In his book the Cost of Discipleship, Deitrich Bonheoffer records a conversation between God and Luther. In it God says to Luther: “Discipleship is not limited to what you can comprehend — it must transcend all comprehension. … Not to know where you are going is the true knowledge. My comprehension transcends yours. Thus Abraham went forth from His father… not knowing whither he went. … Behold, that is the way of the cross. You cannot find it yourself, so you must let me lead you as though you were a blind man. Wherefore it is not you, no man… but I myself, who instruct you by my Word and Spirit in the way you should go. Not the work which you choose, not the suffering you devise, but the road which is clean contrary to all you choose or contrive or desire — that is the road you must take. To that I call you and in that you must be my disciple.” 1
I dare say that such a view of the true cost of discipleship would send many a Christian running away in fear if they were to hear it told them today. But that shouldn’t surprise us any. Don’t we see the very same things being told to three individuals in our Gospel this morning? How did each of these men react? Despite their differences all three incidents teach the same lesson: True discipleship under Christ implies a denial of the self and all earthly ties, in certain circumstances even the obligations of blood-relationship. In other words, we cannot place conditions on our call to be His disciple. We dare not tell Jesus “FIRST I must do this or FIRST I must have that and THEN you may have me.” Such a road is clearly contrary to what so many of us would rather chose or contrive or desire.
Take the first man in our text for example: (57-58) “As they were going along the road, someone said to him, I will follow you wherever you go. And Jesus said to him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” This fellow, like so many others, suffers from some ill-considered impulses. He doesn’t realize that the road Jesus takes us down isn’t always bordered with roses. Christians aren’t automatically happier, wealthier, or healthier than their pagan neighbours. Indeed, if anything, the cost of following Jesus is a sacrifice of both our comfort and security. The way isn’t easy. God wants us to live a life with eternal purposes instead of just temporal pleasures, heavenly rewards not earthly wealth or possessions. Do you think this answer gave the man pause for thought?
And what about the second fellow in our text? (59-60) “To another he said, Follow me. But he said, Lord, let me first go and bury my father. 60 And Jesus said to him, Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Here we see a man torn by a conflicting sense of duties. Some people tend to get sidetracked by the question of whether or not his father had just died, or he was simply looking for an excuse to put off following Jesus until his father did die. It doesn’t really matter, for neither reading changes the facts. Jesus’ call to be a disciple doesn’t always fit nicely into the schedule we have laid out for our life! This does not mean we can disrespect our parents, or that we are not allowed to morn when someone we love dies. What Jesus is saying is that the cost of being His disciple might mean sacrificing even those parts of life which otherwise are worthwhile. In the struggle for true life and death the witness of the Gospel must be heard. It must always come first, for without it people will die in judgement, when forgiveness and faith might have been theirs. How do you think this man reacted to this very blunt pronouncement?
Or what about the final man in the story? (61-62) “Yet another said, I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home. Jesus said to him, No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Here is a person with a divided will. He hadn’t really made up his mind. Sometimes this call to follow Jesus means that we must be ready to sacrifice even family and friends. Not literally, mind you, but in the sense of leaving behind those who would draw you back from your Saviour. The cost of discipleship means not counting the things we must leave behind, but always looking forward to what is yet to come. Isn’t that what St. Paul said? (Philippians 3:13b-14) “… forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Do you think this man could get past the idea of what he was being asked to leave behind, or were his friends and acquaintances just too much fun?
Luke doesn’t record the response of these three individuals in his Gospel. In effect, this tells us it is not so important what they did, but what we the readers will do! Will we heed Jesus’ words? Will we follow Him through hardship, giving up our finely ordered life, to strive for what God has placed ahead of each of us? Will we respond in faith and persevere on this journey with our Lord Jesus?
More importantly, why should we do all this? What’s to keep us from counting the cost and simply turning away as so many others have done before? After all, nothing we do can do will earn our way into heaven. No cost we can pay will convince God to save us. The key to understanding this passage is found in verse 51 of the text. This is the passage that shapes everything to come in the next nine chapters of Luke. It is the lens through which we view Jesus’ frank discussions about discipleship. (51) When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, He set his face to go to Jerusalem. The true cost of discipleship has already been paid by Jesus!
As these men, come to Jesus with their various conditions to taking up His call, His face is set unconditionally to go up to Jerusalem so that He might suffer all things, die and rise again. Already set in motion is Isaiah’s Song of the suffering Servant: (Isaiah 50: 5b-7) “I was not rebellious; I turned not backward. I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting. But the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.”
Jesus is the man with a plan that is fully and well considered. He is going to be lifted up – lifted up on the back of a donkey as he makes his way into Jerusalem. He is going back home, even by the hardest path of all. It is a road that will be bordered with palm branches, thorns, mourners, and mockers. He will face persecution, and resentment, open hostility and betrayal. But despite the cost He will go none the less.
Jesus is the man with not one conflicting duty. He is going to be lifted up – lifted up on the cross. His entire life has been devoted to dying on the cross to pay for our salvation. Never once has there ever been a different purpose or plan to anything that has happened in His life. Everything He has done has been accordig to His Father’s master plan of salvation. He must die so that we can live. Yet even this cost, He will pay willingly.
Jesus is the man with no division of mind or purpose. Even though He is God and all the glories of heaven are rightfully His, He does not look back, He does not count all that He gives up. He resolutely faces the cross and the tomb, because He knows He will be taken up. After He rises from the dead, after the price is paid, after our salvation is secured – then he will be taken back up into heaven to prepare a place for everyone he calls to follow after. He must go where we cannot, so that when He returns we can follow where He leads.
Jesus knows where the path of our life leads … we don’t. We have lots of ideas, lots of dreams, lots of wishes for where it will go, but in the end we have very little control over what might come next. That’s the cost of discipleship under Jesus … but that’s fine! Jesus calls us to lay aside all our assumptions and all our conditions and simply follow where He leads. He doesn’t promise he will make our life exactly the way we want it to be. Indeed, we may be subjected to the very last thing we ever wanted … but Jesus does promise that in resolutely setting His face to go to Jerusalem and in being taken up, He has saved us and will lead us through whatever comes next. And if we let him, He will help us do it with determination, resolution, and courage too.
1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1959), 103-104.