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Parables of the Kingdom: The Cost of Discipleship, The Riches of Discipleship, The Servant-Nature of Discipleship

 

Luke 14:25-33     Luke 17:7-10     Mathew 13:44-46

 

I: — (Luke 14:25 -33) When The Great War broke out in 1914 the Canadian government began appealing for young men. They were needed as soldiers. Hundreds of thousands responded. Motivation for joining up varied. Some young men volunteered because they wanted to beat back the conflagration engulfing Europe . Others volunteered inasmuch as soldiering appealed to their sense of adventure.  Some signed up in that they would have been ashamed to remain at home when friends and neighbours and colleagues were enlisting.

When Jesus sounded his call to discipleship women and men responded for all the reasons we’ve just mentioned.           Some wanted to be part of God’s campaign to beat back, ultimately defeat, that evil one who was destroying human bodies and minds and spirits. Others, less profound, wanted adventure. And some were shamed into offering themselves when they saw friends and relatives signing on with the Master.

There was, however, one crucial difference between the Canadian government’s recruiting of soldiers and our Lord’s recruiting of disciples: the Canadian government never attempted to impress upon its recruits what the cost of soldiering might be. Nowhere on the recruit poster could one find the sentence, even as a footnote, “Warning: soldiering may be dangerous to your health.”  Nowhere could one find a magazine or newspaper advertisement depicting a legless soldier or a decapitated airman with the caption: “This may be your end too.” No government has ever announced the hardship, pain, mud and blood that’s inevitably part of war-time service.

Jesus, on the other hand, always warned his recruits. “If all you want is adventure”, he cautioned, “there’s less painful adventure to be had elsewhere, elsehow. If you take up following me unthinkingly, you won’t last two weeks.”         As a matter of fact, Jesus everywhere insisted that discipleship entailed crossbearing, and crossbearing, metaphorically speaking, could turn into crossbearing literally at any moment.  Jesus never covered up the cost involved in identifying oneself with him.

Luke reports that a fellow runs up to the Master and gushes sentimentally “Lord, I’ll follow you wherever you go.” Jesus eyes him without blinking and responds, “Foxes and birds have the comfort and security of den and nest; but I don’t have even that.  And neither will you. You go home and think it over.”

To drive his point home Jesus tells two parables about the cost of discipleship.  A man begins a building project, gets halfway through it, runs out of money, and has to leave it – to his embarrassment.  A king commits his army to battle, finds he’s bitten off more than he can chew, and has to slink home shamefully.  The point of both parables is this: before we jump and shout “Of course we’re going to be disciples”, we should sit down and soberly count the cost of the endeavour.

I’d never say that the cost of discipleship is the defining characteristic of discipleship.  It isn’t the defining aspect; still, it is one aspect. And it’s an aspect concerning which the North American church is silent.

If you listen to religious TV broadcasting you hear one success story after another.  Someone became straightened out with God Almighty and thereafter his income tripled; his daughter became the beauty queen; his son was made CEO of the multi-national corporation.  According to the religious media, being a disciple is synonymous with being a winner.

I find this notion odd, since Jesus is 100% loser. He’s a Jew; that is, he belongs to that people the world execrates.         His closest followers desert him.  His mother doesn’t understand him.  His brothers don’t believe in him.  The crowds who fawn over him one day forget him the next.  He’s despised by religious authorities and condemned by political authorities. He’s slandered, then put to death between two criminals at the city garbage dump. And of course he dies forsaken by his Father. When he’s raised from the dead, he’s raised wounded (as the apostle John reminds us.)         Ascended, seated at the right hand of the Father (i.e., declared the ruler of the entire creation), he suffers still (as the Newer Testament reminds us repeatedly.)

How costly discipleship is for you and me depends, of course, on how closely we follow our Lord (or endeavour to follow him.) The greater our love for him and our loyalty to him; the less of a gap there is between him and us; the more clearly we are identified with him – it all means the greater the cost of discipleship.

When I was a youngster my parents didn’t own an automobile. We went to church every Sunday (morning and evening), and to Sunday School in the afternoon. (Both my parents taught Sunday School.) We had to take three streetcars, had to make two transfers in each direction, always waiting, waiting, waiting on account of the less frequent Sunday transit service. When I think of it now I’m staggered at the inconvenience my parents endured and the money they spent on streetcar fares.  Why did they do it? Because Jesus Christ meant so very much to them that no cost borne for his sake could ever be too much.

