There it is, right at the end of the gospel text, the provocation of all provocations. It’s a flashing neon sign, too in-your-face to avoid: “In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.”
Really, Jesus? Everything we have?
There are exclusive clubs in this world. Certain country clubs come to mind, some demanding six-figure initiation fees. Their well-heeled members can presumably afford it. But what club demands everything of its members? The church of Jesus Christ.
There’s an old song, now a jazz standard, that trades on this sort of all-or-nothing commitment. Numerous artists have recorded it, notably the legendary Billie Holiday. Here are some of the words to “All of Me”:
All of me
Why not take all of me
Can’t you see
I’m no good without you
Take my lips
I want to lose them
Take my arms
I’ll never use them …
Hardly sounds like a healthy relationship, does it? These are the desperate words of a spurned and still-besotted lover, willing to sacrifice everything just to regain the object of her devotion. The character singing the song seems a pathetic case: the opposite of Jesus’ call for clear-eyed intentionality.
But what is our Lord asking of us, as his disciples? We’ve all heard of the ancient biblical standard of tithing – giving 10% of earnings to God’s work. Is Jesus really upping the demand by a whopping 90% so that 100% is now God’s portion?
But that’s only the half of it. The first part of this passage lays out stern demands that aren’t financial at all. For example, there’s this line: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple.” That sounds pretty harsh. Is Jesus really saying we have to hate and reject members of our own family?
And what’s this about hating life itself? Do Christian disciples need to walk around with a death wish? Are we the spiritual equivalent of suicide bombers?
Who imagined that, in walking through the doors of this perfectly respectable-looking church, we could be putting at risk all we hold dear?
But that’s still not all. Jesus goes on to say, “Whoever does not carry their own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Think of every gruesome Good Friday sermon you’ve ever heard – the nails, the spear, the crown of thorns, the blood, the labored breathing. Is Jesus really saying such torture is mandatory?
It’s pretty clear, from what follows, that Jesus wants to make sure His disciples know exactly what they’re getting into. He wants them to count the cost.
Jesus tells of a person who sets out to build a tower, but without any planning. This dreamer gets a hold of some stones and starts setting them into place. Row upon row, the foundation of the tower takes shape, and the walls start to rise. But then the project comes to a crashing halt. There’s a problem. The builder has run out of cash.
So, there the foundation sits – month after month, year after year. There’s no way to move forward, and moving backwards isn’t an option, either, because even demolition costs money.
What did the builder have in mind the day he started his work? Jesus doesn’t tell us. But he does point out that the half-built tower has become a monument only to the man’s foolishness.
On a hillside above the picturesque seaside town of Oban, Scotland, sits a brooding, gray granite structure known as McCaig’s Tower. It has an alternate name: McCaig’s Folly. Passengers waiting to board the ferry to the sacred Isle of Iona can look back over their shoulders and see this circular stone wall looming over them. It vaguely resembles the ancient Roman Colosseum, but through its gaping windows you can see nothing but sky. It’s nothing but a shell.
This massive stone monument was never finished. John Stuart McCaig, a wealthy banker, was the man who conceived the project.
You do have to say this, on old McCaig’s behalf: he did count the cost before the first stone was laid. The tower was supposed to cost 5,000 pounds sterling. Taking inflation and currency-exchange rates into account, that’s nearly $1 million in today’s money.
Work began in 1897 and continued until 1902, when Mr. McCaig dropped dead of a heart attack. Part of his purpose had been to give off-season work to local stonemasons. The project surely fulfilled that purpose for as long as it lasted. But – even though McCaig had made provision in his will for the tower to be completed – his heirs were not of the same mind. They saw it as a costly boondoggle. They went to court and successfully challenged the old man’s will. Work ground to a halt, and to this day, McCaig’s Folly stands as a monument to a dream never realized.
Mr. McCaig had grand visions for his tower. Conceived as a lasting monument to his family, it was to include a museum and art gallery: a real showplace for the little town of Oban. A central tower would display heroic statues of McCaig himself, his siblings and their parents.
