The Real Cost of Discipleship
Every financial transaction that we engage in makes us to think about two things: cost and benefit. If the cost is greater than the benefit, we usually don’t follow through with the deal. But if the benefit exceeds the cost, and assuming we have the money, we are more likely to buy the item in question. But sometimes just marking an item as a “on sale” or “reduced” is enough of a psychological incentive to override our normal considerations.
Of course, this principle applies to areas other than economics, too. Recently there was a program on the Discovery Health Channel about people who consumed an extraordinary amount of calories on a daily basis — sometimes as much as fifteen times what most people eat. One man, who weighed about a thousand pounds and had not been out of bed in several years, was interviewed. He said that he really wanted to exercise self-control but just couldn’t do it. Well, the fact is that the benefit of better health wasn’t as precious to him as the enjoyment of massive quantities of food. He was unwilling to pay the cost.
This morning’s text is also about cost. Here it’s the cost of following Christ. Our Lord spoke to three individuals. We don’t know any of their names or even what became of them later, but we do know that the Lord told them in plain terms what he requires of his disciples.
Luke recorded these events for us so that we, too, might know what he expects from us. We need to know the cost of discipleship, and we have to ask ourselves if we’re willing to pay it.
The Eager Would-be Disciple
The first of these would-be disciples came to Jesus in verse 57 with great enthusiasm. He assured Jesus that he would follow him wherever he went. There were no restrictions or qualifications.
From Matthew’s account of the same incident, we learn that this individual was a scribe. To appreciate this, you have to understand what a scribe was. Before the Babylonian Captivity in the sixth century BC, scribes were basically copyists. They copied the law. Because they were occupied with the law day in and day out, they also became experts in the law. They classified and arranged its various precepts. And they were so meticulous in this that they counted every clause and every letter. A scribe could tell you, for example, what was the middle letter of the book of Genesis or how many lines of text there were in the book of Ruth. Scribes were generally well educated and regarded as part of the upper crust of Jewish society. It has even been said that the words of a scribe were more honored than the law, and it was therefore a greater crime to offend a scribe or to violate his teaching than to disobey the law itself.
The fact that this man was a scribe helps us to understand where he was coming from. He came to Jesus with the thought that he would have the same honor and status among Jesus’ disciples that he enjoyed among the Jews.
Here we have an offer of unconditional discipleship. On the surface it sounds like a good offer. It was certainly better than what the other two men in our text said they would do. But it is also evident that this man had not really given much thought to what he said because there was, in fact, a condition that he had not considered. He had not entertained the thought that following Christ might result in deprivation. He had not counted the cost.
Jesus responded to the scribe by underscoring the real cost of discipleship. He said that the brute beasts have a place to sleep, but he had nowhere to lay his head. In other words, following Christ did not guarantee a smooth and easy life. But was he ready for this? Was he willing to endure the hardness that Christ demands of a good soldier (cf. 2 Tim. 2:3)?
Our Lord would never enlist someone under false pretenses. He made it clear that if we follow him, our deadly enemies (the world, the flesh, and the Devil) will hate us, slander us, and persecute us, sometimes even unto death. He did not say this to discourage us, but because he wanted us to know the truth.
Men often make up their minds to walk with God and serve him before they have really considered these things. They may be impressed with the wisdom of Scripture or the mighty acts of God that are recorded there. Perhaps like the scribe, they suppose that it promises them a trouble-free existence. But such people are like the seed that fell on the stony ground in Jesus’ parable. Having heard the Word, they immediately receive it with gladness, but because they have no root in themselves they fall away as soon as affliction or persecution comes along (Mark 4:16–17).
In our text, the would-be disciple promised to follow Jesus wherever he went. But did he know where Jesus was going? Our text is unmistakably clear on this point. He was going to Jerusalem. Look at verse 51: And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). Two verses later we find that the Samaritans would not give him a place to lay his head because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem (v. 53). But why was he going to Jerusalem? That, too, is clear. According to verse 22, he had to go there to suffer and to die. Jesus said, The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be slain, and be raised the third day. And in verse 44 Jesus gave his followers a solemn reminder of this fact, when he said, Let these sayings sink down into your ears: for the Son of man shall be delivered into the hands of men.