Discipleship exacts a price.  Occasionally the price is paid dramatically, including the ultimate drama of martyrdom. Far more often the price is paid quietly.  Consider:

-we are going to uphold truthfulness when most of the people around us will lie for any reason at all and couldn’t care less in any case when their phoniness is exposed.

-we aren’t going to permit our fourteen year-old daughter to go camping with her boyfriend.

-we are going to continue speaking up on behalf of all whom our society deems expendable – the intellectually challenged, the mentally ill, the poor, even the voiceless, defenceless unborn – and continue to speak up on behalf of these people just because the image of God that they bear; this is the measure of their significance, not their economic uselessness.

Anyone who is unthinkingly quick to respond to our Lord’s invitation he cautions with two parables whose message is, “Add it up carefully. The cost is real. Don’t begin with a huge fanfare and then have to quit shamefully.  Add it up.”

 

II: — (Matthew 13:44 -46) At the same time, I should never care to give the impression that life in the company of Jesus Christ is unrelenting weariness and ceaseless sacrifice. On the contrary, life in the company of the king is rich.         How rich? How precious? In two little parables Jesus tells us of a man who comes upon a pearl, a pearl so beautiful he can’t imagine anything more beautiful.  He simply has to have it and will give up anything for it.  And our Lord tells us of a man who knows that in an ordinary field there’s been buried the most extraordinary treasure, and he has to have it. He’ll give up anything for it.

In Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus the apostle speaks of “the unsearchable riches of Christ.”   The Greek word he uses for “unsearchable” means bottomless, unfathomable, immeasurable. As often as we attempt to speak of what living in the company of Jesus Christ means to us – its richness, its delight, its attractiveness, its incomparable worth – we can’t speak adequately of this at all.  We can’t define it; we can’t properly describe it; we speak of it only haltingly just because no language does justice to it.  When Joy Davidman, wife of C.S., Lewis moved from Marxist atheism into the splendour of the king’s court and kingdom, a newspaperman, pen and pad poised, asked her to describe it.  She stared at the journalist for the longest time and then whispered, “How do you gather the ocean into a teacup?”

The commonest biblical metaphor for faith (also the profoundest) is marriage.  Marriage is used to speak of the reality of faith, the reality of keeping company with Jesus, just because marriage is an everyday, common occurrence (and therefore suitable for use as a metaphor) that is at the same time the most mysterious and most delightful human occurrence.  When the book of Proverbs speaks of “the way of a man with a maid” as a wonder too wonderful to describe, the book of Proverbs is correct. Isn’t the attempt at speaking about the spouse who is dearer to us than all else; isn’t such an attempt one more instance of trying to gather the ocean into a teacup?

For reasons we shan’t go into this morning all the denominational groupings in the Christian “family” began – and still begin – with a handful of men and women possessed of throbbing intimacy with the living Lord Jesus Christ.         As this lit-up movement broadens, as it draws more and more people into itself, head and heart become separated.         After two generations the movement has become a denomination.  Denominations are identified by the head; that is, by how they think. Lost by now is the initial rapture of the heart. Lost by now is that first love that first filled the first people in the movement. Lost is the wonder, the winsomeness, the attractiveness, the beauty of living day-by-day in an intimacy with our Lord that seemed only to be able to become more intimate.

Seemed only to be able to become more intimate, because in fact it didn’t become more intimate; it became one-sidedly cerebral, one-sidedly “headish”, cold, sterile, inert. Imagine someone coming upon a pearl like the pearl of which our Lord speaks.  She looks at it for several minutes and then says “Do you know that pearls are formed when smelly oysters, ugly to look at too, secrete a chemical that hardens and hardens until a grey-ish precipitate is formed?” Everything she’s said is correct. And she says it only because she is pathetically blind to the beauty of pearls, never mind blind to that pearl which our Lord says is worth everything.

You must have noticed that when the biblical writers come to speak of the attractivness of the king and his realm; when they speak of its appeal, its winsomeness, its comeliness, its irresistibility, they speak in the most vivid images.         “There was the river of life, bright as crystal”, says the seer in the book of Revelation.  “We have beheld his glory” cries the apostle John concerning his fellow-Christians. (Glory is God’s innermost splendour turned outwards and visited upon us.)         “No one has ever seen; no one has ever heard; no one can even imagine all that God has prepared for those who love him” announces Paul to the congregation in Corinth.

