The Paradox of Discipleship

June 2018 Credo

Luke 14:25-35

An Odd Conclusion …

Sandwiched between two parables (the Parable of the Great Banquet, 14:15-24, and the Parable of the Lost Sheep, 15:1-7) in Luke 14-15 is a passage on the requirements of discipleship (14:25-35).  Within this passage, there are two parables on a tower builder and a king (14:28-32), followed by the third cost of discipleship, the requirement of renunciation of possessions (14:33).  The fact that Luke 14:33 begins with “so then” or “so therefore” (Greek houtos oun) establishes it as the conclusion to the two parables.  At first glance, this conclusion seems at odds with the main thrust of the 2 parables, as we shall soon see.

The structure of Luke 14:25-35 seems straightforward:

  • Setting: Some crowds traveling with Jesus (14:25)
  • A pair of statements on discipleship: One on hating the family, another on cross-bearing (14:26-27)
  • A pair of parables: One on tower building, another on waging war (14:28-32)
  • A third/concluding statement on discipleship: Renunciation of possessions (14:33)
  • A new/concluding development: Warning about saltiness (14:34-35a)
  • A final appeal: Invitation to listen (14:35b)

Focusing our attention on the pair of parables, we find the key emphasis of Jesus’ teaching as the importance of careful assessment before committing to or starting a project; failure to do so would be disastrous.  The tower builder must assess both the cost of building a tower and whether he has the means to complete it before embarking on the project; else he faces the prospect of not only an uncompleted tower but also the shame of ridicule if he fails to finish building the tower.  A king going to wage war against another must also consider his army’s capability, especially in the face of obvious numerical disadvantage, and seek terms of peace if defeat is the foreseeable result; else the consequences would be equally disastrous.

With the emphasis on carefully assessing the cost and one’s resources and capability before committing to a project, the obvious way to conclude the two parables in relation to discipleship would be: “So therefore, think carefully!  Count the cost of discipleship, before you commit yourself to following me!”  Instead Luke 14:33 concludes with a paradoxical third requirement of discipleship: “So then, all of you who do not renounce (literally “bid farewell”) to all your possessions is not able to be my disciple.”  How is giving up one’s possessions in Luke 14:33 related to the theme of careful consideration in 14:28-32?

Or is the conclusion that odd? : Relating Renunciation with Careful Consideration

New Testament scholar, François Bovon, has helpfully identified two ways in which the third requirement of discipleship not only forms an excellent conclusion to the two parables but also as a powerful restatement of the three requirements of discipleship.

Throughout the Gospel of Luke, the author of Luke has sought to demonstrate the harmful power of and false confidence associated with wealth, be it in the beatitudes and the woes (Luke 6:20, 24), in the parable of the rich fool where the Lukan author juxtaposed riches for oneself with riches toward God, and in the passage about worry where he associated seeking God’s kingdom with the relinquishment of wealth (12:31-34).  Here again, the Lukan author records Jesus’ exhortation to potential disciples to renounce their possessions, in other words, wealth, as false securities in order to be able to consider carefully, like the tower builder and the king assessing their resources and capabilities, before deciding whether to commit themselves to be his followers.  Truly, this is such an important decision that failing to do so would lead to disastrous consequences.

Second, the use of the phrase “he is not able” (Greek ou dunatai) to be my disciple, which can also be translated as “he has no power”, throughout the passage (14:26, 27, 33) in association with the requirements for discipleship comes to a powerful conclusion in 14:33 – the power to be Jesus’ disciple requires the relinquishment of power, be it the power of money, of life or of relationships.  Discipleship cannot be simply understood as leaving one’s family, having only one priority, cross-bearing or leaving everything; it is only through the renouncement of power that one receives divine power to be a disciple of Jesus.

A Final Conclusion

Thus, the power to think and consider carefully before committing oneself to discipleship, to the one and only security that comes with following Jesus, requires the giving up of all possessions, the surrendering of all false securities.  The paradoxical nature of discipleship also means that one only receives the divine power to be Jesus’ disciple through the renouncement of power.

Perhaps it is also appropriate for this passage to be located between the Parable of the Great Banquet and the Parable of the Prodigal Son where the unworthy and powerless (the crippled, the blind, the lame and the prodigal son) are the ones who are ready to receive the transforming and powerful gift of God’s grace.

Rev Dr James Lim teaches subjects related to New Testament at Trinity Theological College. He is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of Singapore and serves as an associate minister in Ang Mo Kio Presbyterian Church.