Wednesday, October 11, 2017

On Zebedee's Sons and Counting the Cost

An exhibit at the 2012 Urbana conference. Students write on pieces of paper at stick them to a giant map of the world. Image source.
[content note: ideology about how you are required to give up everything- maybe even your life- for Jesus. mention of a missionary who was murdered.]

Today let's look at Matthew 20:17-28. First, Jesus informs the disciples that he will be mocked, flogged, and crucified, and then rise again. In the second section of this passage, the mother of Zebedee's sons shows up to ask if Jesus can give her two sons places of power on his right and left.

The part I want to focus on is this:
“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”

“We can,” they answered.
They're just like "we can" as if it's so easy. And so I want to talk about counting the cost.

When Jesus talks about "drink[ing] the cup", he's talking about suffering. Actually, he had JUST TOLD them all that he was going to be betrayed and tortured and killed. But I don't think James and John (the sons of Zebedee) really *get* it. Just like me when I was involved with radical Christian missions ideology, with all its talk of how awesome it is to suffer for God.

Radical Christian missions teaches that Christians should be willing to give up EVERYTHING for Jesus. And the very very best Christians, the most devoted and godly ones, are the ones who go live as missionaries in some poor and dangerous country.

The very very best Christians are martyrs, because they literally gave their lives for Jesus. But even if we're not martyrs, we're called to live every day 100% devoted to God- die to self and take up your cross daily. And, they said, maybe that's actually harder than being a martyr. Because it's not just a one-time thing; it's your whole entire lifestyle.

I went to InterVarsity's Urbana conference in 2009 and 2012. Urbana is ALL ABOUT radical Christian missions. Ten thousand students stood in an arena and sang worship songs about "I will go, I will go, I will go Lord send me" and "take everything I am, I'm clay within your hands." There was folklore passed around about how "Urbana is where so-and-so heard the call from God to be a missionary." We came there knowing that God might call us to give up all our possessions and dreams and plans and move to some unknown country. And we loved God and trusted God so much. We were ready.

Every day of the conference, there were speakers who talked about their experiences and how much they gave up in obedience to God, and how the results were so amazing and totally worth it. And we attended workshops about the more practical things- how to do evangelism in this or that particular setting, how to know where God was calling us to go, etc.

But they never told us to count the cost.

Yes, they did talk about the cost. They talked about "getting out of our comfort zones" and taking risks for God. They talked about how it's hard if you have parents who don't agree with your decision to be a missionary. They told stories of good Christian role models who made huge sacrifices in order to help others. They said that sometimes people have even died in service to God's call.

But all of this was presented as "yes, it's really hard, and you will suffer, but it is SO WORTH it." Because God is with you. Because you're doing something that really matters in the eyes of eternity, not just living your life for your own short-term happiness. Because even though you'll suffer when you're following God's call, it would be even worse if you didn't- God knows what's best for you.

(Related: If somebody "got saved" at one of our campus evangelistic events but then we never saw them at any bible study meetings or anything afterward, we usually concluded that they "didn't understand the cost" of following Jesus. Sometimes we blamed ourselves for only presenting the nice parts of the gospel and not talking about how one needs to lay down their life. Sometimes we blamed the person who was "saved" for not being willing to really follow Jesus.)

Radical Christian missions's talk of "the cost" is NEVER meant to say "you should seriously consider if you're okay with these costs or not- and if you decide you're not, that's perfectly valid." There was no "whoa whoa whoa slow down, let's not do anything that carries a risk of death, because that is an EXTREMELY SERIOUS thing and shouldn't be taken lightly." No. It was always "it's hard, but it's worth it because you're following God." (Imagine my surprise the first time I read a news story about a missions organization that evacuated their employees because of some epidemic or natural disaster. I thought looking at a situation realistically, assessing the danger, and taking practical steps to protect yourself is something missionaries just don't do. If God "called" you to be there, how can you leave just because you're concerned about your own safety?)

