In the U.S. state of Michigan there is a small town called Hamtramck. I had never heard of Hamtramck until a few years ago when I read a news article about Hamtramck.
The citizens of Hamtramck decided that they wanted to make a more visible statement regarding their patriotism. And so the town bought twenty large flagpoles to be installed on the Main Street of their town so whenever there was a national holiday they could raise the American flag on these twenty flagpoles.
But there was one problem they had not anticipated. It cost $50,000 to purchase and install these twenty flagpoles. As it turned out, the town had only four American flags. And after spending so much money on the flagpoles, there was no money left in the budget to purchase the $200 flags. And so sixteen of their twenty new flagpoles stood bare.
I guess the town officials simply did not calculate beforehand to see how much the flagpoles would cost and then if there would be enough money left over to put a flag on each flagpole. A rather embarrassing incident for the town! For what good is a flagpole without a flag?
It’s embarrassing when a city starts a project they cannot finish because they did not first count the cost. Probably all of us at some time have started something – a home repair project, a new diet, a New Year’s resolution – and maybe we even started with lots of enthusiasm, but later found ourselves unwilling or unable to pay the cost to complete the task.
When it comes to the deeper issues of life, it’s not only embarrassing it’s tragic when we can’t finish what we start. Jesus spoke of the importance of finishing what we start when it comes to our relationship with Him. And He said one thing that is crucial if we are to be faithful to Him until the end is to first count the cost. This is what He said in Luke 14:25-33:
Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’
“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.
Luke began by saying that large crowds were traveling with Jesus. Word was spreading about this miracle worker from Galilee. He healed the sick. He restored the lepers. He fed the hungry. On a couple occasions He brought someone back to life who had died shortly before. That will certainly attract attention! The people had also heard that Jesus was a captivating teacher. Some had heard Him teach before. Jesus was the best show in town. So large crowds gathered around Jesus.
But Jesus was never interested in simply drawing a huge audience. For when you have a huge audience you have people there for all sorts of reasons. Some were simply hoping to witness a miracle. Others wanted to see Jesus take on the religious authorities. Many simply were not sincere.
So Jesus turns to the crowd and addresses them with what we can only conclude are very harsh words. It almost seems that Jesus goes out of His way to antagonize the crowd. Of course, these words are addressed to us as well. And if we are honest, we have to admit that these are not the kind of words we want to hear. This is not the kind of Jesus we like to think about. We prefer the Jesus who said, “Come unto Me and I will give you rest.” We like to listen to Jesus tell the parable of the lost sheep, that if a shepherd is missing just one of the sheep he goes looking for it and rejoices when he finds it because that one sheep is so important to him. We’d rather focus on the love and compassion, the gentleness and kindness of Jesus.
All those things, of course, are true about Jesus. But they represent only part of the truth. And if we focus on only part of the truth about Jesus we miss the real Jesus for we have distorted the truth. And only the real Jesus can offer us freedom. Only the real Jesus can grant us life in all its fullness. Only the real Jesus can deliver us from the power of sin and the snare of the evil one. And so Jesus proclaims these harsh words as a way of startling us, of waking us from our religious slumber so we might listen afresh to the truth of His message.
For people can easily deceive themselves and conclude that if we just show a mild interest in Jesus, that is sufficient. Like the crowds following Jesus that day, we think that if we just show up once in awhile Jesus will be pleased. We dabble a little bit in the faith, we get our toes wet but don’t jump in with both feet. We’re like the person who wrote this:
I would like to buy three dollars worth of God please,
I would like to buy just a little of the Lord.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
Not enough to take control of my life;
I’ll keep just enough to equal a cup of warm milk,
Just enough to ease some of the pain from my guilt.
I would like to buy three dollars worth of God, please;
I would like to find a love that’s pocket-sized.
Not enough to make me love those of a different race.
Not enough to change my heart;
I can only stand just enough
to take to church when I have the time,
Just enough to equal a snooze in the sunshine.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want the warmth of the womb
But not a new birth.
I would like to purchase a pound of the eternal
In a paper sack guaranteed or money back.
You see, I would like to buy three dollars worth of God, please;
I would like to hide some for a rainy day,
Not enough to make people see a change in me,
Not enough to impose responsibility;
Just enough to make church folks think I’m O.K.,
Just enough to exhibit once a week on Sunday.
I would like to buy three dollars worth of God, please.
That does seem to sum up much of the contemporary attitude toward God, doesn’t it? We want a little bit of God in our lives because, well, it just seems right, or because it gives us some peace of mind, or because we want an insurance policy for eternity. But we’d rather not have all of God, and perhaps we’re afraid of giving God all of ourselves. That’s the attitude Jesus saw in the people who gathered about Him when He spoke these strong words. So in this passage Jesus makes it crystal clear that He is not interested in people who want just three dollars worth of God, who just want to sit on the sidelines; He wants people who will get in the game, and do so with a full blown commitment.
