The Cost of Discipleship

In the late 1930s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, then the most promising Protestant theologian in Germany, wrote a book entitled in English The Cost of Discipleship. Several years afterward he was arrested and executed for resisting Hitler and the Nazis. For Bonhoeffer discipleship—fidelity to the Gospel and Christian principles—had a very high cost. His experience has been repeated many times since, for example, by Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., and his companions in El Salvador.


Today’s reading from Luke 14 concerns the high cost of discipleship and the need to count that cost. It consists of three “hard” sayings and two parables. The first hard saying places before the prospective disciple the choice between following Jesus and family ties. This was an even more difficult choice in Jesus’ culture than it is for most people in 21st-century America. The term “hate” in the saying, while an obvious exaggeration, un-derlines the overriding importance of God’s kingdom and following Jesus.

The second hard saying asserts that following Jesus can and will involve suffering. Those who decide to follow Jesus must be prepared to take up the cross, here understood as an instrument of shame as well as of physical torment, and imitate Jesus’ example of suffering for the sake of God’s kingdom.

The hard sayings are interrupted by two parables about counting the cost of discipleship. The first parable concerns a man who contemplates building a tower. Unless he carefully plans out the project and calculates the cost, he will not be able to finish it and so will appear as a fool before his neighbors. Similarly, a king who wants to go to war must take account of the strength of his own army and what he can expect from his enemies. Otherwise, he will have to beg for a peace treaty and suffer shame before his opponents and his own troops. The point of these parables is that we must take account of the high cost that discipleship may exact.

The third hard saying concerns renouncing material possessions to follow Jesus. This too would have been very challenging in Jesus’ time. In some circles having many possessions was interpreted as a blessing from God and a sign of one’s cleverness and goodness. Moreover, there was no welfare state or social safety net (beyond the family) to provide the poor with the basic necessities of human life. Again the extreme nature of the challenge highlights the overriding importance of God’s kingdom and following Jesus.

While following Jesus may have a high cost, what makes discipleship possible is the grace of God. We are not alone as we accompany Jesus and move toward the fullness of life in God’s kingdom. We can deal with the cost of discipleship, as Bonhoeffer and Ellacuría did, only if we are convinced that God is with us, directing and helping us along the way.

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