A Most Misunderstood Parable

You gotta count the cost
If you’re gonna be a believer
You gotta know that the price
Is the one you can afford
You gotta count the cost
If you’re gonna be a believer
You gotta go all the way
If you really love the Lord.

Count The Cost, David Meece

An interesting and little known fact in publishing is this: If you quote a biblical passage in a book—or on a blog like this—Christians will not read it. Their mind takes their eyes right over it and onto the next part of the text. The unspoken rationale in the mind of the reader is this: “This is from the Bible, and so I’ve already read it.” Crazy, I know, but it’s true. So I want to ask you to stop and read this passage before we get into the meat of what I want to discuss. It’s from Luke’s Gospel.

28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33 So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple (Luke 14: 28-33, ESV).

Ok, got it? Thanks for actually reading it. Now, let’s look at how we have read this passage upside-down for so long.

The David Meece lyrics I quote above reflect what so many think Jesus is saying to the crowd. “If you are really serious about being a disciple, if you really love God, you’ll count the cost before you get started.” Again, this is upside-down thinking.

This passage in Luke is easily one of the most misunderstood parables taught by Jesus. In many of your Bibles you have a subhead just before this passage that reads “Count the cost of discipleship.” And that’s how it has been taught for so long. Before you decide to commit as a disciple of Jesus, you need to count the cost. “Do you really have what it will take? The road as a disciple is difficult, you know. You don’t want to  look back. You don’t want to turn around once you have put your hand to the plow.” The way this passage is taught should come with a bumper sticker or t-shirt that reads, If it is to be, it’s up to me.

How have we ever come to interpret this passage thus? How is it we have made walking with Jesus something that is dependent on our possessions, abilities and strengths?

First of all, this has led to a very false and harmful dichotomy: That there is a difference between a “disciple” and a “regular Christian.” You know—If you don’t think you can make it as a “disciple,” don’t commit. Just be a regular Christian like most everyone else. As  far as I can tell, Jesus offered one invitation only: Follow me. Well, ok, he elaborated on that in various ways,  like “eat my flesh and drink my blood” and “pick up your cross and die” and “hate your father and mother and spouse and kids,” but these were all a part of the journey of following Jesus. These were not various levels of attainment like in a video game or degrees like the Masons. There is, in the end, one collection with Jesus: Those who follow him. There are no “super-Christians, ” those who counted the cost and found that they did, indeed, have what it took to finish the job.

We misread this passage to say we need to take a personal inventory to see if we have what it takes to really follow Jesus. “Don’t start off if you can’t complete the job” is the message we hear. We see the tower builder and the king with his army as models of disciples who “get it.” Balderdash. I read a great article in Christianity Today by Andy Crouch about this some years ago. In it he says,

Make no mistake. The tower builder and the king are not models of discipleship. When does Jesus ever speak of discipleship as if it were a construction project, carefully calculated and accounted for, or a war, in which we marshal our own forces and find them adequate for the battle? Biblical faith is the abandonment of our tower building, the surrender of our ambitions to foolishly fight our way to security. These two men are at risk of becoming fools in the full biblical sense—blinded by their prosperity and power to the most basic form of common sense, not to mention the ultimate reality of their dependence on God.

Who among us has even the slightest skill, talent, or possession to impress God? Which one of us can say, “I have what it takes to follow Jesus for one year? One month? One week? Day? Hour? Second?” No, not even one second. No, you don’t. Don’t even tell me how you have it in you to follow Jesus for one brief second. You don’t. I don’t. The tower builder didn’t. Neither did the king.

The unfinished tower of Alai Minar in Dehli

And that is just what Jesus was teaching. Go ahead and take an inventory of your money and possessions if you want, but you don’t have what it takes. You will fail if you set off on your own to do what only God can do. This is not a story of the cost of discipleship. No—it is about the cost of non-discipleship. It is about the folly of not abandoning all to follow Jesus. All. Give it all up, starting with your precious “family values.” Continue on to the talents and skills you have developed in building things. All the tools you have acquired. Then let’s look at the strength of the army you have surrounded yourself with. None of it is worth talking about, Jesus says. Don’t be bringing fruit punch to a whisky party.