So instead of merely inviting the crowds to follow Him Jesus warns His listeners that they must first count the cost of following Him. For there is a cost in following Jesus. And that cost begins with our relationships. Jesus said we cannot be His disciple unless we hate our father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters. Whoa! How could Jesus, who came to demonstrate the love of God, who told us that the way the world will know we are His disciples is by our love for one another, tell us to hate those nearest to us? And how could Jesus, who on another occasion commanded us to love even our enemies, here tell us to hate our own family members?
Well, I think Jesus was saying several things here. First, he was using a style of teaching that was fairly common in His day, and that was the use of hyperbole. Hyperbole is intended exaggeration. The speaker intentionally exaggerates His point in order to get his message across. It’s not to be taken literally because it is a form of speech. A parent may say to their child, “I’ve told you a million times to put your toys away when you’re done playing.” No one interprets “a million times” literally. It’s deliberate exaggeration to get a point across.
So Jesus deliberately exaggerated in order to get his message across. And His point was that we are to love Him so much that all our other loves would not even begin to compare to our love for Him. We don’t actually hate our family members, but we don’t allow any relationships to compete with or interfere with our relationship to Jesus. He comes first.
Second, He used the word “hate” in the sense of a fire alarm. A fire alarm goes off to warn of danger, danger that would go unnoticed apart from the alarm. And so Jesus saw the crowd and their half-hearted commitment and realized He needed to warn them of the danger they faced. To love anyone or anything more than God is idolatry. Jesus tries here to shake up His listeners so they would examine their lives and their relationships to see if there were any people they valued more highly than Him. Were there any relationships that took priority over Him? Were their closest relationships drawing them closer to God or creating more distance between them and God? Did any relationships hinder them from serving God, obeying God, and growing in godly character?
For it’s easy for us to drift along in life and over time certain things get all out of whack. We hardly know it has taken place because it happens gradually. So Jesus, by means of this powerful word “hate”, sounds the warning signal to awaken us from our slumber before it’s too late. “Examine yourselves!” He says to them and to us. For it is not only what we typically understand as sin that can separate us from God. We may think that because we are not doing anything really bad – we haven’t murdered anyone, we’re not committing adultery, we’re not stealing from the office, then everything is okay between God and me. But good things, such as family relationships, can separate us from God and keep us from obeying God when they are exalted to a place in our lives that belongs only to God.
A rather casual attitude toward God and discipleship will ultimately keep us from God for then we are content with just a bit of God, just $3.00 worth of God instead of being fully devoted to God. So Jesus tells His listeners – the crowds back then and us today – that if we want to be His disciple, He must come first in our lives. He must come before all other people, before all other relationships, for He is our Creator, Savior and Lord.
And not only does Jesus sound the alarm regarding our relationships with others, He also said that if we are to be His disciple we must hate ourselves. Again, this is hyperbole. God loves us so much Jesus died in our place. So how could He then ask us to hate ourselves? The point is that to follow Jesus He must be the desire of our hearts. Any behaviors, attitudes, goals, values, or desires we have that are not consistent with His good purpose for our lives must be abandoned.
That’s why Jesus said we must pick up our cross if we are to follow Him. A cross served only one purpose at that time – it was an instrument of death. And so Jesus calls us to die to all the things that keep us from following Him wholeheartedly. And Jesus also said in this passage that unless we give up everything we have we cannot be His disciple. Again, this is hyperbole. We don’t literally give up everything, for then we would all be beggars looking for handouts. But anything we have that separates us from God or that keeps us from following God must go, and all we have that God has given us we are to use in keeping with His good and perfect will.
So the call of Jesus is a radical call. For you can be sure of this: Jesus did not die on the cross simply to make us a bit nicer, a touch more religious. He did not die for the sake of a half-baked Christianity. Not at all! He died, of course, to bring us forgiveness. But He also died in order to produce a people whose commitment to Him is so radical, so all-encompassing that that they allow absolutely nothing to interfere with their relationship with Jesus.
That is the cost of following Jesus. All our relationships must be subjected to Him. All our possessions must be surrendered to His purposes. We must give our hearts fully to Him. Jesus is first in our lives. That is what we are to count as we consider following Him. For what is more tragic than a person who starts down the path of discipleship only to turn back sometime later because the cost is greater than they had anticipated?
Jesus pulled no punches. There is no fine print in the contract. Jesus tells us right up front that to follow Him will cost us everything. Jesus is not interested in mere church attenders. Jesus is not interested in the size of the crowd, but rather the level of commitment. For following Jesus is not like joining a gym or a book club – just a little something extra we add to our lives. No, following Jesus is letting Him rule in our hearts.
Now, having said all that, and I know this has been rather heavy, but having said all that it must also be pointed out this is only half the story. We totally misunderstand Jesus if we see this as only a kind of burden to bear – the cost of discipleship, all the things we must give up and so forth. Jesus is always about grace. So where is the grace in this passage? Even when we take into account that Jesus was using hyperbole, deliberately exaggerating, still this message comes across as being incredibly demanding. So where is the grace?
I think it’s like this. Jesus looks at this vast crowd that is following Him and yes, He sees the insincerity of many of them. He sees their casual approach to Him and their lack of commitment. But that is not all He sees. He looks at the crowd and He sees people who are unhappy. He sees people who are unfulfilled. He sees people who lack peace. He sees people who are struggling and broken. He sees people devoid of satisfying purpose. He sees people filled with bitterness and resentment. He sees people who are torn and defeated, frustrated and powerless. He sees people much like us today.
