaller groups of his inner circle or his opponents. Listen now for God’s word for you today as Luke recounts one time when Jesus spoke to the crowds:
Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with 10,000 to oppose the one who comes against him with 20,000? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far way, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So, therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Immediately prior to this passage, Jesus was having dinner at the home of a leader of the Pharisees, so our passage begins by noting the change of scene, location, and audience. Jesus addressed a large crowd that was “traveling with him.” He had to turn around to speak to them. The crowd was literally following in his footsteps and hanging on every word. They pursued him and said that they would follow him. Now, Jesus addressed the crowd and told them what following him, what being his disciple would require. Earlier, before beginning the journey to Jerusalem, Jesus told his smaller group of disciples that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and, on the third day, be raised.” In the next verse, he continued on to say, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” The large crowd, however, had not yet heard this message, so in our passage, Jesus told them what it would take to be one of his disciples, to follow him faithfully. They would have to turn away from their families, give up their possessions, and take up the cross.
Jesus didn’t sugarcoat it for them, in fact, he used hyperbole, an exaggeration to drive home his point. He told the crowds that they must hate their parents and siblings, spouses and children. Jesus, who preached of God’s love and of loving one’s neighbor, did not mean that we should despise, not-love our families, but rather he uses “hate” as a cultural expression “meaning to turn away from, to detach oneself from,” much as we, or our children, might say “throw shade” or “dis” our families. I’m sure my son will tease me later for not knowing the most up-to-date term. Nonetheless, hate here refers to loving something less than another thing, renouncing one thing in favor of another, or elevating one value over another. Jesus said that anyone who wants to be his disciple must be “all in” and put discipleship before their family. Being a disciple requires us to rearrange our priorities, prioritizing discipleship over “even the most sacred of human relationships” In Chapter 9 of Luke’s gospel, several “would be followers of Jesus,” who were called or declared their intention to follow Jesus wherever he would go, they wanted to tie up loose ends first, burying a parent and saying goodbye to family, yet Jesus tells them not to look back, only forward – “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Discipleship outweighs our obligations to even our families.
It seems a good time to stop and ask “What is a disciple?” In the Bible, the Greek word, μαθητής, is only used in the gospels and in Acts, nowhere else. The term refers simply to a pupil or a student. To disciple someone is an archaic, obsolete way of saying to teach or train them. As Tokunboh Adeyemo writes on Discipleship in the Africa Bible Commentary, disciple “refers to someone who follows another person’s teachings,” and “it implies a personal attachment to a particular person who shapes the disciple’s whole life.” Discipleship is comparable to a “traditional African practice” of apprenticeship, as he writes, “whereby an apprentice lives with his or her teacher, learning by watching, listening, and participating in everything the master does.” Apprentices were trained to become the successors of the master, as Adeyemo writes, “there is no success without a successor. One sure way of preparing one’s successors is to disciple them.” So those who would be disciples of Jesus had to leave their homes, their families, and their friends in order to follow and learn from him. Jesus and his disciples did not set up camp somewhere; there was no base of operations or school building. They were itinerant, traveling from place to place. So, to follow Jesus, one must, necessarily, leave family and friends behind and walk with Jesus, learning from him along the way. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, to learn that “The Way” was an early name for Christianity.
The second requirement for being a disciple was to “carry the cross and follow” Jesus. As we noted before, Jesus told his inner circle earlier in the Gospel that they must daily take up their cross. Now, Jesus is telling the crowds that, if they too want to follow him, to be his disciples, they must carry the cross. Regarding the verses in chapter 9, scholar and preacher, Fred Craddock claims that Luke is talking to the reader about “carrying the cross.” He writes, “in fact, the only person able to grasp the meaning…is the reader…Jesus has not told [the disciples] he would die by crucifixion…. We the readers [and, I would add, the early Christians to whom Luke was writing] are the ones being called upon to understand our crosses after the fact of his.” To be a disciple means to be willing to suffer as Jesus did. “Carrying the cross” has devolved into referring to our daily struggles, chronic illness, challenges at work and at home, but really it is much more. Biblical scholar Alan Culpepper writes that “it is instead what we do voluntarily as a consequence of our commitment to Jesus Christ. Cross bearing requires deliberate sacrifice and exposure to risk and ridicule in order to follow Jesus.” At the time of Luke’s writing, being a Christian, identifying with the followers of the Way, was a risk. While the persecution and martyrdom of Christians had not yet reached its peak as it did when Christians were thrown to the beasts in the Roman arenas in the second and third centuries, first century Christians faced persecution, ridicule, and exclusion.