The point Jesus is making here is this: You can’t do it. If you try on your own, you will be stuck with a half-built empty shell of a tower. Or you will march your pitiful army out into battle against God’s army. Guess who wins that one?

Andy Crouch continues,

Jesus invites the crowds following him to sit down and count the cost—not of discipleship, but of non-discipleship. Non-discipleship means believing that we will be able to complete our insane Babel of self-provision; non-discipleship means blindly rushing into battle as enemies of God, having vastly overestimated our ability to prevail. Discipleship is the process of soberly counting our assets and coming to terms with their insufficiency to carry us through a life lived apart from God. It is not discipleship, in the end, that is costly—it is folly.

It is sheer folly to think the toy sword you have in your hand is of any interest or value to the Lord. Why are you continuing to grasp and clutch that when he has a real blade to give you, one that can actually defeat the very real enemy you are about to face? And only a fool looks at what he possesses and says, “Sure, I’ve got enough to get the job done.” Fool. Before you can even send out the invitations for your tower-warming party, God will send a mighty wind to knock it down, showing just what a fine craftsman you really are.

So what is Jesus looking for if not for those who are ready to buckle up their chin straps and give it their best effort? He is looking for quitters. He is looking for losers who know they don’t have what it will take. He is looking for the poor in spirit—poor because they have renounced all, given up on ever having enough to even make it one second on their own strength. He is looking for those he had just talked about who were invited to the fancy dinner party he had just talked about. The poor and outcast and misfits and losers who were brought in to take the place of “winners” who just didn’t have the time or inclination to sit down for a shebang right then.

Do you have what it takes to be a disciple of Jesus? No, you don’t. Not now, not tomorrow, not ever. And that is the best news you could hear.

36 thoughts on “A Most Misunderstood Parable

  1. I haven’t heard this explanation before either and it does make more sense in light of the surrounding context. If discipleship is supposed to be building a tower or going out to war or something like that, it makes no sense for Jesus to then say “renounce all you have” at the end of it.


  2. This quote from chapt. 15 of Robert Capon’s >I>The Parables of Grace is reminiscent of what Jeff is articulating;

    As I have observed a number of times now, if the world could have been saved by successful living, it would have been tidied up long ago. Certainly, the successful livers of this world have always been ready enough to stuff life’s losers into the garbage can of history. Their program for turning earth back into Eden has consistently been to shun the sick, to lock the poor in ghettos, to disenfranchise those whose skin was the wrong color, and to exterminate those whose religion was inconvenient. Nor have they been laggard in furthering that program. On the whole, they have been not only zealous but efficient: witness, to name only a handful of instances, the AIDS crisis, the South Bronx, the apartheid policy in South Africa, and the death camps under Hitler. But for all that, Eden has never returned. The world’s woes are beyond repair by the world’s successes: there are just too many failures, and they come too thick and fast for any program, however energetic or well-funded.



  3. The hard part of Christianity is to continue to lay our lives down out of love as the weariness of life sets in; to continue to trust God when we’d rather become bitter. Love is easily warped and our spirits crushed if we don’t remember to daily humble ourself before God and praise Him.


  4. What a wonderful article! It is so easy to look at this parable backwards and feel unprepared or inadequate, when in reality that is how God wants us to feel. It is only through true humility that we can experience the joy of being used by Christ. And that humility is a hard line to balance between pride and self deprication.


  5. me too! self righteounes i guess!?? i think i read it enough no need 2 read it again. who knows.


  6. Ted, what you’ve said here is precisely what I’m going through currently. Learning to have dependence on the Lord is something I’m having to do now that I’m finally in a relationship with a wonderful young lady who is also on the same learning process as I am.


  7. Jeff, well put.

    This being said as I ponder my own artistic work of clay from first grade that I made for my parents and still have here at home. Useless as a plate…


  8. This interpretation works for me, Jeff. And it calls to mind a couple of other bible verses (that nobody’s going to read…)

    —From Psalm127: Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.