And why were people then and why are people still today in this sad condition? Is it not, at least in part, because we have a divided heart? We want a little bit of God, just three dollars worth of God, enough to maybe ease our conscience somewhat, but not enough to cause a radical change. And so we taste a little bit of the goodness of God, but because we hold so much back we never experience the deep joy and lasting peace and fulfilling purpose that come only with a wholehearted commitment to Jesus.
At the same time, we can’t enjoy the things of the world like perhaps we used to because we’ve experienced just enough of God to be uncomfortable with such things now. Straddling the fence is a surefire way to unhappiness.
So Jesus sees all these unhappy, unfulfilled, misguided, anxious, frustrated people and He offers them a cure – wholehearted discipleship. Yes, His words are severe, but they are severe in the sense of a doctor who says, “Only a radical operation will cure you.” We go to the doctor because we have a pain in our stomach and we hope the doctor will just prescribe some medicine to take. But the doctor wisely replies, “No, that won’t do it. The problem is too serious for a superficial cure, for then the illness will simply reappear. I will have to cut, and cut deeply, for it’s only by cutting deeply that the tumor can be removed and you can be healed.”
By the radicalness and severity of these words, Jesus is seeking to heal us. He is seeking to free us from the kind of divided heart that can only frustrate us and stifle us. Jesus said He came to give us life in all its fullness. That is what He wants for us. But we can’t experience that fullness of life if we are still trying live a life ruled by selfish desires and given to sin. Only as in response to His grace in dying for us on the cross, we fully surrender to Jesus as Lord, submitting every relationship to His will and yielding all we have and are to His purpose, can we experience deep in o
ur souls the peace and joy and satisfaction that Jesus offers us.
And when we surrender everything we have and are to God, what we discover is that He gives them back to us renewed and transformed. We surrender all our relationships to Jesus as we put Him first in our lives, and now we can love those near and dear to us in new and deeper ways. We don’t love them selfishly, but we can love them with the other-centered love that comes from Christ.
The possessions that we offer to Christ we are now able to use in more profound ways. Instead of using them only for our own momentary enjoyment we can now use them to help others and bring glory to God. They take on eternal importance.
We give our very life to Jesus and He gives it back with renewed power, purpose, and direction. That is where the grace of God comes in to play – the fullness of life He offers us as we count the cost, and then follow in whole-hearted commitment.
Jesus said we must count the cost if we are serious about being His disciple. Maybe that seems harsh. But it should not surprise us, for there is a cost to be paid for everything worthwhile. There is a cost to marriage, but marriage also brings you many joys. There is a cost to getting an advanced educational degree, but it also brings many advantages.
And it is not only that everything worthwhile and meaningful has a cost; there is a cost to everything we do. So yes, there is a cost if you want to have a healthy and satisfying marriage – you must die to selfish desires as you consider the interests of your spouse and learn to serve them. But if you don’t pay that cost, you will pay a different cost – the cost of a dysfunctional and even destructive marriage. There is a cost that comes with academic excellence – the time spent studying when others are out having fun as well as the financial cost that goes with it. But there is a cost if you don’t strive for academic excellence – you don’t develop to your full potential and probably certain doors will not open for you.
There is a cost to everything, so we simply need to decide what we want in life, and are we willing to pay the cost of attaining that. In this passage, Jesus reveals what is most important of all – living in relationship with Him now and forever, becoming the kind of person with the kind of character He created us to be, and living a meaningful life as we are guided by His Spirit and make a kingdom impact in this world through our obedience to Christ. Yes, there is a cost that comes with that – we must surrender fully to Christ.
But there is a cost that comes if we refuse this life and choose a different path. We don’t become all God created us to be, we lack the confidence of His guidance, we forfeit a deep sense of meaning, we miss out on the joy that comes when walk with the Lord, we fail to experience the fullness of God’s love because we are not abiding in His love. So Jesus puts all the cards on the table and says, “Think carefully about your life, and then make the wise choice as to what cost you pay, and what you get in return..”
And so there is a cost to following Jesus, but it also brings many rewards. “Seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness,” said Jesus, “and all these things will be given to you.” What things? All things that make for a meaningful, fruitful, satisfying life, to say nothing of an unimaginable eternity.
It serves no purpose to simply join the crowd, to be numbered among those who have listened to the words of Jesus. What Jesus calls us to is a life of discipleship in which every aspect of our lives is surrendered to His will. If we are willing to do that, what we discover is that in return He gives us a life that yes, will likely involve some sacrifice, but it also will be filled with purpose, with joy, with hope, with power, with freedom, with meaningful relationships and purposeful activity.
If we count the cost of following Jesus – and we realize that no cost is too great in light of the cost He paid for us and all that He offers us – and we finish the race because we counted the cost and determined that it is worth it, we will then experience the fullness of life, for that is a gift only Jesus can give. And He wants to give it to all of us, but we must desire to receive it. So let me encourage you, don’t settle for just $3.00 worth of God. Take the whole package, and then walk in the newness of life.