Counting the Cost
The setting for these two parables, as Luke records it, is of Jesus teaching the large crowds traveling with him (14:25). He is speaking to them about the costs of being a disciple. Jesus places some difficult commands before his audience: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sistersyes, even his own lifehe cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26-27).
Verses 26 and 27 are found in both Matthew and Luke. However, unlike Luke, Matthew does not preserve the twin parables. Thus, it is likely, as Stein contends, "this arrangement is Lukan" (12) rather than original. Thus the setting where Luke places the parable is likely secondary. Yet, this setting, although secondary as Luke preserves it, seems authentic enough. Stein writes that "[Luke's] interpretation and use of these twin parables is essentially the same as that of Jesus" (112). Luke uses these twin parables of the tower builder and warring king to provide a picture of what Jesus meant by considering the cost of discipleship in vv. 26-27.
It is plausible that Jesus spoke both of these parables to
make the very same point. It is even plausible that he spoke them within this situation.
But even if the Lukan setting is artificial, the meaning of the parables and the direct
teachings of Jesus are not changed.
In verse 28, Jesus uses a rhetorical question to begin the parable. According to John Nolland, the construction translates to "which of you?" He then explains that "'Which of you' questions in parables expect a negative answer" (763). The tower being built would be a watch tower, most likely for an individual's vineyard or, possibly, as a larger tower for protection (Nolland 763). The man building the tower first sits down to "count" the cost. The word "count" is literally "to calculate, i.e. count with pebbles" (Fitzmeyer 1065). So, the meaning of the sentence becomes "sit down and calculate or figure out the cost..." There is some "think" time and some time to implement the demands of discipleship (Blomberg 282).
In verse 29, the cost of failure for the tower builder is "mocking" from his community (Blomberg 281). The picture is clear. A foundation looks ridiculous with no building on top of it. The community would say, "Why couldnt he finish that?"
In verse 31, "which king" instead of "which of you" moves the parable to a third-person question, since none of Jesus' hearers would have found themselves in the king's situation. Still the rhetorical nature of the question invites the negative response, "No king would do that!" (Nolland 764).
The king seeks counsel, or advice, because he is also "counting the cost," or weighing the risk. If the king does not have the army to win the battle, he must not enter the battle. If he can not win, and does not seek peace, he "risks losing his kingdom, his soldiers and his life" (Blomberg 281).
Verse 33 concludes the parable with a direct statement.
There is disagreement about whether this teaching is originally a conclusion to the
parable, or if it was a saying of Jesus added on to the parable by the Evangelist. Joseph
Fitzmeyer writes: "Verse 33, however, is a conclusion to this passage, which has been
composed by Luke, in order to add a further condition of discipleship, his favorite idea
of disposing of material possessions" (1061). However, Blomberg disagrees. He sees
the cost of the kingdom as greater than the cost of the tower, and defines a progression.
The cost of the tower is the smallest; the cost of the kingdom is considerably larger. His
conclusion is that v. 33 is the greatest cost, climaxing the progression. He thus accepts
it as teaching going beyond the parable but not as secondary (281).
The message of these twin parables to the crowd who heard Jesus first speak them was clear enough: "You must count the cost of following Me." The decision to follow Jesus was not something to be taken lightly. It was not a decision to be made haphazardly, in the emotion of the moment, without careful consideration. Joachim Jeremias writes, "The double parable is an exhortation to self-examination, not self-denial" (112, n91). The cost was not always an abandonment of the temporary relationships or possessions, but it was always an evaluation of the potential cost of not completing the commitment the disciples made.
The teaching which frames these two parables set forth these conditions of discipleship:
Putting family, and even one's own life, second to Jesus (14:26).
Bearing one's cross and following after Jesus (14:27).
Renouncing all one has (14:33) (Fitzmeyer 1062).
The same high costs are presented in the twin parables. The
tower builder risked his investment and his reputation; the king risked his entire
kingdom. The message of the parables, then, was to consider the risk before starting on
the journey of discipleship.
This is perhaps one of the clearest parables to today's readers. Construction is familiar to us. We understand budgets, bids, and estimated costs of building projects. We understand the idea of wise investment and the concept of "calculated risk" in our free-enterprise society.
Wars are also familiar to us. Many remember the cost of World War II or Vietnam in terms of lives lostthe lives of family, or friends, or both. For those too young to remember Vietnam, we just turn on the news to watch the current situation in Kosovo, and the somber realities of war confront us.
The picture of the parables is clear: the stakes are high, the cost is great. The cost of discipleship must be considered, evaluated, and taken seriously. The commitment to discipleship, in contrast to so many commitments made in today's society, must not be taken lightly. As Charles Childers summarizes: "To begin building an edifice without first checking to see if sufficient funds are available to finish it would be folly indeed. But to take lightly and presumptuously the vow of discipleship is to play the fool in a much deeper and far more tragic sense. Such flippant acceptance of sacred vows and responsibilities betrays either a lack of understanding or a disregard for the seriousness of the step" (553).