Whenever war breaks out governments appeal for volunteers; sovereigns urge recruits to offer themselves for the conflict that is already lapping the lives of everyone. Thousands of people do volunteer. They offer themselves for a variety of reasons. Some perceive the nature of the threat that the conflict poses and want to lend themselves in beating it back. Others, much less perceptive, volunteer themselves inasmuch as soldiering appeals to their sense of adventure; civilian life seems drab compared to the excitement of combat. Others still, lacking both perception and an adventurous spirit, are shamed into offering themselves: to stay at home and shirk the conflict would be shameful.
When Jesus summoned men and women to discipleship they responded for all the reasons we have just mentioned. Some perceived the nature of the spiritual conflict, knowing with St.Paul that the conflict isn't with flesh and blood but with principalities, powers and "rulers of this present darkness." Others merely wanted adventure, and Jesus was the most recent fellow to summon adventurers. Others still were shamed into volunteering.
There is, however, one crucial difference between the recruiting for soldiers that governments do in time of war and the summoning of disciples that Jesus did in the face of cosmic conflict: governments never impress upon recruits what the cost of soldiering might be. There is never a footnote on the recruitment-poster, "Soldiering may be dangerous to your health." When General Eisenhower was coordinating the allied forces for their assault on D-Day American senior officers complained persistently that American soldiers were underprepared; American soldiers had undergone training exercises that had nothing like the rigour and hardship and fright and miserable weather of combat conditions. Eisenhower, a fine soldier himself, nodded sympathetically with his senior officers even as he reminded them that families and politicians back in the United States would not stand for having their young men undergo training that was rigorous enough to be realistic. The result was, of course, that the soft training mandated by politicians and stateside families issued in combat casualties that were far higher than they should have been.
Our Lord was different. "If all you want is adventure", he warned would-be followers, "you might as well keep on fishing. Fishing will give you as much adventure as you need." "If you are joining up because you are ashamed not to, don't bother to join up, because in two weeks the hardship of discipleship will vastly outweigh any shame still clinging to you. Stay home!"
Luke tells us that a fellow runs up to the Master and gushes sentimentally, "I'll follow you wherever you go." Jesus stares him back and retorts, "Foxes and birds have the comfort of hole and nest; but I don't have even that, and neither will you. Go home and think some more about discipleship."
To drive his point home Jesus tells two parables about the cost of discipleship. A man begins a building project, gets halfway through it, runs out of money, and has to abandon it. A king commits his army to battle, finds he has bitten off more than he can chew, and has to give up. The point of the parables is this: before we jump up and shout with premature enthusiasm, "I want to be a disciple too!", we should sit down soberly and assess the cost of this endeavour.
Few notions are more false, even more blasphemous, than the so-called "prosperity gospel" now rampant in North America. Believing in Jesus, we are told, will double our income, or have us elected the beauty queen, or find us president of the club or the company. Jesus makes his people winners!
Odd, isn't it, since Jesus himself, from a human perspective, is pure loser. He's a Jew -- someone the world loves to hate. His family misunderstands him and is even embarrassed by his supposed insanity. His closest friends desert him. He is executed alongside criminals, and the site of the execution is the city garbage dump. He tells his followers that they can expect as much themselves.
Discipleship is costly in any era. Recently I learned of a young man who was selected for a management training program in a major Canadian corporation. Very quickly he learned that the other management trainees expected him to accompany them in their after-hours drinking escapades. He told them he didn't want to do this every evening. They invited him to their favourite strip-tease show. He told them he preferred to go home to his wife. Next thing he knew, a nasty rumour had been circulated about him: perhaps his sexual orientation was unusual. Next thing he knew after that, he was no longer in the management training program.
It's always been necessary to count the cost of discipleship. In 16th century France those Protestants who escaped the sword were subjected thereafter to the severest social penalties. In the 17th century the suffering forced on the Puritans beggars description. In the 18th century the Christians who opposed slavery were vilified as saboteurs of the economy. And the plight of Christians anywhere in communist-controlled lands throughout the 20th century? Ask my daughter Catherine in Hong Kong who reviews book after book about what really happened in China from 1948 through the Cultural Revolution.
