Gospels

The sacrifices of the revolutionary soldier

The sacrifices of the revolutionary soldier

In the Nestle-Aland translation of the New Testament, Luke 14:25-33 is titled ‘The cost of discipleship’. The key sentence of this paragraph is verse 26, in which Jesus addresses a great multitude: “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”The cost of discipleship seems to be extremely high.

The following observations can be made on this verse:

  1. There is a discrepancy between the ‘great multitude’ (ὄχλοι πολλοι – ochloi polloi) in the preceding verse and the disciple (μαθητής - mathètès) in verse 26. By alluding to a great crowd, one would get the impression that a leader is addressing his followers rather than a teacher speaking to a small group of disciples.
  2. This great multitude is male, as their wives must be hated. If we take this element into account, together with my discussion of ὄχλος as a veiled description of an army in the blog on the Tarichaean episode of the rebellion, the ’great multitude’ of verse 25 may be a veiled description of a gathering of numerous ‒ in this case revolutionary ‒ soldiers.
    Elsewhere I discussed the ‘feeding of the 5,000’, showing that these 5,000 were revolutionary soldiers. Verse 26 may be part of Jesus’ speech to a similar assembly of Galilean recruits.
  3. The μισεῖ (misei) verb is traditionally translated as ‘to hate’. It is strange that Jesus requires his followers to hate their parents, as such is diametrically opposed to his command elsewhere in the gospels to honour one’s parents (in keeping with the Old Testament commandment). However, μισέω can also be translated as ‘disfavour, disregard, renounce’, which makes this sentence an obvious warning that recruits will have to abandon their families as well as their homes and livelihoods. This is a basic necessity of the life of a soldier.
  4. The sacrifice is extreme. Considering that Jesus is addressing common people who do not have any significant possessions, Jesus warns them that they should be prepared to sacrifice all they have: their families and their lives. This extreme sacrifice, which is summarized in verse 33, fits into a war scenario.

When we look at the rest of this fragment, the setting is also one of war.

Verses 28-30 read as follows:

(28) “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? (29) Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, (30) saying, ‘This man began to build, and was not able to finish.’ ”

At first sight these verses seem to be a neutral reflection on foresight, but πυργος (purgos - tower) is not a neutral word. A πυργοςis a fortified structure, a defensive tower to repel hostile attacks and to enable watchmen to see in every direction (Strong’s 4444). So these verses are specifically about foresight in preparing the war. They are reminiscent of Josephus’s description of his efforts to fortify the Galilean towns and strongholds. In War II:606 he addresses the people of Tarichaeae: But I saw, citizens of Tarichaeae, that your city above all needed to be put in a state of defence and that it was in lack of funds to construct ramparts. In verse 608 Josephus speaks of himself in the third person: He (...) promised to fortify Tarichaeae with the funds at his disposal, and undertook to provide similar protection for the other cities as well; money, he added, would be forthcoming, would they but agree who was the enemy against whom its provision was necessary, instead of furiously attacking the man who provided it. 

The next two verses speak unambiguously of war:

(31) “Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? (32) And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace.”

These verses are a reflection on the desirability of waging war against a powerful enemy. The enemy’s troop count of 20,000 may be referring specifically to the war against the Romans. With 5,120 legionaries to a legion, the total strength of the Roman army marching against the Jews was 20,480 legionaries (four legions, not counting the auxiliaries). In Life 331 Josephus mentions the troop strength of the Jewish revolutionary army: On the following day I entered Tiberias with an army of ten thousand men.

One could object that the second and third element of this paragraph are critical of the war. Maybe they can be interpreted as a counterweight aimed at obscuring Jesus’ belligerent speech in the first part. All in all, the three parts of this passage have the war theme in common.

Finally, I would like to point to an editing issue. As the content of verse 33 (‘all that he has’) connects well with verse 26 discussing family and life, maybe the original sequence was verse 25-26-33, verse 27 being a later insertion. I reconstruct the pericope as follows, with translation choices based on the discussion above and with new subtitles:

(The sacrifices of the revolutionary soldier)

(25) Now a great army accompanied him; and he turned and said to them, (26) “If any one comes to me and does not disregard his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my follower. [(27)] (33) So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my follower.”

(Concerns about fortifications)

(28) For which of you, desiring to build a defensive tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? (29) Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, (30) saying, ‘This man began to build, and was not able to finish.’

(Concerns about strength of numbers)

(31) Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? (32) And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace.