Much has been written about the cost of discipleship. Even more has been said. And yet, as often as we hear about all that Jesus demands of us as his disciples, we cannot avoid being set off balance when we run into a difficult passage like Luke 14:26-27, 33:
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. . . . So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
Who doesn’t bristle under the sharp language of hate, cross bearing, and renunciation? It seems to cut against everything that makes us who we are. Indeed, it does.
So what is Jesus up to in this passage? Is he really suggesting that we should “hate” our families, and even ourselves, with all that such a stance would entail? On the one hand, we must obviously say “no.” After all, Jesus is the one who perfectly fulfilled the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, and even calls us to love our enemies. Whatever he means, he is not contradicting himself, and he is not suggesting that we do something that is out of accord with the rest of God’s Word.
But if he is not calling us to hate our families actively, is the cost of discipleship somehow made less than if he were? Again, the answer here is “no.” What Jesus is calling us to is ultimate allegiance. He is essentially saying, “To be my disciple, you must give me preeminence over and (sometimes) against all other relationships.” In other words, our lives should be so submitted to Christ that when we put our allegiance to him side-by-side with other allegiances, the difference is so great that it could be described in the black-and-white terminology of love and hate.
This is a remarkable cost for one to pay, is it not? It seems burdensome, too weighty, almost unbearable. And it is, in fact, all of these things. One wonders if anyone could ever pull it off.
What is remarkable about gospel-centered discipleship is the claim that someone did “pull it off.” Christ, the Son of God, chose to condescend into our world in his Incarnation. Rather than leave us to die as slave-disciples of cruel masters, he left his Father’s side in heaven, renounced all that he had, bore a cross that we deserved, and ultimately gave up his own life for us. In short, in Jesus’ call to radical discipleship, he does not ask us to anything that he has not already done for us. And it is this reality—that our Discipler has given up everything for us—that not only encourages us, but actually empowers us to respond to his call to costly discipleship. Only this kind of God could be worthy of our ultimate allegiance.
The Cost of Discipleship in Cultural Perspective(s)
This call to ultimate allegiance challenges and cuts against the idols of every culture. We might certainly explore this on the micro-levels of nation, ethnicity, neighborhoods, and more. But in this context I’m particularly interested in the macro-level differences between a more traditional Eastern culture and a progressive Western culture. The costly call of Luke 14 challenges both the Eastern and the Western cultural mindset, and is seen clearly in episodes in which Jesus calls his disciples to follow him.
In Matthew 4:21-22 we find James and John in a boat mending their fishing nets, and their father was with them in the boat. It is at this point that Jesus “called them,” and upon hearing this call, the brothers “immediately left the boat and their father and followed him.”
Now, what’s intriguing here is the different ways in which this text could be read. On the one hand, a typical Westerner might look at this passage and see little challenge in a call that results in the leaving behind of one’s father. This is because, in Western cultures, greater allegiance tends to be given to the individual and his vocation, regardless of how it might affect one’s family, community, and others. In stark contrast, a more conservative Eastern culture often places more emphasis on family, community, and corporate solidarity.
Thus, this call, which is a shining example of the kind of commitment that Christ called for in Luke 14, is particularly challenging to more traditional cultures. While society itself, our local communities, and even our families may be demanding that we give our primary devotion to them, the call to discipleship always includes a drastic re-ordering of that which is most precious to us, and may sometimes include a departure from those things that refuse to come under the rule of our new Master.
Equally Challenging for the Progressive West
Interestingly, however, Matthew 4:18-20 gives us a picture that equally challenges the overly individualized Western reader. It is there that we find Peter and Andrew in the middle of their day’s work—fishing. When Jesus sees them, he says, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Notice that the call here is in specific relationship to their vocation. Jesus wants to redefine their entire lives, and he does so by calling them to shift their line of work. Upon hearing the call they immediately leave their nets and follow him.
Such a call might not be all that hard for those in a more traditional culture to hear. After all, they may be accustomed to sacrificing personal ambition and dreams on the altar of community and family. But for the more progressive Western reader, it is almost unfathomable that devotion to Christ might mean that ambition and career-building would need to take a back seat to Jesus.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying that Christ is calling Easterners to leave their families, and Westerners to leave their careers. Rather, I am saying that the call to discipleship is a fundamental redirection of our human existence, a reorientation, an all-embracing turning about of our lives in order that our affections might be placed primarily upon Christ. And, this being the case, the call to discipleship will cut through and across every culture. So, for the progressive, part of the call will be to make sure that Christ is more important than one’s work. We must find our identity in being a disciple of Christ, rather than as disciples of our career development. As for the traditionalist, the challenge may be in making certain that Christ takes precedence in one’s life over and above family, community, and society. We must make sure that Christ is the supreme treasure in our lives.
Whatever the case may be, as disciples of Christ we are challenged to give him our ultimate allegiance, no matter our cultural background or social location. This being the case, our comfort and our energies must be derived from the fact that Christ not only transcends human culture, but he also entered into it. And, having entered into culture, he not only challenges the reigning paradigms, but also promises to redeem all that is broken about them.