But that’s not how people remember it today. They don’t remember the dream – only the disappointing reality. When tourists ask what’s that up on the hillside, the locals gesture at the gaping windows and lack of a roof. They sigh, and reply, “That’s McCaig’s Folly.”
What do you suppose those we leave behind will say of our Christian lives, after we’ve gone on to our reward? Will they say, “Well done, good and faithful servant”? Or will they sigh and say, “What a folly!”?
Jesus wants to save us, to be sure. That’s what he’s all about, and why we call him “Savior.” It turns out, what he most wants to save us from is ourselves.
In studying this passage, it’s wise not to get hung up on the details. Jesus’ words about giving up all our possessions are likely a bit of hyperbole, an extreme statement to get our attention.
Elsewhere, in the famous “Lilies of the Field” portion of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:25-34), Jesus commends faithful disciples who live as carefree as birds, “who neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns.” These winged creatures depend on God to feed them. Looking at it another way, we’re meant to live like wild lilies. Wildflowers spend their whole lives looking to their Creator for the rain and sunshine they need to flourish. Don’t live your lives consumed by worry, Jesus reminds us. Don’t worry about what you eat, or drink, or wear: for your Heavenly Provider knows you need all these things.
Jesus’ statement here in Luke 14 sounds a lot more abrupt – even harsh. It makes it sound like purging all our possessions is the first step towards discipleship. The Lord’s not speaking here as an overachieving tax collector, bound and determined to extract every last shekel. (In fact – as you may recall – Jesus doesn’t have a lot of kind things to say about tax collectors of his day, whom he views as practitioners of government-sanctioned thievery.)
Yet, what Jesus does want from us is that we free ourselves of worry – financial and otherwise. He knows how debilitating that slow drip, drip, drip of anxiety can be, over time.
The late preacher William Sloane Coffin famously taught: “There are two ways to be rich: one is to have lots of money and the other is to have few needs.” Those who are rich in the manner of lilies of the field keep their needs under control.
For too many of us, our perceived needs continue to grow exponentially throughout life. Our threshold of what constitutes “enough” is ever-expanding. It’s a sort of soul inflation, and for many consumers in our culture, it’s just as much a bane of daily existence. Those who are truly rich towards God know how to say no to advertising. They don’t reckon those upwardly mobile neighbors, the Joneses, to be people they need to keep up with. When the barn is full, they seldom feel the urge to go out and build a bigger one. To live any other way would truly be folly.
Commenting on this passage, Bible scholar N.T. Wright poses the hypothetical situation of a politician making a stump speech. This hopeful office-seeker calls to the crowd, “Vote for me, and you’ll lose your homes and families. You’ll be voting for higher taxes and lower wages. You’ll give up everything for me.”
How does that sound to you, as a campaign pitch? How could such a clueless politician ever expect to win a single vote?
But try changing the scenario, Wright says. What if the speaker’s not a politician hustling votes, but the leader of a mountain-climbing expedition asking for volunteers? The task before this team of climbers is a risky trek to an isolated village, bringing food to the starving inhabitants.
“The dangers are real,” the leader warns. “We may not make it back alive. But people are starving, so somebody has to do it. So, who’s with me?”
Wright says it pays to read these harsh-sounding words of Jesus as more like the second scenario. Jesus isn’t looking for fans, here. He’s recruiting disciples to do important and necessary work. There’s a huge difference.
In his book, Four Quartets, the poet T.S. Eliot predicts that, at the end of our spiritual journey, there will come a day when:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
A little later Eliot goes on, in his apocalyptic vision:
“Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)”
Once we achieve that God-given simplicity, Eliot channels well-known words of Julian of Norwich. He assures us:
“And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.”
Truly, the gift of ourselves to Jesus – “All of me: why not take all of me?” – costs “not less than everything.” Jesus does want all of me – and you, and everyone else who aspires to follow Him. It seems, at first glance, a fearfully high price to pay, doesn’t it?
Yet, consider what Christ offers in return. All shall be well. All manner of things shall be well. Amen and amen.