This text stands in the middle of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. He is shifting from his confrontations with the Jewish leadership to preparing the disciples for his crucifixion. The main point of the text is that successful discipleship requires Jesus to be a priority in one’s life.
The word “hate” catches us off guard and is often a cause for confusion. Howard Marshall reminds us that the Semitic sense of this Greek word has connotations “to love less than,” or “to leave aside,” to “abandon.” N.T. Wright gives us a modern day example. What if we were on a dangerous expedition taking urgently needed medical supplies to a snowed in village and the leader of the expedition tells us to set aside our backpacks in order to accomplish our task. The chances of us finding, or seeing, our backpacks (think material possessions) again would be slim to none. In order to accomplish our important mission, it may be necessary to send our last postcards home because we may not see our family again. We may not like the sound of it but we understand our mission is dangerous, but extremely vital, and the request makes sense.
Jesus goes on to give examples of this cost of discipleship. First, do a cost benefit analysis; are you willing to pay the price? What if someone starts to build something but doesn’t have the finances or fortitude to complete the task? How foolish a half built structure looks – and what a waste of resources that never saw its completion. During the time of Jesus’ statements, Herod was doing major renovations on the Temple, would it ever be completed? Were the resources being wisely used…after all Jesus already stated that God was no longer restricted to the Temple (Luke 13:35). Or does a King go into battle without first considering the cost of potential lives that would be lost? Is Jesus speaking to the Jewish Zealots who wanted to start an uprising in order to over throw Roman rule? Is he reminding his listeners that if you are going to start a battle; you need to remind people upfront of what the consequences could be? How sad it would be to see someone start in the faith but step aside part way through their spiritual journey because they did not understand the potential price of being a disciple of Jesus.
In Jesus’ day, and in our own, to follow Jesus one might be ostracized or ridiculed…even to the point of loss of life. Jesus is reminding his followers that the cost of discipleship may mean “setting aside” our love for material possessions, for comfort, or even at times relationships because we love the mission of Jesus more than anything else.