The Cost of Discipleship in Cultural Perspective(s)

 In a recent post I discussed the costliness of discipleship, the fact that Christ demands our ultimate allegiance, and how we are enabled to give him ours because he has already given us his.

Here, I want to point out the way in which this call to ultimate allegiance challenges and cuts against the idols of every culture. While we might certainly explore this on the micro-levels of nation, ethnicity, neighborhoods, etc., in this context I’m particularly interested in the macro-level differences between a more traditional Eastern culture and a progressive Western culture.

In the previous post we looked at a difficult text in Luke 14 where Jesus called his followers to “hate” members of their own family, even themselves. As we observed, this was not a command to hate others actively but comparatively by giving one’s ultimate allegiance to Christ in such a manner that all other potential allegiance holders are clearly seen to be of less importance than Christ. This costly call challenges both the Eastern and the Western cultural mindset, and is seen clearly in episodes in which Jesus calls his disciples to follow him.

In Matthew 4:21-22 we find James and John in a boat mending their fishing nets, and their father was with them in the boat. It is at this point that Jesus “called them,” and upon hearing this call, the brothers “immediately left the boat and their father and followed him.”

Now, what’s intriguing here is the different ways in which this text could be read. On the one hand, a typical Westerner might look at this passage and see little challenge in a call that results in the leaving behind of one’s father. This is because, in Western cultures, greater allegiance tends to be given to the individual and his vocation, regardless of how it might affect one’s family, community, etc. In stark contrast, a more conservative Eastern culture often places more emphasis on family, community, and corporate solidarity (an observation made by Tim Keller, The King’s Cross).

Thus, this call, which is a shining example of the kind of commitment that Christ called for in Luke 14, is particularly challenging to more traditional cultures. While society itself, our local communities, and even our families may be demanding that we give our primary devotion to them, the call to discipleship always includes a drastic re-ordering of that which is most precious to us, and may sometimes include a departure from those things that refuse to come under the rule of our new Master.

Interestingly, however, Matthew 4:18-20 gives us a picture that equally challenges the overly-individualized Western reader. It is there that we find Peter and Andrew in the middle of their day’s work – fishing. When Jesus sees them, he says, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Notice that the call here is in specific relationship to their vocation. Jesus wants to redefine their entire lives, and he does so by calling them to shift their line of work. Upon hearing the call they immediately leave their nets and follow him.

Such a call might not be all that hard for those in a more traditional culture to hear. After all, they may be accustomed to sacrificing personal ambition and dreams on the altar of community and family. But, for the more progressive Western reader, it is almost unfathomable that devotion to Christ might mean that ambition and career-building would need to take a back seat to Jesus.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that Christ is calling Easterners to leave their families, and Westerners to leave their careers. Rather, I am saying that the call to discipleship is a fundamental redirection of our human existence, a reorientation, an all-embracing turning about of our lives in order that our affections might be placed primarily upon Christ. And, this being the case, the call to discipleship will cut through and across every culture. So, for the progressive, part of the call will be to make sure that Christ is more important than one’s work. We must find our identity in being a disciple of Christ, rather than as disciples of our career development. As for the traditionalist, the challenge may be in making certain that Christ takes precedence in one’s life over and above one’s family, community, and society. We must make sure that Christ is the supreme treasure in our lives.

Whatever the case may be, as disciples of Christ we are challenged to give him our ultimate allegiance, no matter our cultural background or social location. This being the case, our comfort and our energies must be derived from the fact that Christ not only transcends human culture, but he entered into it. And, having entered into culture, he not only challenges the reigning paradigms, but also promises to redeem all that is broken about them.