Perhaps you've heard the story of the farmer's chicken who proposed to the cow that they make the farmer breakfast. The cow cheerfully responded: "I'm in! What will we give him?" The chicken replied, "I'll supply the eggs, and you supply the meat."
The cow's countenance dimmed as she realized the ramifications of the initial invitation. She sadly replied to the chicken, "For you that's devotion, but for me it means total sacrifice." And she walked away.
This barnyard fable serves as a meaningful introduction for us to plumb the depths of Jesus Christ's exhortation of "Follow Me" (John 10:27). It leads us to a series of conversations Jesus had with three potential disciples. They too were seemingly prepared to respond to an invitation but, like the cow, were stopped in their tracks when confronted with the full measure of what discipleship entails.
We find this series of conversations in the Gospel of Luke at an important juncture in Christ's earthly ministry. Luke 9:51 describes how "He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem." His time was now short. He desired total commitment from those surrounding Him for the remainder of His earthly journey. It would be better to have few with staying power than a large entourage of conflicted individuals who would flinch at the first sign of distress.
Jesus here makes it very clear that being His disciple will cost you—you! And, it will cost every part of you.
Excuses for declining the greatest invitation
Luke records: "Now it happened as they journeyed on the road, that someone said to Him, 'Lord, I will follow You wherever You go.' And Jesus said to him. 'Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head'" (Luke 9:57-58).
As was His manner, Jesus was being brutally honest regarding the man's future if He heeded the call of "Follow Me." The would-be-follower would have to hand over his future to Christ in uncharted territory known but to God. The call was that moment. The invitation was there. But we never hear of the man again in the Gospels.
Jesus then invited another potential disciple by saying, "Follow Me." But this man responded, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:59-60). This statement might seem to be an extremely uncaring response in light of Jesus' generous and kindly nature. What's going on here?
The general understanding regarding this statement is that the man is telling Jesus: "It's simply not a convenient time. I have an aging father. When he's dead and buried, I'll find you then."
Jesus' blunt response is meant to clarify a vital point—that now is the moment of decision. The time of your personal calling and for responding to it is now, not tomorrow. So far we have two would-be disciples —one consumed with fear of the future and the other preoccupied with the present.
But there's one more potential disciple and one more dimension of life to consider. Luke 9:61 states: "And another also said, 'Lord, I will follow You, but let me first go and bid them farewell who are at my house'"—that is, to paraphrase, "I'm not quite ready. This just isn't the time to move forward with you. I have to take care of some old business and acquaintances before I can follow You."
But Jesus said to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62, New International Version). This appears to be a reference to what was then a well-known biblical example of discipleship—that of Elisha leaving behind his own life of plowing to follow Elijah. Elisha did quickly say goodbye to his parents but then slaughtered his oxen and burned his plow to cook the meat to give to others—and then set off to follow Elijah (1 Kings 19:19-21).
The reference to looking back could also be an allusion to the fate of Lot's wife, who spurned God's invitation to physical deliverance by looking back on what she was told to leave behind (Genesis 19:15-17, Genesis 19:26).
In any case, Christ's statement was designed to jolt the man from considering revisiting his past when Christ was offering him a future in His eternal Kingdom.
What personal lessons, then, can we draw from the fictional barnyard story and the real-life interaction between Jesus and seemingly sincere wannabe followers? Let's focus on two specific points.
Putting skin in the game—all of it
First, Christianity isn't simply about half-measures on our part, but total sacrifice of every part of our being. It's "putting our skin in the game," as the expression goes (think of the cow) and having faith that God will supply our needs. It's about giving up the past and giving over to God our entire life (not just the convenient parts), and saying it's all Yours—every chapter and season of my whole life right now and into the future.
Some of us may be holding on to some parts of our lives while thinking we're being honest with God and ourselves. Some of us may have let go of our past through repentance but are unsteady in the face of new and continual challenges in life and are wary of stepping into a future fully given over to someone else—even God.
Jesus Christ said, "Follow Me." We must follow the perfect example He set for us. Discipleship in biblical times was not merely a matter transferring "head knowledge" from instructor to student. Rather, the disciple was to emulate his master and teacher in every aspect of life until he became just like the master. In the same way we must become just like our Master, Jesus Christ.
