In Luke 14 there are a couple of very well-known statements of Jesus recorded. Jesus talks about the idea of taking up our cross and following Him, and later in the chapter he helps His followers see their own understanding of life as a member of the kingdom of heaven with the illustration of salt. “Take up your cross,” (Luke 14:27) and, “If salt loses it’s saltiness what is it good for?” (Luke 14:34-35) are expressions deeply ingrained in Christian culture. Typically these expressions are presented as the distinctiveness of Christianity, as the “above-and-beyond” quality of character and action that life with Christ offers the world. We see the bearing of crosses and the savory nature of salt as metaphorical expressions of how we wake the world up and show them that there is a life that is better, fuller, richer and more important than the subordinate desires and longings that they currently pursue.
But – and there’s so often a “but” – the way that Jesus speaks between those two illustrations of crosses and salt shakers is curious. It is curious because Jesus seems to clearly make the point that nothing about what He is asking His followers to do is all that unique, special or radical. He speaks of a building project (Luke 14:28-30), and His argument is not that the architect and construction crew went off the rails and just started doing something that the world could never understand. His point was that when builders go to build things they do it in a way that causes people to say, “good job, that’s exactly how you’re supposed to do it.”
Similarly, Jesus tells a story of king (Luke 14:31-32) whose nation is on the brink of war with another, larger nation. As the king and his advisers sit down to assess the situation they realize they are going to be beaten soundly. So what do they do? Do they go Braveheart and charge the enemy armies with half the soldiers, creating a legendary tale that will live on forever? No. They send a diplomatic team ahead of the arrival of the opposing army and try to broker a peace treaty to avoid destruction. This is not a radical, wild and mythical dedication to fighting the odds; it is merely the sensible, and expected thing to do.
So at the very least we can’t get too caught up in believing that taking up our cross or “being salty” is Jesus’ way of saying, “do things that make you look absolutely crazy to everyone in the world.” To the contrary, He actually seems to be saying, “Live in such a way that people look at your life and say that makes sense.” In a way Jesus’ words mean that when they gave all their possessions it wasn’t the action of a zealot or hero, but the average and natural response of a person who believed that Jesus was actually the King of the kingdom of Heaven. When the martyrs gave their lives it wasn’t that they were doing something that no one on earth had ever done, ideological martyrs are not unique to Christianity. What those deaths did mean was that men and women known as Christians were living in a way consistent with the truth that they believed.
I have grown up in a Christian culture that seemed to value extremes. Extreme commitment. Extreme lifestyles. Extreme dedication. And I understand these ways of thinking and would never impugn the passion of those people. But the more I read the Gospels the more I wonder if what we’ve been calling “extreme” isn’t really all that extreme. Maybe, in fact, calling it “extreme” or “radical” has some detrimental effects, like placing the burden of motivation on the follower of Jesus instead of the truth of Jesus. What if giving everything isn’t all that extreme? What if surrendering our life in the face of danger isn’t a crazy act of radical commitment? What if it’s just the normal response for someone who honestly believes that the Jesus who walked the earth really was God’s son, and really was God Himself?
When we see everything as extreme and radical and “above-and-beyond” we are hanging all of the pressure of Christianity on the disciples, or on the mystics, or on the reformers, or on the missionaries, or on the pentecostals, etc… But the point Jesus seems to be making in Luke 14 is not that these people need to bear up the crushing weight of radical faith, but merely that they need to live consistently with what they know to be true. Perhaps then our problem, for those of us who perpetually stumble and find consistency in the Christian life to be elusive, is not that we aren’t extreme enough or passionate enough or have enough desire. Maybe the issue is that we are wrestling with what we actually believe. Maybe we are in need not of more radical energy, but of a willingness to accept a truth that may or may not make complete sense. Maybe we have more than enough zeal, but less than enough foundation and conviction.
If all of Luke 14 takes place at the same time and in the same place then the entire chapter, all of Jesus’ teachings, were initiated by His healing of a man on the Sabbath. And it is precisely this that makes the point clear. Jesus’ argument for healing people on the Sabbath was based on His love for those people, not on an obligation or desire to make extreme moves to spite the religious leaders. He asked the Pharisees if they would not help their own children out of a ditch on the Sabbath, and said that His healing of the man was the same thing: it was a gesture of relationship, mercy and love. And it is this kind of scene, this kind of action of Jesus, that creates our “new normal.” His love, His desire for relationship with us, His unmistakable grace reshapes our hearts and teaches us what kind of life cross-bearers and salt shakers naturally live; it’s not about meteoric extremes, it’s about responding in a way consistent with the truth we know.