Interestingly, both in the Lord’s prediction of his death in verses 22 and 44 and in his response to the over-eager scribe, he called himself the Son of man. This is a name that we find in the New Testament only on the lips of Jesus himself. No one calls him this; rather, this is what he calls himself. It comes from Daniel 7:13. There the Son of man was more than a man. The Ancient of days, i.e., God the Father, gave him an everlasting kingdom and glory equal to that of the Ancient of days himself. In other words, it’s a Messianic title. And yet at the same time it also testifies to the Lord’s full humanity. He was a man, just like other men, except that he had no sin. As a man, he understood real deprivation and suffering. So, when he called his people to suffer for him, he wasn’t asking us to do anything that he had not already done for us but in a far greater measure.
This is what the scribe missed. After hearing what Jesus said, he had to ask himself if he was willing to pay the cost. If not, he should withdraw his offer to follow Jesus.
And if we intend to follow Christ, we too must cast away any notion that he promises nothing but what we had, only a little better. Are we willing to pay the cost?
The Responsible Would-be Disciple
As we turn to the second would-be disciple, we realize that we know even less about him. The only thing we can say is this man’s father either had died or was close to death.
Jesus’ approach to this man was little different. The scribe had come to him and had volunteered to be his disciple. But Jesus summoned the second man to follow him. In fact, he not only called him to be a disciple but to preach the kingdom of God. In the first instance he discouraged a man who came to him with his own ideas, and in the second he invited a man to be his disciple who had made no such offer. Here we have a lesson in the meaning of God’s grace!
The second man received a divine summons to follow Christ, but he delayed. It wasn’t so much that he was unwilling to go; he just wasn’t ready. His father’s funeral had to be taken care of first. Once that was out of the way, he would be right there.
On the surface, this seems to be not only a harmless request but the kind of behavior that we would expect from a godly and responsible son. And the fact that the request was innocent makes Jesus’ response all the more harsh and unfeeling. After all, funerals were big affairs for the Jews. They tore their clothes, mourned loudly and sometimes even hired professional mourners to make even more noise. In fact, the Jews considered the burial of their dead relatives a more important duty than studying the Torah. Even priests, who were not allowed contact with dead bodies, were permitted to bury their own relatives (Lev. 21:1–3).
But there are two reasons why this man’s request was not as harmless as it seems.
The first is the father’s condition. We might conclude from the son’s request that his father was already dead — just a corpse lying around and waiting to be buried. But this is not very likely. For one thing, if his father had just died, he wouldn’t be wondering around on the highway, chatting with travelers. He would be preparing his father’s body for interment. And further, it was the practice of the Jews in the first century to bury their dead on the day of death. So, if the father had already died, there would not have been a problem with the son discharging his duty. It seems, rather, that the father had not died. He may have been old and infirm, perhaps even teetering on the edge of death, but he was not dead. The would-be disciple wanted to delay following Christ by an unknown amount of time — perhaps a few days or even a few months.
Second, this would-be disciple failed to appreciate the urgency of Jesus wanted him to do. Remember that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. Even the Samaritans could see the urgency of his mission, but they weren’t willing to receive him because they did not believe that Jerusalem was the right place to worship God. But this man treated Christ’s call to service as if it were another part of life. He had been called to witness and to declare the single most important event that ever took place on this earth —the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. But he didn’t want to leave his ailing father.
It’s not that our Lord disapproved of funerals. Rather, he wants disciples who resolutely refuse to prefer love and duty toward men above duty to God. Jesus set aside a social convention, insisting that the kingdom of God has priority over the family. Sometimes (though not always) certain duties, like caring for a dying father, have to be managed in some other way so that the work of the kingdom can go forward. Jesus did not tell this man that he should ignore his father or make no provision for his care. He only told him that he couldn’t stay with him at that moment. The Lord had more urgent work for him to do.
Jesus said, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. By this he meant that this man should leave the task of burying the physically dead to those who are spiritually dead, so that he could preach Christ.