    —From James4: 13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

    The whole idea of dependence on the Lord is crucial, and makes a lot more sense out of grace. I had a professor who said that Adam and Eve’s fall wasn’t so much a rebellion as a lack of trust that God would provide. They fell out of that sense of dependence and tried to become self-sufficient. And it’s also related to God’s provision of the manna in the wilderness, which the people rejected.


  9. unlovely, unworthy, morally depraved, spiritually bankrupt…nothing I bring, but still … loved by the KING.


    thanks Jeff


  10. Nobody said that walking in the way of faith is a barter between you and God. Nor did I leave out love in the equation. What I have been trying to say throughout my stay at iMonk, in reaction to some overreactions to any notion of obligation (aka, Rob), is that genuine saving faith is never barren. Nor is assurance completely separated from how we persevere in the faith (though the cross is the ultimate source of assurance).

    Jeff, I hope you didn’t misunderstand me here. I was not implying that our obedience to God will be perfect in this life. What I am saying is that discipleship, fruit-bearing, and perseverance can NEVER be separated from the gift of eternal life through the work of Jesus Christ.


  11. Sam, I think you missed it.

    Jeff isn’t saying that the passage is not about discipleship. He is saying that discipleship isn’t what we like to think it is.

    Discipleship isn’t about doing a better job at following Jesus.

    Discipleship is about giving up any notion of being good at following Jesus (i.e. building a discipleship tower, or fighting a discipleship battle). Discipleship is about giving up the project and surrendering your forces. Then Jesus builds through you. Then Jesus fights through you.

    In the context you speak of he then lays it out this way. Give up thinking that your family gets you anywhere. Give up thinking that clinging to life will get you anywhere. Same theme. Different illustration. He doesn’t say that failure to renounce all you have (your “skill” at being a disciple) makes you unworthy, just that failure to renounce what you have makes it impossible.

    Sure Jesus is talking about being a disciple. But what he is saying is not what we expect at all.


  12. I used to hear (Mark, take note: This was from evangelical preachers) speakers when I was in college–both as a student, and then as a teacher–say, “Your life is God’s gift to you. What you make of it is your gift back to God.” And all I could picture was this crappy ashtray I made out of clay in first grade to give to my parents. I thought, “That’s as good as it will ever get if God is relying on me.”

    You are exactly right. We don’t lay down our lives out of obligation but out of love.


  13. Mark, I think you must be reading some other blog. Perhaps you meant to respond to Al Mohler or Chuck Colson? ‘Cause no one here said anything close to what you are responding to.

    I mean, we’re glad you are here, and you are always welcome, but you might want to double check your response before you hit “reply.”


  14. You know, I’ve probably read that passage a hundred times, and, assuming that I already understood it, I’ve never payed close attention to the punchline. How can a builder or a king who renounces all that he has still have the resources to build even an outhouse or meet even a relatively small army in battle? And I guess that’s the point — that the project and task facing us was beyond our resources and abilities from the starting line. And taking honest stock of ourselves for who and what we are apart from God, His power, and His grace — basically grave-bound blobs of sin-infested flesh — makes that brutally clear. Who among us can by his own power or will or performance grant himself eternal life? Which one of us can build for himself an eternal dwelling? Who can achieve the righteousness of God? Who can command the Spirit of God to come and dwell inside him? No one, except God in the flesh, Jesus, our Lord and Redeemer. And the only hope we have is to lay down all the cards we’ve been holding on His table, surrender to His might and mercy, and just follow wherever He leads and participate in whatever He’s doing.
    Thanks, Jeff, for the insight. And it would be interesting to discuss this parable as it relates to numerous attempts Christians have made to build His kingdom for Him throughout church history.


  15. Love it! I just finished hearing a sermon on Ro. 12:1 where the preacher says our motivation for following God is his mercy. But if that is true, it becomes a barter relationship. God gives mercy and we give him ourselves as living sacrifices. Ba-lon-ey! It is because of God’s great mercy that I can serve Him! It is not an obligation I have, but a privilege He grants. Praise Him! So then I read this and find the same thinking. I am nothing, He is everything! Praise Him!


