“ . . . To another [Jesus] said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ 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.’” – Luke 9:59-62
I have a difficult time digesting these words. Though I like to think I spend my days contemplating Jesus exactly as he is depicted in the Scriptures, when I read of him speaking hard things such as this, I realize just how much my perspective of him is still influenced by fallacious sources—namely, nominal Christian culture and my own imagination. The Jesus of nominal Christianity and my own wishful thinking would never utter the words in this text. He would never instruct some poor soul to forego his dad’s funeral. He would never label someone “unfit for the kingdom” simply because he wanted to say goodbye to his family. But the biblical Jesus—the real Jesus—takes no issue with saying such hard and seemingly insensitive things. In fact, four chapters later, he takes “hard” and “seemingly insensitive” to a whole different level:
“Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, ‘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 . . . any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.’” – Luke 14:25-27, 33
Jesus’ usage of hatred here is obviously hyperbole. When viewed in context of the totality of his teaching, we can be certain he does not mean we should feel a literal hostility toward others. What he’s saying is our affection for him should be of such potency that our affection for the people we cherish most in this world pales in comparison. Jesus calls those who would follow him to a love and loyalty superior to all other loves and loyalties. This may not seem too extreme to many of us—especially if our unbelieving friends and family members aren’t hostile to our faith. However, the costliness of ultimate allegiance to Jesus becomes all the more clear when a Christian’s relationship with a lost loved one begins to conflict with his or her relationship with Jesus.
For example, I received an email some time back from a mom and dad whose wayward daughter refused to have anything to do with them unless they supported a lifestyle choice that God condemns. Simply “agreeing to disagree” wasn’t enough for their daughter—she desired a verbal expression of approval. The parents knew they had but two choices: 1) remain faithful to Jesus and possibly never hear from their child again or 2) defy Jesus and maintain a relationship with their child. Though it was the most excruciating decision they ever had to make, they decided to remain loyal to Jesus. I believe this is precisely the type of situation our Lord was envisioning when he uttered the words recorded in Luke 14. Even amidst the horrifying possibility of a severed familial relationship, he expects his followers to remain unwaveringly allegiant to him. If we refuse to give him the supreme love and loyalty of which he is worthy, he says we are not worthy of him (Matthew 10:37-39).
All throughout the gospels, we find Jesus making strong, sobering statements like this—statements that crush and grind into pieces the easy-believism that plagues the American church. If you aren’t familiar with the term, easy-believism (also referred to as cheap grace) is a way of viewing salvation that detaches costly obedience from authentic faith. It eliminates the need for evidences of belief such as supreme affection for Christ, increasing disdain for sin, growing love for the church, and progression in holiness. Basically, as long as you “prayed a prayer” at some point in your past, the way you live your life from that point forward doesn’t matter much. You will still go to Heaven even if you don’t seek the Lord, fight sin, or love other believers; you just won’t receive many “rewards” when you arrive.
Like I said—Jesus obliterates such thinking. The saving faith to which he calls us is always accompanied by self-denial, sacrifice, and suffering. He beckons us to a kind of belief that is willing to gouge out the eyes and cut off the hands in order to avoid sin (Matthew 5:27-30). He invites us into a relationship that may very well require us to sacrifice other precious relationships (Matthew 10:34-39). He summons us to a faith that will cause the unbelieving world to hate and reject us (John 15:18-20). He calls us to a way of life that may threaten our physical life (John 16:2).
Jesus wasn’t ashamed to let people know from the very get-go how costly it would be to follow him. He wasn’t worried about scaring people off. We shouldn’t be, either. It is right to plead with those who are weary and burdened to come find rest for their souls in Jesus (Matthew 11:28). It is necessary to convey to our unbelieving friends that Jesus is a kind and generous shepherd who wants to give them full, vibrant, and eternal life (John 10:10). But we should not neglect to tell them of the “death” that this life requires—death to self, death to sin, and death to the ways of this world. Following Jesus will grant them incomprehensible peace (Philippians 4:7), inexpressible joy (1 Peter 1:8), and an imperishable inheritance (1 Peter 1:4). But the cost will be high.
“Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. 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? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 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? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” – Luke 14:27-33