With this very short subunit in the journey section, Jesus' attention turns almost totally to his disciples. The leadership has been warned and rebuked. But what does following Jesus really require? The previous parable had hinted that other issues became higher priorities for the original invitees to God's kingdom. This single unit will make it clear that disciples should count the cost of following Jesus, because success will not come easily.
This passage is unique to Luke, though verses 26-27 are like Matthew 10:37-38 and verses 34-35 are similar to Matthew 5:13 and Mark 9:49-50. It is extremely significant that this passage is addressed to large crowds. Jesus offered himself to all, but he also was honest from the very beginning of his preaching about what the journey would involve. What Jesus asks for is first place in one's heart. That is what successful discipleship requires.
So Jesus calls for a follower who will hate his mother and father, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life. The point of the list is that no other relationship is first for a disciple. "Hate" is used figuratively and suggests a priority of relationship. Jesus is first. To follow Jesus means to follow Jesus, not anyone or anything else. A disciple is a learner, and the primary teacher in life is Jesus. This total loyalty is crucial, given the rejection and persecution that lie ahead. If his followers care more about family than about Jesus, when families are divided under pressure of persecution, they will choose against Jesus. This is what lies behind Jesus' remarks. Discipleship is not possible if Jesus is not the teacher.
This is why bearing the cross and coming after Jesus is the issue of discipleship. Learning from Jesus means following him, experiencing the rejection he experienced and so bearing the cross he bore. We cannot "learn Jesus" without being prepared to walk this path. Discipleship is basically allegiance. To follow Jesus is to rely on him. Paul makes the same point in different imagery in Romans 6.
Two pictures illustrate the teaching, though each has a slightly different point. The first picture involves the building of what is probably a watchtower for a vineyard. To be a success, this building program must be planned out carefully; otherwise the builder may well start the project but not finish it. Failure to finish would make the builder a laughingstock to neighbors, as his half-finished shell of a tower casts its incomplete shadow over the land. So Jesus asks what person does not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it. How sad it is to start something and not finish it. The failure is evident to all. Verse 30 expresses the public response in very mocking terms, as all around belittle "this fellow." The shell of the building echoes the shell that remains of this man's reputation. The implication is that embarking on discipleship is just the same: we do well to reflect on what it will take to finish what we have started.
The second picture is of a king who finds his forces outnumbered as he considers going to battle. After calculating the cost in terms of destruction, he decides that appealing for peace is a better idea. The king reflects, then acts.
Many readers take this to be a second example of taking stock, just like the first illustration. But there may be something more here. In the case of building the tower, all the options lay with the builder. In the case of potential war, the situation is forced on the king. Only a foolish king would try to take on a stronger foe when he is outnumbered two to one. So it is prudent to seek peace with the stronger foe. There is a "more powerful one" than Satan to deal with in life: God. It is wise to count the cost of facing him. There are benefits in allying ourselves with God rather than having him as the decidedly stronger enemy.
The application Jesus states without apology: "In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple." Jesus must be first. Those who are disposed to oppose God's will should count the cost. Much better sue for peace with God on his terms. His terms for peace are gracious, but disciples must acknowledge that he is the source of life and spiritual well-being.
A final warning closes the exhortation. Salt is good as long as it is salty. If not, it is thrown away. Now salt in the ancient world was used in several ways: as a catalyst for a fire, as seasoning, as a preservative and as fertilizer. In each case the presence of salt facilitated some function. But once salt ceases to perform its role, it is good for nothing. Similarly, the disciple who loses "saltiness" can become useless to God. There are a couple of possible ways to interpret thrown out here. It could refer to being rejected for never having been genuine to begin with, like the "odd man out" in many of Jesus' parables (12:46; 19:21-26; Mt 25:20), or it could warn of the physical judgment that comes on those who displease God (1 Cor 11:30). Jesus' remark is ambiguous and may be purposely so to allow for both possibilities. Clearly, however, the warning should be heeded, since Jesus closes his remarks with "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."
Discipleship is serious business to Jesus. To be a disciple and complete the task, we must count the cost. It is a good idea to sue for peace and come to terms with God. But that means we must humbly come to him on his terms. Successful discipleship requires that God be first.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.