There is another sense too in which the cost of discipleship has to be assessed. I speak now of the painful frankness with which we must search our hearts in the light of the gospel. There is a sense (albeit superficial) in which ignorance is bliss. For the longer I remain in the company of Jesus Christ the more horrified I am as he acquaints me with the treachery of my own heart. Many people, I am told, look upon me as quite transparent; I seem to have acquired the reputation of wearing very few disguises. I don't know how I acquired such a reputation, since there is no truth to it. However infrequently I may deceive you I am coming to learn how frequently I have deceived myself. My capacity for self-deception; my capacity for rationalizing my sin before it is committed and excusing it after it is committed; my capacity for subtle personal dishonesty; this, I have come to see so very painfully, is limitless! My capacity to legitimate (to myself, at least) resentments and ill-temper and impatience and contempt and a vehemence amounting to violence; there's no bottom to it! Had I never become a disciple I could have remained blissfully unaware of it and therefore as happy as a pig in mud -- couldn't I have? Now that my proximity to Jesus has made aware of my treacherous heart I can't pretend I don't know, and I'm going to have to do something about it.
Jesus urges us to become disciples. Yet when he sees our naive eagerness he cautions us, in the two parables we read a minute ago, "Add it all up carefully. The cost is real."
If our Lord had left the impression that life in the kingdom of God, life in the company of Christ the king himself, were unrelieved gloom or endless sacrifice or ceaseless weariness or anything else relentlessly negative, then no one would ever become a disciple. Our Lord in fact left no such impression. The parables we have just read tell us the opposite: to acknowledge the king's rightful rule, to hear and heed his summons, to join him in his venture through that world which is his by right and his again by his self-giving for it -- this is rich.
How rich? How valuable? How precious? In his two little stories Jesus tells us of a man who comes upon a pearl so beautiful that he just has to have it; he tells us of a man who learns there is invaluable treasure buried in a most ordinary-looking field -- and he just has to have it. In other words, the worth, the delight, the joy, the satisfaction of kingdom-venture in the company of the king himself cannot be fathomed.
In his letter to the congregation in Ephesus Paul speaks of the "unsearchable riches of Christ." The word he uses for "unsearchable" (ANEXICHNIASTON) literally means "bottomless, unfathomable, unprobable, inexhaustible". Probe them, test them, appropriate them as much as we will, their value and attractiveness and significance we cannot measure, exhaust, or even adequately describe. Before these riches we can only stammer. Yet even the most tongue-tied among us can still know them and relish them and delight in them.
The commonest biblical metaphor for faith, for living in an ongoing encounter with our Lord himself; the commonest biblical metaphor is marriage. One reason that the metaphor of marriage is used so very often for discipleship is that words fall abysmally short in all attempts at describing both. How can we describe the foundational fusion and concomitant thrill and wonder of marriage? Only in the most halting, sill-sounding, self-conscious manner. How can we speak of the profundity and mystery and splendour of making love (where it is love that is genuinely made)? We can't. We can only fumble and falter and trust that that to which we point and which we recommend others will come to know through living it -- otherwise, we are certain, they will never come to know it at all.
Joy Davidman, wife of C.S. Lewis; Joy Davidman was raised in New York City in the home of thoroughgoing secularists. More than mere secularists, her parents were also militant Marxist-atheists. When Joy Davidman came to faith in Jesus Christ she grasped instantly what Jesus had meant in the parables of the beautiful pearl and the treasure hid in a field. Years later a journalist asked her to describe what the total Christian enterprise was really like. She looked at him for a minute and replied slowly, "How do you gather the ocean into a teacup?"
We must be sure to notice that Jesus doesn't attempt to speak factually, literally, when he speaks of the kingdom; he speaks metaphorically, imagistically, pictorially. He does so just because the ocean can't be gathered into a teacup; just because a factual description can't come close to something before which even the most vivid imagination is inadequate. We 20th century types tend to lose sight of how much of the bible isn't written in factual prose but rather in imagistic poetry. When the visionary writer of the book of Revelation is overwhelmed yet again at the vividness and intensity and density of his life in God he cries, "...and there was the river of life, bright as crystal!" Ezekiel shouts, "I saw a valley of dead dry bones, and when the Word of God was declared they lived and danced and exulted." John says "we severed, sapless branches; we have been grafted onto the tree; and now the root-deep sap that brings life and leaf and fruit to the tree courses through us as well." Jesus says, "To know me is to be like a woman who has just given birth; her joy at her newborn is so intense, so wonderful, that it squeezes out everything else; she forgets what is behind her, doesn't worry about what is in front of her, and simply glows at the marvel and mystery of all that has made her radiant."