The third requirement for discipleship is to give up all of one’s possessions. I think the NRSV translators did the text a disservice here. The word order in the Greek for verse 33 is the same as in the previous verses, “whoever does not”… “is unable to be my disciple.” So, in the Greek the last word of the passage is not “possessions,” but disciple, which is truly the point of the entire passage. But the translators, possibly to make the writing more interesting and less repetitive for English readers, reworded the verse to be “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all of your possessions,” which has the affect of stressing and emphasizing what we would lose rather than what we gain… being a disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ. Whoever does not renounce or say goodbye to their possessions is unable to be Jesus’s disciple. As theologian Emilie Townes writes, “in the process of becoming living disciples, we must, as Jesus states, also learn to give up all of our possessions – our need to acquire, our yearning for success, our petty jealousies, our denigrating stereotypes of others, our prejudices and hatreds, and more – and follow the way of Jesus.” We must let go of those things and people that hold us back, that keep us tied to our former lives. We must be willing to reorder our priorities and loyalties, and use Jesus as our proverbial measuring stick, our guiding light for deciding between competing claims on our time, our treasure, and our devotion.
As I was first reading this passage in preparation for today, I was struck by the two parables embedded in the middle of the passage, between the second and third requirements for discipleship – the story of the landowner wanting to build a tower and a king considering going to war. In these parables, one in a rural setting and one royal, the decisions made by the landowner and the king are not the point. Rather, in both instances the characters “first sat down” and calculated the costs and considered their resources. They were deliberate and not impulsive in making weighty decisions – to spend thousands for a tower or to send thousands off to war. As Presbyterians, we certainly take this to heart, even for less important decisions! Jesus told the crowds and tells us that following him, becoming his disciple requires thought and consideration. These parables affirm the momentousness of the decision to become a disciple. Turning away from our families and possessions, putting God above all of our other priorities and relationships, risking our security and even our lives, demands us to deliberate, to first sit down and consider the costs.
The early church, as it expanded into Gentile areas, initiated new believers after a long period of catechesis, up to 3 years in the third century, a time of teaching, trial, and preparation on what it means to be a Christian. We continue this when we encourage our teenagers to go through confirmation class before affirming their own faith before the congregation. In my experience, confirmation was a school-year-long class that met weekly, and as my mother told me, it was my choice whether I joined the church at the end of the class, but that I had to go to confirmation in order to know what I was choosing. For many Presbyterian churches, new members meet a few times to learn about the big C Church and the particular church before they join. Now, this is not to say that Jesus expects perfection or, as Alan Culpepper noted, “a guarantee of complete fidelity in advance… if he had no one would qualify to be a disciple.” But being a disciple of Jesus Christ means making a commitment, not to be taken lightly or without thought and consideration.
Some preachers may be able to write their sermons before coming up with a title, but, for me, I usually have to provide a title for the bulletin several days before I actually sit down to write. So, as I was thinking about this sermon, so many pithy or cliched options came to mind as possible titles: “Can you finish what you start?,” “Take a Seat,” “Serious Business,” “Where Do Your Loyalties Lie?,” and the fairly obvious, “The Cost of Discipleship.” But I settled on “All In,” a poker term that refers to betting everything one has on one hand of cards, holding nothing back. In an article for The New Yorker, Ian Crouch wrote, “the all-in moment in poker is a thrilling win-or-lose everything crisis of dramatic clarity: you’ve wagered all you’ve got, giving your fate over to the cards, and you can’t go back out again.” He also points out that it’s overuse has made the term “all in” almost meaningless. He says, “whereas ‘all in’ once referred to a scenario in which someone either wins a hand or loses everything in a flash, now it means that a person is simply generally enthusiastic or fully committed.” For this scripture passage, “all in” means being fully committed and risking it all for the sake of Jesus Christ.
We now live in a society where Christianity is largely the norm, where our laws and traditions are rooted in Christianity. Banks and the government are closed on Christmas day, yet remain open for Rosh Hashanah and Eid al-Adha , holy days for Jews and Muslims, respectively. Many of us have been raised in the church, so we don’t have to leave our families in order to follow Jesus. So, what does it mean for us, today, to risk everything, to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, to go all in? I think it means that we need to prioritize, over our families, traditions, societal expectations, we need to prioritize the vision of the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed, one where all people are invited to the table, where the last are first and the first are last, where the poor and hungry are fed, clothed, and housed, where the only requirement for receiving compassion from another is that one is a human being for we are all created in the image and likeness of a loving God, where every living creature is seen as God’s creation, where disciples “hear the word of God and obey it,” as it says in Luke Chapter 11.
Being a disciple means going “all in,” deliberately and voluntarily risking and being willing to give up all that is dear to us, facing the consequences of that decision, come what may, rearranging our priorities to put loving God and loving neighbor first above all else, making a solemn, sacred commitment to follow and obey the Word of God, a God who clothes the flowers of the field and feeds the birds of the air, a God who sent Jesus to live among us, a God who hears our cries and responds, a God who forgives and redeems, a God who loves us and showers us with grace upon grace. How can we not go all in? Amen.
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.