These two things are not unrelated. Preaching is the means that God uses to give life to the spiritually dead, which in turn prepares them for physical death. In other words, if this man would be of any real use to his father and to others, he had to hand over the responsibility of his father’s care to others and follow Jesus.
What we’re looking at here are responsibilities and priorities. The question before us is, What do we value? Do we seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, or is it all the things of the world that catch our attention? Are we willing to pay the cost of discipleship?
The Wavering Would-be Disciple
The third would-be disciple was an individual who, like the scribe, volunteered to follow Jesus. But unlike the scribe, his offer came with a condition. Lord, I will follow thee, he said, but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house.
Again, this request does not seem to be particularly unreasonable. In the Old Testament, Elijah allowed Elisha to say farewell to his parents before leaving with him (I Kgs. 19:19–21). And it’s just a courtesy to let your family know where you are. That’s why we tell our kids to check in with us every once in a while when they’re out with their friends.
But this is not really what’s going on here. Even though this man had volunteered to follow Christ, he was just a little hesitant to do it. Maybe he wanted to see what his family thought of the idea. Perhaps he wanted to get his affairs in order. It’s also possible that he was hoping that someone would talk him out of it. In any case, he had worldly concerns foremost in his thinking and was not wholly devoted to Christ. He would not make a good disciple.
We know this from the Lord’s reply in verse 62. Jesus said, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God. Here the word translated fit means useful. His worldly-mindedness would prevent him from serving well.
The Lord’s illustration from first-century agriculture makes the point. A plow in Jesus’ day usually had only one handle. One hand guided the plow, while the other held the goad — a long, pointy stick used to poke the oxen to keep them moving. Since the plow was fairly lightweight, the plowman had to lean on the handle to keep the blade in the ground. He also had to keep his eyes fastened on some object at the far end of the field to keep the plow moving in a straight line. If he were to look another direction, the plow would come out of the ground and whatever furrows he managed to cut would be crooked. In other words, Jesus meant that this man was still too wrapped up in his old life. His heart was not in the work.
We learn from this saying that it is impossible to serve Christ with a divided heart. If we keep looking back to what we once had, we are not fit to be disciples. If we long for the old ways, as the Israelites did in the wilderness, then we cannot serve in Christ’s kingdom. Those who look back, like Lot’s wife, want to go back. The Lord Jesus Christ must have all our heart or he will have none of it. Therefore, we must be willing to do anything and suffer anything and give up everything for Christ’s sake. Let us pay the cost.
No one can finish his business properly, if he’s wrapped up in other things. If we start to follow Christ, we must be resolved to continue to follow Christ to the end. Only he that endures to the end by God’s grace shall be saved.
Now, beloved, Luke recorded these three sayings to remind us of the cost of discipleship. They are absolute in nature. Jesus demands unqualified commitment from his followers.
The first saying teaches us that following Christ must be the result of a conscious choice to take up our cross with him. We must willingly become strangers and pilgrims on the earth (Heb. 11:13) for his sake. Those who volunteer to be his disciples must first count the cost.
The next two sayings are Jesus’ responses to requests for a temporary delay. The first man wanted to bury his father, who had not yet died, and the other to bid his parents farewell. Both requests were denied. Why? Because it was evident that neither of these two men understood who Jesus was or what he was about to do. They preferred comfort and security, family ties, and friendship to the things of God. They thought about the cost, but they weren’t convinced that the benefit was great enough.
These sayings make us reflect on the cost for ourselves. Are we willing to bear the cost of discipleship? Is there anything that we would prefer to following Jesus?
On the other hand, the Bible teaches that those who put their trust in Christ really lose nothing and gain everything. There is nothing but benefit to those who believe. Yes, discipleship requires some suffering and tribulation. But such things cannot separate us from the love of God (Rom. 8:38–39). Yes, we may be deprived of things that we hold dear, including family and loved ones, but remember that our loss is only temporary. Jesus said, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel’s, but he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life. But many that are first shall be last; and the last first (Mark 10:28–31). Amen.