I remember one speaker at Urbana who talked about how her husband was murdered while working as a missionary in the Middle East. And she said even though it's very tragic that he lost his life, it would have been even worse if he hadn't obeyed God's call and hadn't become a missionary. He was living according to God's amazing plan for his life, and that's better than any alternative.

And maybe that's true. Maybe the work he was doing truly was so important that it was worth sacrificing his life. Sure, that's certainly possible. But that's a conclusion that should only be reached after a long period of time carefully considering his particular situation and how he/ his widow felt about it, and the results, etc. That's not the kind of statement you should just throw around as if it's axiomatically true, as if OBVIOUSLY for EVERYONE death is better than never becoming a missionary in the first place. And maybe that's not how she meant it- but as a student in that audience, the message I heard was "don't be afraid, don't worry about the cost, you should follow God's call no matter what because even if you die, that's still better than living a sad and boring life where you're just an ordinary American Christian."

We thought in terms of the story of Jonah: God calls him to go preach in Ninevah, he chooses not to, and God sends a whale to swallow him. If God calls you and you say no, your life is going to suck- it will suck even worse than if you had obeyed God and become a missionary, even though that's a really hard life too.

Radical Christian missions never said we should count the cost and make an informed decision and that it's okay to say no if the cost is just too great. (Please note, though, that it's okay to say no if you can spin it into some kind of spiritual reason, like "Missionaries all need a team of ordinary Christians to just stay in the US and support them financially- that's just as important.")

Look at Jesus' teaching in Luke 14 though:
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’

“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples."
Jesus says to count the cost before becoming his disciple. In his examples about building a tower and about the king going to war, he says it's BETTER to NOT attempt some big risky thing if the cost is too great or the chance of success is too low. Could it really be that Jesus thinks it's okay for his audience to choose NOT to give up their possessions and family and follow him?

Because, in my experience in Christian culture, when people talk about "the cost of following Jesus", what they mean is that choosing to obey Jesus even though it's hard and costly is THE RIGHT ANSWER, and if someone decides not to do it because of the cost then they are a BAD AND SELFISH PERSON who is TOO AFRAID and DOESN'T TRUST GOD. 

There was never a free choice. And it's not possible to seriously consider whether the cost is worth it, if you know that you're not allowed to conclude that it's not.

In my experience in the feminist/activist blogosphere, people quite often do advise that we should count the cost. They don't use the term "count the cost"; instead they say things like "not everyone is able to give money to support this, if you're not able that's okay" and "some people have to work really inconvenient hours and so they don't have time to attend this or that activist meeting" or "it's totally fine if you're disabled and you aren't able to come to a protest, just help out in whatever other ways you can" or "it's not your responsibility to educate racists on twitter if you don't have the emotional energy for it." In other words, start by prioritizing yourself and your own health and happiness, and then from there you can make decisions about how much time/money/energy you have to put in to justice work. (There's a limit to this "letting everyone decide what they're personally willing to risk" though- if you have a lot of wealth and privilege but aren't really doing anything to help marginalized people, well you're part of the problem. Still, I don't think anyone's saying that wealthy people are morally obligated to give up EVERYTHING, or that it would be WRONG for them to live comfortable lives. Compare this with radical Christian missions, where the ideal is to give up everything.)

Jesus asks the sons of Zebedee, "Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?" And they said, "We can." It seemed so simple. Even though Jesus had just told them he was going to be killed, it seemed so abstract and faraway. Just like when I adhered to the ideology of radical Christian missions. They talked a big game about how we all need to give up everything for Jesus, like it's this glamorous thing that's hard but always worth it. They never talked about counting the cost. Yes, they talked about the cost- but they never said we should count it.


There will be a post next week called I Didn't Count the Cost Before I Moved to China.


This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: The Parable of the Living Wage (Matthew 20:1-16)

Next post: How About We Let Disabled People Tell Us What to Think About Jesus' Healings (Matthew 20:29-34)

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