Paul speaks of “the unfathomable riches of Christ.” Jesus speaks of a pearl, of treasure, precious beyond telling, shining more attractively than the sun in its inimitable splendour.  This is what it’s like to live with me, says Jesus.         And it’s pure gift.

 

III: — (Luke 17:7-10) Needless to say, every gift has its task; every privilege has its responsibility; every boon has its obligation. Intimacy with Christ the king, glorious to be sure, entails service rendered to the king. In what spirit is such service to be rendered? With what attitude do we obey our Lord?

In answering this question Jesus utters the parable of the diligent servant. The parable is addressed to those among us (all of us, actually) who are tempted to have a “merit” mentality, tempted to think that our service to the king should call forth his recognition, his congratulation, even modest remuneration.  There’s always a corner of the sinful human heart wherein it’s thought that discipleship resembles a business contract: for service rendered our Lord, especially service rendered in difficult circumstances, you and I are entitled to our fee.  In his parable of the diligent servant Jesus insists that at the end of all we’ve done in service to our Master, we can say only “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.” (NRSV)

“Worthless slaves”: perhaps we bristle when we hear this, and object for two reasons.  The first objection: it makes our Lord sound thoughtless, uncaring, dictatorial to the point of cruelty.  The second objection: it appears to contradict everything he says elsewhere about the rewards of the kingdom.

We can dismiss any suggestion that Jesus Christ is uncaring. He loves you and me more than he loves himself.         The cross demonstrates this.  Is he dictatorial at all, never mind dictatorial to the point of cruelty? So far from being dictatorial, he allows himself to be abused by anyone at all, finally absorbing the abuse of the cross where he prays for his assassins.  There’s nothing of the tyrant about him.

“When you have done all that you were ordered to do, say ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.’” The second objection: does this contradict what Jesus says elsewhere about the rewards of the kingdom – for instance, “When you are helping others financially, do it secretly, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Everyone knows that whoever gives a cup of cold water is rewarded, according to Jesus.

The point is, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done” doesn’t overturn the rewards of the kingdom, but it does overturn a reward-mentality; it does overturn the self-serving calculation of a meritocracy; it does overturn a tit-for-tat arrangement wherein we say to God, “I’ve done thus and so for you; now what are going to do for me?”

We must always understand that God owes us nothing, yet God has promised us everything: the king and his kingdom.  The reward that attends our obedience is simply kingdom-blessing intensified; kingdom-joy deepened; kingdom-contentment rendered ever more satisfying. The reward that God doesn’t promise us is promotion at work, a bigger bank account, a faster social climb up the social Everest.

When Jesus speaks of reward, the reward is always logically connected to the obedience it rewards. It’s never the case that the reward is logically unrelated to the obedience it rewards. Think of it this way. I’ve been married for 36 years. Let’s suppose that tomorrow I say to my wife, “I’ve been faithful to you for 36 years, having fended off opportunities for adultery without number as pastor and professor. Now what do I get for my faithfulness? What’s my prize for good behaviour? Do I get a new bicycle? A trip to the Grey Cup game?” Plainly bicycle and Grey Cup game are logically unrelated to marital fidelity.  What’s more, my childish speech to my wife, “I’ve been a good boy for 36 years…” is as silly as it is puerile.

On the other hand marital faithfulness is rewarded: the reward is a richer marriage.  The reward is greater blessings, greater joy, greater contentment. This reward is related to the obedience it rewards, and this reward has nothing to do with a reward-mentality.

As a pastor I have found many people who think that they do have a claim on God; unconsciously they have lived in a meritocracy for decades.  Why, they have spent 40 years “doing the right thing”, as they put it. And now difficulty has overtaken them; reversal, perhaps tragedy; perhaps even premature death. They feel God has “welched” on his promise of reward.

But his reward has never been success or affluence or long life. His reward is the profoundest satisfaction in Christ, with the assurance of greater satisfaction eternally. Anyone who says “But what more do I get” hasn’t yet understood that intimacy with Jesus Christ is already everything.

 

In the two previous sermons on the parables of the kingdom I have indicated the logical connection among the parables discussed in the sermon.  Today, however, there’s no logical connection among the three groups of parables. Instead we are given three descriptions of the person who lives in the kingdom, three aspects of kingdom-existence, three dimensions of discipleship.

The three?

There is a cost to be considered.

There is a richness that outweighs, incomparably outweighs, any cost whatever.

There is a service to be rendered uncomplainingly.

 

                                                                                              Victor Shepherd

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            May 2006