Saturday, September 3, 2016

COUNTING THE COST

23rd Sunday in Ordinary time, Year C. Luke 14:25-33.

AIM: To examine the cost of discipleship, and to show that it can be paid only through complete trust in Jesus.

 

AIf anyone comes after me,@ Jesus tells us in the gospel reading we have just heard, Awithout hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.@ Is that good news? Can Jesus really be serious?

In speaking about Ahating@ those dearest to us, Jesus was using a Semitic word familiar to his hearers, but not to us. Hating for Jesus meant simply detaching one=s self from someone or something. What he was really saying is that He must come first. That is how Jesus himself lived. Even at age twelve Jesus was putting his love for his heavenly Father ahead of love for Mary and Joseph by staying behind in Jerusalem after his earthly parents had left. ADid you not know that I must be in my Father=s house?@ (Lk 2:49) Jesus asked them when they chided him for staying behind. Luke tells us that Athey did not understand what he said to them.@ But Jesus understood, though he was still a boy. 

Love for the Lord does not exclude other loves. But it puts them in the right order. God is not jealous. How could the One who is love, and who in creating us in his image has given us the ability to love, be jealous of what he has made? Jesus asks everything of us because he has given us everything. As Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians, AHe loved us and gave himself up for us@ (5:2).

Jesus spoke those words about hating those dearest to us, Luke tells us, to the Agreat crowds@ which were following him. Did they know how Jesus life would end? How could they? And if they had known, how many of them would have continued to follow him? Many, perhaps most, were following Jesus in a spirit of momentary enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is fine. But Jesus knew that it must have solid foundations. His words about total renunciation, and the two short parables which follow, were his attempt to supply those foundations.

AWhich of you wishing to construct a tower,@ Jesus begins, Adoes not first sit down and calculate the cost ...?@ The example was immediately intelligible to Jesus= hearers. It was the dream of every small farmer in Palestine in Jesus= day to have a proper tower on his property, rather than merely a shed. During harvest time he could sleep in the tower, keeping watch for trespassers and predatory animals, to insure himself against loss.

Valuable as such a tower might be, Jesus= hearers also knew that it would be folly to start building one without first calculating whether the available resources were sufficient to complete the job. If they were not, the farmer would have nothing to show for his hard work but some useless foundations. And his friends would laugh at him for his imprudence.

The second parable begins differently: not Awhich of you ...@, but Awhat king ...@ That too was easy to understand, even though none of Jesus= hearers were kings with an army at their disposal. Common to both parables is the sentence about sitting down first and counting the cost. The first step in any important undertaking, Jesus was saying, is not action, but reflection. Too often we act first and reflect later (if we reflect at all). The crowds who followed Jesus with so much enthusiasm had not reflected. When, finally, they did reflect, some of them would shout: ACrucify him, crucify him.@  

The other sayings of Jesus which Luke places before and after these two parables B about hating father and mother, and about renouncing all our possessions B describe the cost of discipleship. Following Jesus is not something we can do in our spare time. It cannot be simply one interest among others. Jesus Christ must come first in our lives.

Some years ago the internationally known American pianist, Van Cliburn, was asked by a television interviewer about the sacrifices needed to succeed in his profession. AWhen you decide to give your life to music,@ Cliburn replied, Ayou must never look back. You must simply say: >If I am not in music, there is nothing.=@ That is breathtaking. But it is also inspiring. Is it any different, at bottom, from the demand which Jesus makes when he tells us that he must mean more to us than family and possessions?

If you want to be my disciple, Jesus says, count the cost. First reflect. Then act. So let=s reflect. If following Jesus Christ really means putting him first B ahead of money, possessions, success, ahead of those we love most B if Christian discipleship means that, which of us could say with confidence that we had the necessary amount of self-denial and staying power?

Does that mean that we should not follow Jesus Christ? Of course not. It does mean, however, that we should never try to follow Jesus Christ in dependence on our own resources alone. That would mean certain failure. If today=s gospel is good news, it is because of what it does not say: that there are resources for Christian discipleship available to us which are adequate. What we could never achieve on our own, we can achieve if we depend not on our own strength, but on the strength that comes from God alone.   

That is why Jesus tells us in several places to become Alike little children.@  Little children are naturally dependent on others. It never occurs to them that they can make it on their own. As children grow, we encourage them to become more and more independent, and to take risks. That is fine in the things of this world.

In spiritual things, however, and hence in our relationship with God, we must unlearn that spirit of independence which, in worldly affairs, is the difference between maturity and childhood. When it comes to following Jesus Christ, we dare not trust in our own resources. If we do, we are like the farmer building his tower without calculating the cost; or like the king setting our recklessly on a military campaign against impossible odds.

Jesus never asks us to fight against impossible odds. He does not want us to build with inadequate resources. That is why he gives us his resources. They are always adequate. If we trust in the power which God alone can give us, we are safe. We can build with confidence. We can fight confident of victory.

We are gathered here around the Lord=s these twin tables of word and sacrament to receive that power which can do for us, and in us, what we can never do for ourselves. This power is not something impersonal, a kind of spiritual electricity, as if we were here to get our batteries charged for another week. The power that is offered to us here is a person. 

His name is Jesus Christ.