Counting the Cost

by Ron Julian


I love the parables of Jesus. Some of the parables, however, have eluded me for years. I know how other people interpret them, but for one reason or another I’m not convinced. Because the parables I do understand have meant so much to me, I always hope that one day another parable will unlock its mysteries to me. Recently I had an (unexpected) flash of inspiration; a pair of parables which had always troubled me suddenly made some sense. I’ll tell you what occurred to me; whether I have understood these parables rightly I’ll leave you to decide.

The two parables in question are found in the middle of a truly sobering passage:

If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, “This man began to build and was not able to finish.” Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and take counsel whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks terms of peace. So therefore, no one of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions. (Luke 14:26-33)

We could paraphrase the basic point of this passage (excluding the parables) in this way:

All who follow Jesus will inevitably come into conflict with the world around them. Sometimes following Jesus means losing the love of family and friends. Sometimes following Jesus means losing the approval of our neighbors and our society. Sometimes following Jesus means losing our worldly possessions. Sometimes following Jesus means losing our lives. It is all worth it; the wealth which comes to those who follow Christ is richer than anything the world can offer. We cannot avoid this choice; if we insist on keeping the world’s approval and the world’s wealth, then we cannot be disciples of Jesus. If we are disciples of Jesus, then we will have to loosen our hold on the world and its riches.

It would be very worthwhile to defend and explain this paraphrase, but that is not our purpose here. What concerns us for the moment are the parables about the man building a tower and the king going to battle. These parables have always puzzled me. On the surface, they seem simple enough; there is a very common interpretation which goes something like this:

Before you become a disciple of Jesus, you had better “count the cost”; that is, you had better stop first and figure out how costly it is to be a disciple. Do you have what it takes to be a disciple, to give up everything, to carry your cross? You don’t want to start into being a disciple and then discover half-way through that you don’t have what it takes to finish.

I don’t disagree that discipleship is costly. My problem has always been this idea that “counting the cost” means figuring out in advance how costly being a disciple is. Who ever does or could “count the cost” in this way? Speaking personally, I did not have the tiniest clue what being a believer would cost me in this life. I could not possibly have known or understood what God was going to require of me. And I have never met any believer who became a Christian in this way. All of us seem to stumble into belief, naive and uninformed. Furthermore, is it even wise to try to figure out in advance whether we have what it takes to go the distance? How could we possibly know? God Himself will take us through trials; God Himself will show us what we are made of. What if we look ahead and it all looks too scary? What if we doubt that we do have what it takes? Would Jesus be telling us to give up before we start? I could understand Jesus warning us in advance that discipleship is demanding, but these parables are saying something stronger and more specific; they tell us “don’t start something you can’t finish.” Could Jesus really mean, “don’t become a disciple unless you’re sure you can finish”? How could any young disciple take this advice? If we have any interest in Jesus at all, of course we ought to start being disciples; we can worry about the finish when we get there. I don’t look down on this interpretation; indeed, it was the best that I could do for many years. But now I think there is a better one.

Three points, which I basically ignored in the past, now seem very striking to me about these stories:

First, these are not stories about people who made sure they had what it takes. These are stories about people who discovered that they did not have what it takes. This is especially clear with the second story. Jesus has set the king up for failure in advance. As Jesus tells it, the king has no chance of winning; he has half the number of soldiers that his opponent has. The same thing is true with the tower story; Jesus could have told another story about a guy who had enough money to build a tower, but the story he tells is about a guy who doesn’t have enough. Perhaps Jesus is suggesting that we are like the king and the builder: in certain respects we don’t have what it takes either.

Second, the strong implication of both stories is that the characters are being commended for giving up. Yes, they were wise to count the cost in advance, but their wisdom went beyond that; they wisely quit when they discovered they couldn’t finish the task. Knowing when to quit can be the pinnacle of wisdom. Perhaps we are being exhorted in the same way; we need to recognize that in a certain sense we cannot win either, and we should give up.

Third, the king sends a delegation while the other king is still far away. Perhaps this is just an insignificant detail, but I am inclined to think that it is quite significant. If the king waits until the other king comes, it will be too late to come to terms. He needs to seek him out now, while the king who is coming for battle is still far away. Our situation with God is strikingly similar; if we wait until God comes in power in the person of His Messiah, it will be too late. We need to come to terms with Him now, while He is still “far away.” Perhaps Jesus has this analogy in mind. If He does, then the common understanding of Jesus’ whole point must change. In the more common “counting the cost” interpretation, the believer would be the one who does not act like this king; the believer does not surrender, because he has what it takes to win the battle. Instead, however, Jesus seems to be suggesting that we should be like this king; we should come to terms now, before it is too late.

