“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? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:28-31)
In this parable with complementary halves, Jesus gave back-to-back examples of the potential problems resulting from a lack of planning. The first example, of building a tower without first counting the cost, is sometimes thought to be based on a failed building project in Jerusalem planned by Pontius Pilate – which may be possible if the allusion is not to building a watchtower on an estate or vineyard. The principle is straightforward, and the example expands upon the concept of building on a firm foundation given in the Parable of the Two Builders (Matthew 7:24-27). In that parable the focus is the nature of what we build upon, in this parable it is our spiritual preparation and dedication that is at issue, even if we have a proper basis for our faith.
In the second example Jesus gives, he does appear to make an allusion to a specific event of that time. Herod Antipater (c. 21 BC – AD 39), known by the nickname Antipas, was the first century ruler under the Romans of Galilee and Perea on the east side of the Jordan. Antipas divorced his first wife Phasaelis, the daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea, to marry his brother’s wife Herodias (as condemned by John the Baptist: Luke 3:18-20), and this divorce added further friction to a dispute with Aretas over territory on the border of Perea and Nabatea. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Antipas declared war on Aretas without proper planning, and his army was routed by the larger forces of the other king. These contemporary events would have been clear in the minds of Jesus’ hearers and would have made the allusion to the king at war seem particularly real.
Many commentators explain the verbal pictures used in this parable as simply prompting us to count the cost before engaging in the struggle that the follower of Christ faces against the many forces that “war” against him or her: not only those of our own human nature, but also external physical and spiritual forces (Ephesians 6:12). But if that is the meaning, the allusion to asking for “terms of peace” when realizing one is outnumbered does not seem to make sense. Other commentators see the parable differently – that the king with a much stronger force represents God, with whom we should ally ourselves rather than becoming His enemy. In this case the terms of peace make better sense and perhaps tie better to the words that follow the parable on being willing to renounce everything that we have (as “terms of peace”), which was the point that Jesus was making as he gave these two small parables:
“If anyone 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. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27).
The spiritual costs of building the “tower,” like the cost of engaging in “war,” Jesus tells us, are the costs of being willing to give up family, friends, possessions, position or anything else that might be necessary in order to succeed in what we set out to do – though, as biblical scholar Joachim Jeremias has written, this double parable is an “exhortation to self-examination” - are we willing to give up anything necessary - rather than to planned self-denial.
* From our FREE eBook, The City on a Hill: Lessons from the Parables of Jesus, available for download on our sister site here.