[Text: Luke 14:25-35]
It was like a kind of boot camp, following Jesus up to Jerusalem in those last days. What awaited them there would be salty with sweat and tears and blood, and it could not be avoided. He took care to warn them, even to scare them off during that transitional phase between his pastoral parables in the Galilee and his knife-edged jeremiads there in the City that stoned the prophets. Those who stayed with him would have to be worth their salt. Were they ready?
His catalog of prerequisites was sobering. The list began with a kind of hatred, a renunciation of earthly ties, including people – including even your own life. Were they willing to hold these dear earthly loves loosely now? There would be dragons in that salt sea ahead: sail into it, who dared.
Counting the cost at the start of an endeavor was only responsible practice, after all. You could find plenty of examples of this in daily life. Jesus’ analogy of the half-built tower illustrated with concrete realism the costly embarrassment of being unable to follow through on a commitment. What if, in this case, the cost included bearing a cross – a real one, a Roman one, complete with splinters, not an allegorical one (maybe manifesting in the form of crabby old Aunt Gertrude)? What if following Jesus into the crucible of Jerusalem meant torture and death? Even an old salt like Peter might not be able to take it. (He almost didn’t.)
The probability was high that such a confrontation couldn’t be avoided in the days ahead, and Jesus intended them to face this fact squarely before committing themselves. In a second analogy he stacked the odds against the figure of a king who contemplated an upcoming battle, Jesus perhaps addressing here the unfounded military aspirations of some in his company: “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?” It might be the better part of valor to admit the venture would cost too much, and sue for peace instead, treating the advice of one’s hawkish generals with a grain of salt.
In fact, this particular venture might well cost the disciples everything. If they were going to continue – not continue to believe in Jesus, but continue to physically follow him to his destination – they had to be willing to face their own death as an imminent possibility. Not everyone was prepared to do this; like the king in Jesus’ analogy, some followers would have been wise to drop out of the fight at this moment. I think Jesus would have appreciated the honesty of one who knew his limits more than the foolish enthusiasm of one who didn’t.
And here’s where his comment about “salt” enters the narrative, in Luke’s account, at least. The other two Synoptic writers each has his own setting for these words, giving them a slightly different flavor; but Luke’s placement suggests an interesting connection with all of these warnings spoken on the road to Jerusalem.
Now, most of our English translations insert a subtitle before these verses in Luke 14, as if the editors considered Jesus’ statements about salt to be such a non-sequitur that these words needed to be physically separated on the page from what has gone before. But Luke chose to write them here for the very good reason that they sum up everything Jesus meant to communicate about courage and commitment in the face of probable arrest and death in the next few days.
Again, it’s an analogy: “salt” is what you want to have at this moment, as you round the curve in the road and gaze at Jerusalem’s skyline. You want to have the nerve to face what’s coming during the next days, the intrigue and violence hidden amid the Passover throngs in the holy City. But just as a half-completed tower becomes an object of ridicule to the community, and just as an ill-judged battle results in slaughter and captivity – and just as salt without flavor is good for nothing but the rubbish heap, so will an ill-prepared disciple with a narrow notion of Messiahship be more of a hindrance than a help when trouble comes.
Not every recruit makes it through boot camp. Jesus meant to scare his followers into realism with his tough statements, giving them a chance to judge for themselves how “salty” they were likely to remain in the face of physical danger. Those who left him at this point may not have lacked faith so much as nerve. There would be second chances for them, and also for people like Peter who thought they had what it took to finish well but found out otherwise. Jesus was not one to rub salt in his friends’ wounds, even the self-inflicted ones.
And anyway, next time around, the cost they counted would include a Resurrection on the positive side of the balance sheet – more than enough good news to finish a tower, win a battle, and stay salty.