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CONCERNING THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP

Read­ing Time: 10 minutes

(Ref. Texts: Wis 9:13–18; Ps 8990; Phlm 9b-10.12–17: Luke 14:25–33)

Dis­ciple­ship is not an offer that man makes to Christ. Dis­ciple­ship means adher­ence to Christ, and, because Christ is the object of that adher­ence, it must take the form of dis­ciple­ship. An abstract Chris­to­logy, a doc­trin­al sys­tem, a gen­er­al reli­gious know­ledge on the sub­ject of grace or on the for­give­ness of sins, render dis­ciple­ship super­flu­ous, and in fact they pos­it­ively exclude any idea of dis­ciple­ship whatever, and are essen­tially inim­ic­al to the whole con­cep­tion of fol­low­ing Christ” (D. Bonhoeffer).

Prologue

After listen­ing to Jesus’ words to the invit­ees and their host (cf. Luke 14:1.7–14), one of the invit­ees sit­ing at the table with Jesus exclaimed “Blessed is the one who will dine in the king­dom of God” (Luke 14:15). Was this a eulogy, a mock­ery or a fanci­ful dis­trac­tion from the uncom­fort­able theme of caring for the poor and the infirm? Prob­ably, it was both. How­ever, such inter­ven­tion offered Jesus the chance for fur­ther cla­ri­fic­a­tion. ‘In the king­dom of God’ is a ref­er­ence to the eschat­o­lo­gic­al mes­si­an­ic ban­quet. In Jesus’ time, this was under­stood as a ban­quet to which only the pious Jews were qual­i­fied to par­take. Jesus used the story in Luke 14:15–24 to demon­strate that those who think such ban­quet was meant for them will nev­er be part of it (cf. v.24). Instead, they will be replaced with the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame and the Gen­tiles (cf. vv.21 and 23). While the godly Jews rep­res­ent the rich, the ungodly Jews refer to the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame and the Gen­tiles. Luke 14:15–24 is a fur­ther elab­or­a­tion and applic­a­tion of 14:1.7–14. It is on this found­a­tion and with this ori­ent­a­tion that we should approach this Sunday Gos­pel message.

What can the call to dis­ciple­ship, the adher­ence to the word and teach­ing of Jesus mean to the con­tem­por­ary Chris­ti­an, reli­gious and civil lead­ers, to busi­ness­men, secur­ity agents, employ­ers and employ­ees, the edu­cated and the uneducated, the mater­i­ally poor and the mater­i­ally rich, the seem­ingly wise and the pre­sumed fool­ish, aris­to­crats, politi­cians, and oth­ers? What is our under­stand­ing of dis­ciple­ship? Is it a slo­gan or a commitment?

Remembering Bonhoeffer

Reflect­ing on Luke 14:25–33, my memory flashed back to Diet­rich Bon­hoef­fer­’s work: Nachfolge pub­lished in 1937, and later trans­lated and pub­lished in Eng­lish in 1957 with the title: The Cost of Dis­ciple­ship. Nachfolge was Bonhoeffer’s response to the ques­tions: “What did Jesus mean to say to us? What is his will for us today?” Draw­ing on the Ser­mon on the Mount (cf. Matt 5:1–7:29), Bon­hoef­fer provides an inspir­ing read­ing of the dicho­tomy between what he clas­si­fies as “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” Cheap grace, accord­ing to him, “is the grace we bestow on ourselves…grace without dis­ciple­ship.” On the oth­er hand, “costly grace is the Gos­pel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. 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.” Based on this ana­lys­is, Bon­hoef­fer con­cludes that “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Yes! “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it pro­duces much fruit” (John 12:24). Dying with Jesus means resur­rect­ing with him. Dis­ciple­ship is not an affirm­a­tion of faith. It is action. It is faith put into action – func­tion­al and prac­tic­al faith (cf. Jas 2:17).

The meaning of discipleship

Gen­er­ally, Dic­tion­ar­ies have dif­fi­culty defin­ing dis­ciple­ship. While some attempt resolv­ing this dif­fi­culty by provid­ing the mean­ings of dis­ciple, oth­ers present it as the state of being a dis­ciple or fol­low­er in doc­trines and pre­cepts. Per­son­ally, this defin­i­tion does not por­tray the Scrip­tur­al notion of dis­ciple­ship. Dis­ciple­ship does not con­sist in fol­low­ing doc­trines and/or pre­cepts. It is not the capa­city to for­mu­late philo­soph­ic­al and theo­lo­gic­al treat­ises on faith and on fol­low­ing Jesus. Dis­ciple­ship is not the test of ora­tor­ic­al ability.

In his request to his would-be-fol­low­ers, Jesus uses the expres­sions deute opisō mou (cf. Matt 4:19; Mark 1:17) and ako­louthei moi (cf. Luke 5:27). Deute is an adverb func­tion­ing as verb. When accom­pan­ied by an imper­at­ive, it means come imme­di­ately! (cf. Matt 21:38; 22:4). When fol­lowed by the pre­pos­i­tion opisō, it means come after, fol­low. In call­ing the dis­ciples, Jesus adopts deute in the imper­at­ive aor­ist accom­pan­ied by opisō mou. Such com­bin­a­tion expresses the theo­lo­gic­al force of the call that none of those called ever opposed or res­isted it (cf. Matt 4:20; Mark 1:18.20; Luke 5:11.28).

Ordin­ar­ily, ako­loutheō could mean come after in ref­er­ence to an indi­vidu­al fol­low­ing Jesus (cf. Mark 10:52), or go along with, accom­pany in ref­er­ence to the crowd accom­pa­ny­ing Jesus (cf. Matt 21:9). In our con­text, ako­loutheō is not just an ordin­ary fol­low­ing or accom­pa­ny­ing. It is dis­ciple­ship. It is self-com­mit­ment and self-abneg­a­tion. Hence, it means to fol­low, go after. It is in this sense that Jesus used it and con­tin­ues to use it in call­ing the dis­ciples both then and now. It is a theo­lo­gic­al fol­low­ing. Dis­ciple­ship means fol­low­ing behind or com­ing after. Bonhoeffer’s title Nachfolge (lit­er­ally, Fol­low After) reflects the Greek deute opisō mou bet­ter than the Eng­lish ‘Dis­ciple­ship.’ Since the Greek imper­at­ive aor­ist is a com­mand that denotes an action to be per­formed only once, the decision to become a dis­ciple is a decision taken only once, and once taken, can no longer be altered. To fol­low someone (ako­loutheō) is to come after (deute opisō mou) that per­son. Con­versely, to come after someone is to fol­low that per­son. Dis­ciple­ship as inten­ded by Jesus is a theo­lo­gic­al fol­low­ing and com­ing after. The ques­tion what is dis­ciple­ship auto­mat­ic­ally implies who is a disciple.

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