These three points considered together suggest that Jesus is drawing a different analogy than the one we typically suppose. He is not saying, “Don’t be like these guys who didn’t have enough to finish.” Rather, He is saying, “You ARE like these guys; you don’t have what it takes to finish either. Like them, you should decide NOW to give up, while you still can.” This may sound strange, because we are used to thinking that the subject is “having what it takes to be a disciple.” But Jesus is not talking about the cost of being a disciple; He is talking about the cost of not being a disciple. Let me explain.

In the first story the man has a project he wants to take on; he wants to build a tower. Such a tower might be a defensive watch-tower or some other improvement to his home. Presumably, his goal in building a tower is to protect or enhance his property. He could let his desire for the tower push him into charging ahead, but that would be foolish. As it happens, he comes to realize he doesn’t have enough resources to finish the project. He wants the tower, but he can’t have it. He would like his neighbors to admire his fine tower, but if he tries to build it he will only win their ridicule for being so dumb.

Well, all human beings are like this man. Just as he wants to build a tower, so we, too, have a building project: we are trying to make something of the life we have been given. We all want to prosper and succeed; we all have this naive optimism that if we just charge ahead we can take our worldly resources and build ourselves a rewarding life. (In the analogy, the tower either represents the means to protect our worldly resources or else the life we build out of those resources; I’m not sure yet.) However, most people are fools; they have never asked themselves whether their resources are adequate to the project. As it happens, they do not have what it takes. No matter how hard they try, in the end their life-project will come to nothing. One day their possessions will fail them; one day they will stand before the judgment seat of God and be ashamed for such a monumental waste of time. Some among us, however, are wise; we are like the man in Jesus’ story. Before the day of reckoning comes, we realize that we don’t have what it takes for our project. We wanted to take our worldly resources and turn them into a durable and successful life, but we know that we can’t. We have had to give up on OUR project and find another project with a better chance of success.

In the second story, a king is planning to go to battle with another king. Why does one king go to battle with another? Why else? He wants sovereignty; he wants control; he wants to remain king, and he doesn’t want the other king to come and tell him what to do. Wanting very much to be top dog, this king plans to go to battle with his rival. Being a wise king, however, he stops to count up his resources. As it happens, he discovers that his opponent has two soldiers for every one of his. Although he really wants to win, he realizes that there’s just no way. So before it ever comes to battle, while the other king is still a long way off, he sends a delegation to work out terms of peace; that is, he essentially surrenders. He is not going to be king; he is not going to be top dog; he is not going to get his way. But there was no way he could win anyway; better to come to terms before his defeat becomes ignominious and total.

Well, all human beings are like this king. We all want to be top dog; we all want control of our own lives; most of all, we don’t want that other king, that usurper, that enemy, God, coming along and taking our kingdom away from us. Most people, however, are fools; they have never asked themselves whether they have the resources to keep their kingdom intact. As it happens, they do not. One day the battle will be joined; one day their enemy, the divine King, will step in and steal their kingdom away. But some among us are wise; we are like the king in Jesus’ story. Before it ever comes to battle we realize that we have lost. While that other, greater King is still a long way off, while we still have time, we seek peace on His terms, realizing that we cannot impose our terms on Him.

This way of understanding the parables seems to me to make better sense of the stories and better sense of life than does the common interpretation. Jesus is indeed making the point, “Count the cost, and if you don’t have what it takes, don’t start.” But He does not mean, “Count the cost of being a disciple, and if you don’t have what it takes, don’t start.” He is not saying we must start our Christian journey confident that we have what it takes to complete it; that would be unwise, presumptuous, and psychologically impossible. Instead He means, “Count the cost of building a durable and successful life apart from God, and if you don’t have what it takes, don’t start.” He is asking us to consider now, in this life, whether our worldly resources are enough to make our lives a success. That question we can answer now, with confidence and without presumption: no, our worldly resources will not bring us life. We cannot build our tower; we cannot win against that King.

Therefore Jesus’ disciples must give up their claim on the world and its riches. The gospel that we say we believe has pronounced sentence on this world. We have been warned: wealth corrodes, sin corrupts, and death destroys; that is why we need a savior in the first place. Jesus confronts us with a choice that must be made. Do we believe that this world will fail us in the end? Then let us stop being loyal to it; it has done nothing for us. To pick up the true treasure we have to put down the false one. Since we do not have what it takes to make our lives truly successful, let us turn in trust to the One who does.

Copyright August 1994 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Ron Julian