The point of poetry isn't to inform us (the way assembly-instructions or operating-instructions inform us concerning the household appliance we have newly purchased); the point of poetry, rather, is to bring us to stand where the poet herself stands and perceive what she perceives and experience what she experiences. In other words, poetry is written just because no prose is adequate for the intensity and vividness and marvel and mystery and ecstasy of what the poet herself has lived.
Paul speaks of the "unsearchable riches of Christ". Jesus himself speaks of a pearl beautiful beyond words and a treasure valuable beyond calculation.
Every gift brings with it its peculiar task; every privilege entails a responsibility; every favour confers its obligation. To know ourselves beneficiaries of the king's favour is to know ourselves claimed for the king's service. Since this is not in doubt, there remains but one matter to be settled: in what spirit or mood or attitude is service to the king to be rendered? By way of answering this question Jesus utters his parable of the farm-owner and the worker. The parable is addressed to those who are tempted to have a "merit mentality", to those who think their service to the king should call forth his recognition, his congratulation, even a measure of remuneration. There is always the temptation (and therefore the tendency) to regard our life in Christ's kingdom as a business contract: for service rendered to him you and are I entitled to -- we are entitled to something, aren't we? We aren't. Our Lord insists that at the end of each of those days that we spend in service to him we can only say, "We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty."
We may bristle when we hear this, for it makes our Lord sound as if he were a slave-owner; it makes him sound as if he were entitled to assign us or even dispose of us in a manner made infamous by the cruellest tyrants our century has seen. Furthermore, it appears to contradict all that he says elsewhere about rewards. After all, he does say repeatedly that there is reward for those who faithfully obey him and diligently serve him.
In view of the fact that our Lord has gone to hell and back for us in the cross, we can set aside any notion of arbitrary, heartless tyranny.
Then what about reward? When Jesus speaks of reward he is not promising payment for services rendered. When payment is granted for services rendered the payment has no intrinsic connexion with the services. Joe Carter hits home runs for the Blue Jays and receives a million dollars per year. The money paid has no intrinsic connexion with the home runs hit. The beauty queen is given a new car. The car has no intrinsic connexion with the woman's physical appearance. When our Lord speaks of "reward" he doesn't have anything like this in mind. When Jesus speaks of "reward", rather, he means an outcome that is intrinsically related to what has been pursued.
The reward we receive from God for faithful service in his kingdom is never wealth, reputation, prestige, or power. The reward we receive for kingdom-service is greater opportunity for kingdom-service. The reward we receive for being faithful in little is find ourselves entrusted with much.
Surely this is easy to understand in everyday matters. The reward for faithfulness in marriage isn't a new house (there being no intrinsic connexion between marital faithfulness and new house); the reward for faithfulness in marriage is greater marital intimacy. The real reward for diligence in studying French isn't a new wardrobe for getting a mark of 93; the real reward for diligence in studying French is the ability to read French literature and thence to gain access to those worlds that any literature opens up to us.
The reward of service rendered to the king is greater conformity to the nature of the king himself, and greater opportunity for yet greater service. Such reward is real. Our Lord will bestow the reward that he has promised.
Yet even as he has promised it and we shall surely receive it, we do not merit it. At the end of the day, when we review the service we rendered to our Lord that day, we must admit that however faithful it may have been, in fact it wasn't very faithful at all. Therefore we can but say, "We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty." Yet even as we say this we know, so gracious is God, that even our semi-faithful service is going to be rewarded gloriously.
It is a sign of spiritual immaturity -- or even a sign of out-and-out unbelief -- to shout, "But I've worked so hard for him. Don't I get something more?" What more can there be than increased intimacy with the king himself? What more can there be than being entrusted with greater matters? What more can there be than access to him whose riches are unsearchable?
And therefore those possessed of spiritual authenticity and maturity recognize the truth of the parable: we who have been favoured with the king and all the royal resources that the king shares with us, not to mention the rewards that the king's loyal subjects are guaranteed -- we must say of our service to him, "We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty."
Three aspects of the kingdom:
(i) there is a cost to be considered
(ii) outweighing any cost there is a richness,a delight, a joy, a treasure to be owned and cherished
(iii) in the wake of our rich blessings at the hand of the king himself there is a service to be rendered uncomplainingly, gladly, freely, for ever and ever.
Victor A. Shepherd August 1996