  16. I don’t know any evangelical Christian who says that Christians are ordered to work their way into heaven. Even preachers like John MacArthur, John Piper, Al Mohler, etc. do not believe that sinners earn a place in heaven by their good deeds.

    However, walking in the way of discipleship is a NECESSARY fruit of salvation. It is not optional. It is commanded by our Lord and we resist this call to our own eternal peril.

    I want someone to explain to me this: why is saying that perseverance in discipleship as a necessary consequence of genuine faith is the same as saying that we earn our place in heaven? I see a clear difference here. Why do some people fail to make that distinction?


  17. That’s excellent. As you say, I never considered that interpretation before; I always thought of it more as “If you start on this road, don’t think you can cling on to what you already have: your possessions and your comforts and your way of thinking and doing. You are going to be changed and I will ask and take all you have and are.”

    Your explanation is strangely comforting. No, we have no strength, no, we’re going to be flattened, but it doesn’t matter. 🙂


  18. Beautifully put- thank you for posting. I love it when what I’ve termed the “scary” passages of Scripture take on new light- makes me think of the truth setting us free.

    Another passage similar to this that I always think of (I’m not a theologian, just a thought) is the passage where Jesus talks about if you even look at someone with lust in your heart it being equal to adultery. I hear so many people take that passage as a reason to buckle up and behave. But when you keep reading to the end of the passage- the disciples ask Jesus who can be saved He says- no one who is doing it on their own…….but anyone who trusts in God can be. We can’t be strong enough on our own for discipleship anymore than we can will ourselves to lust less.
    All that to say- these new perspectives on passages I’ve heard hundreds of times help me to understand what it means to trust Christ versus me trying hard to fix me or behave better.


  19. Jeff, in the past two posts you have made the gospel so very clear for me and maybe many others. I am not trying to puff you up but seriously, Christ is being placarded all over this place like crazy!!!! THANK YOU!

    Finally admitting that “I can’t do it” is just too freeing. Absolutely wonderful

    Thanks again


  20. I used to live in one of the old Soviet republics, and you saw that everywhere: half-finished buildings, empty farm collectives, deserted factories, even an abandoned prison. Some of the construction sites still had the cranes and heavy machinery sitting there, rusting away. It was a great place if you were a kid.


  21. 28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?
    29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him,
    30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’

    I actually saw this happen in downtown Los Angeles around 40 years ago. There was this block just north of the Bonaventure Hotel site called “The Los Angeles World Trade Center”. The developers got as far as the concrete framing on the parking levels (about 2-3 stories above grade) when they ran out of money. The building stood there only half-framed for four-five years.

    SInce then, in the past couple years I’ve heard stories of highrise condos in Las Vegas abandoned in mid-pour when the real estate market crashed and just sitting there, half-framed and crumbling.


  22. An interesting and little known fact in publishing is this: If you quote a biblical passage in a book—or on a blog like this—Christians will not read it. Their mind takes their eyes right over it and onto the next part of the text.

    Guilty as charged!


  23. I think you got to read the passage in context. Luke 14:26-27
    “If anyone comes to me, and does not hate his own father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.

    The parable that follows is about the cost of following Jesus, which is to hate ones own family and take up his cross and follow Jesus .. to the cross.

    Also look at the conclusion Like 14:33
    So therefore whoever of you who does not renounce all that he has, he cannot be my disciple.

    This parable is about being a disciple of Jesus.

    To assume that popular way is wrong because of King’s and tower builders are bad representations of a disciple, is not to understand parables. Parables are not meant to have a one to one correspondence, but rather to demonstrate maxim.

    If you take a one to one correspondence for parables then in the parable in Luke 18:1-7. In that parable Jesus compares the Father to an unrighteous judge. But that just is not the way parables are to be read.


  24. holy crap man! i’ve never heard of that angle on this parable before, but it makes sense. falls in line with the beatitudes. thanks for this post!


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