I get it: We want to accentuate the positive. We Christians like to emphasize the positives of following Jesus – and minimize the negatives. But Jesus is pretty straight forward about the costs of discipleship. Matthew 8:19-22 is a great example.
And a scribe came up and said to [Jesus], “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”
Jesus isn’t very seeker friendly here. He essentially calls this first scribe clueless; this guy doesn’t understand what he’s saying. Following Jesus means sharing his values and priorities – which are sometimes in direct opposition to our nature instincts. Jesus just doesn’t make comfort and security the kind of priorities that we do! Jesus is pushing this would-be disciple: “You say that you will follow… but do you know what that will cost you?” In speaking of foxes and birds, I don’t think that Jesus is just being cute. In the Old Testament (esp. the prophets), the opponents of God are compared to various animals. In fact, Jesus himself calls Herod Antipas “that fox” (Luke 13:32). I think Jesus is making a point about his purposes here: His opponents (the foxes and birds they are) have the comforts and security of home, but the Son of Man knows none of it. Jesus knows the suffering that is ahead of Him. Jesus demands that His disciples’ priorities reflect His own. And Jesus suffered greatly to accomplish His purposes.
And this second interaction is interesting as well. Again, Jesus pushes back: “You say that you want to follow me… but do you understand what that means for your priorities?” Burial was likely a yearlong process. At death, the father’s bones would be set in a cave/niche for one year. On the one-year anniversary, the oldest son would see if the bones easily separated. If they did, the father’s remains would be set in a bone box and buried. A proper burial is the penultimate way that a son honors his father. It’s the ultimate act of obedience for an older son. The Mishnah (a later rabbinic text) says that this burial is the only thing that excused a son from reciting the Shema (a daily recitation from the Torah). Burial was a huge deal. Yet Jesus is saying that even your family obligations must come second.
In both of these encounters, Jesus is emphasizing the cost of following Him. Jesus came suffering – as with the master, so with the disciple. In order to follow Jesus, He must be more important than comfort, safety, even family (a theme which Matthew returns to again and again). Disciples of Jesus are called to share in His suffering and sacrifice. Matthew emphasizes this in Mat. 16:21-24 [as well as a ton of other places; see 10:38; 17:22-23; 20:26-28; 26:35].
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
Jesus tells His disciples that He will be killed, then raised up again. And what happens? Peter steps in… and gets burned, “Your mind is not on the things of God, but the things of man.” Jesus is showing his disciples that there is a great purpose to His suffering. Jesus knew that God would be doing something amazing, not in spite of His suffering, but right in the midst of Jesus’ suffering and death.
Can Jesus’ disciples share this faith that God will do something redemptive through their suffering? That question is posed to us as well. If you would follow me, Jesus says, deny yourself (your comfort and security are no longer your first priority), take up your cross and follow me. The picture here is death. And ironically, Jesus is talking about death as a way of life for His disciples! Death as a way of life? That sounds a bit extreme, but it’s exactly Jesus’ point. Take up your cross – and keep on following me (present, active, imperative). This isn’t ‘take up your cross, go die and be done with it.’ It’s a paradox: life in the midst of death; a life of dying. Jesus talks about suffering, sacrifice, and self-denial as a way of life – as a way of discipleship. This is what it means to follow in the way of Jesus – as with the master, so with the disciple.
Jesus bids us to follow. But He warns us not to be blind to the costs. As Bonhoeffer notes, in speaking of costly grace, “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life” (The Cost of Discipleship, 47).
What does it look like for you to live out the cost of discipleship?
What does “a life of dying” look like in practical terms?
How do we help those we are discipling to identify with Jesus’ suffering and sacrifice (best practices, failures, experiments)?