A reflection on the Gospel for this week, the 16th Sunday after Pentecost (Year C), is from Luke 14.
25 Now great crowds accompanied [Jesus], and he turned and said to them, 26 “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. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33 So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:25–33 ESV)
Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. Another tough teaching from Jesus, one I don’t like. Because it has been the muttered justification for many who, in their self-righteousness, believe their suffering makes them better than those around them.
It’s amazing how small “bearing a cross” has become. Mostly, from my experience, it is used to describe annoying and difficult people who need or want or demand too much — people whose lives are something of an inconvenience. And maybe there is something to this, if we take Jesus’ bearing the unearned sins of the world, or an inconvenient and troubled humanity, in his Passion seriously.
We are all an inconvenience. Jesus never seems, at least to me, to respond self-righteously to us (“Look at all the suffering I do for you! And because of you!”), but maybe I’m not paying attention and I missed that.
I’m going to skip the bit about Jesus telling us that unless we hate our family, we cannot follow him, though I always think that has an interesting implication for the settled people who follow Jesus who also put family and place above all things.
Rather, I am interested in counting the costs, and wondering if there isn’t some irony here.
Because who can truly count the cost of discipleship, unless — of course — we consider failure and death as the eventual cost of true discipleship?
Jesus speaks of tower builders who don’t plan well and don’t consider the cost. But the Tower of Babel story of Genesis 11 comes to mind, in which I suspect there was much planning — but also much hubris (“Let us make a name for ourselves!”). The people of Babel worked hard, probably planned hard, to build that tower all the way to heaven. In fact, their ability to plan and work together was the problem the Lord encountered when he inspected the building site.
So, God intervened, confused their speech, and scattered them, making their work impossible. All that planning, come to naught.
Or about the king who rationally considers his possibilities as he leads his army to war, and if outnumbered, makes peace rather than risk his his throne and his country’s fortunes.
Except … every Israelite war God actively took part in on Israel’s behalf, Israel was outnumbered. Sometimes deliberately so. Gideon marches out with 32,000 soldiers, only to be told by the Lord
The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boats over me, saying, “My own hand has saved me.” (Judges 7:2 ESV)
Eventually, God winnows this army down to 300 men who drink from the river funny, and they route a much larger Midianite army. Gideon planned well, counted the costs, and led an army into battle, only to have God intervene and change everything.
How can we count the costs in a world in which God acts to save or confound?
What Jesus says makes sense — good, rational sense. But we’re not really governed by reason, are we? How many kings have marched off to war because honor was aggrieved or dignity was at stake and did not count the costs to them or the nation (such as Josiah in 2 Chronicles 35)? Israel’s impending rebellion against Rome was hardly a rational act, coming as it did against the supreme military power of the world. No one had ever successfully rebelled against Rome at this point in history. But that didn’t stop Israel from rising up and trying to shake off Roman rule. Roman power did not compel Israel’s leaders to count the costs.
I’m not sure Jesus even counted the costs. Perhaps if he had, his life would not have ended nailed to a cross on a desolate hill outside Jerusalem.
Where Jesus is honest and sincere here, however, is in renunciation. In leaving behind family, friends, even reason and cold calculation. It may be that when we follow Jesus, we cannot count the costs in any meaningful way, because we are given a cross to bear all the way to the Place of the Skull. That place of death. And few want that. We would avoid that at virtually any cost we can imagine.
And yet, we are called to follow.