Consider, then, how Christ fully "put his skin in the game" when "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). Such determined sacrifice of giving up everything is defined in Philippians 2:5-10:
"Your attitude should be the same that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God. He made himself nothing; he took the humble position of a slave and appeared in human form. And in human form he obediently humbled himself even further by dying a criminal's death on a cross. Because of this, God raised him up to the heights of heaven and gave him a name that is above every other name" (New Living Translation, 1996).
Our Heavenly Father and Christ wanted to give us something special—the gift of eternal life. That gift of life would cost the One known as the Word His life. He would not walk away but would fulfill His words that He would "lay down His life for the sheep" (John 10:15).
Let's fully comprehend: Being a disciple of Christ at its core is "giving ourselves away" in faith that God will place into our lives what we need to prepare us for His eternal Kingdom. Total sacrifice is not optional. It's a requirement. Following Christ must come before everything else in life. That is the cost of discipleship—the cost we are to count before committing to it (Luke 14:25-33).
Let's remember that total sacrifice is the bottom line of following such a Master. We can have sustained confidence in Jesus because He never asks anything of us that He has not already done Himself. He emptied Himself of divine glory and might to set an example of letting go of our past. If we are unable to let go, we can find ourselves stymied by present weights or petrified about a future we don't plan for ourselves.
Ongoing sacrifice on our part
Second, Christianity is responding to the ongoing call to follow Christ after being set apart for discipleship. Please understand: Becoming a disciple isn't an event, but a neverending lifetime experience. It doesn't just happen. Over time we are tutored and molded—lesson-by-lesson and person-by-person.
Sometimes we might say, "Lord, please, no more lessons!" But God knows what He's doing each step of the way. Unlike those mentioned in the Gospels who weren't prepared to respond, we must remain open, available and willing to participate in Christ's ongoing discipling of us in the workshop of life.
Why? It's noteworthy that the risen Christ states in Revelation 3:20: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me." Let's grasp the big point here. He's speaking to His Church (the ekklesia—those already "called out," as the Greek word literally means). Yet He continues to knock at the door of our hearts in His own time and purposes with an ongoing invitation to become like Him.
It doesn't always come at convenient moments or times of full understanding. God pointedly makes clear in Isaiah 55:8, "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways."
So let's be forewarned and prepared that discipleship will cost you—you! Yet the cost of rejecting Christ and the way of life He offers is much higher in the end.
To help make this point, let's consider a story told about a missionary of India in the early 20th century, Sadhu Sundar Singh. It's said that Singh and a companion were traveling through a Himalayan mountain pass when they came across a body lying in the snow. Singh wished to stop and help the man, but his companion refused, saying, "We shall lose our lives if we burden ourselves with him."
Yet Singh, according to the story, wouldn't think of leaving the man to die. As his companion bade him farewell, Singh lifted the poor traveler on his back. With great exertion, he bore the man onward, but gradually the heat from Singh's body began to warm up the poor frozen fellow, and he revived. Soon both were walking together side by side. Later, catching up with Singh's former companion, they found him—frozen by the cold.
Some have questioned the truth of this story, and we can't know for sure if it really happened. But it nonetheless conveys an important lesson.
Singh in this story was willing to lose his life on behalf of another and in the process found it, while his callous companion sought to preserve his life but lost it. This story illustrates the words of Christ in Matthew 10:39 "He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it." Of course, ultimate finding of life comes in the future Kingdom of God.
And the story further tells us that 1) we must readily accept the invitation to think beyond the moment, and that 2) we must put skin in the game with no thought of gaining for ourselves in this life.
So what part of your life have you not handed over to God? Being paralyzed by our past, stuck in the present or stymied by what may happen in the future hinders our ability to be ready for Christ's call of "Follow Me." He can persistently knock, but we alone have to be willing to open the door to "present [our] bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God" (Romans 12:1).
Perhaps it's time to recount the cost. Remember that the cost is high—it is everything. And discipleship will cost you—you! But remember when counting that Jesus never said it would be easy—but He did promise that it would be worth it!