Jesus gave us two parallel parables on this subject. The first is this:
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’”
This is commonly understood as a warning to unbelievers to estimate the cost of discipleship. Many Bibles insert a heading over this section such as “The Cost of Following Jesus.” Following him is indeed a huge commitment, and one should not start and then fail – like the man who puts his hand to the plow and turns back.
In context, however, there is a more satisfying meaning. Before we get to that, here is the second parable, immediately following the first:
“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.”
Here we have the sudden appearance of an invading foreign king. The invasion presumably represents God’s impending moral judgment. The Lord is showing how it is impossible to win a war against God, that surrender is the only option.
The choice is left to the hearers: What if one chooses not to surrender? By doing nothing, by not flying the surrender flag as soon as one perceives the disastrous situation, the king commits himself and his kingdom to certain disaster.
Yet this is exactly how the proud man approaches God. Faced with absolutely certain defeat and total loss, he refuses to surrender. By default, he chooses to fight. Now, this is figurative: A man cannot fight God as one fights another man. When a man chooses to wage war against God, he justifies himself; he claims sinlessness. He sings “My Way.” He shakes his fist in defiance. As John said:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.
1 John 1:8-10
John reminds the disciple that one cannot be honest with God and have a real relationship with Him if one clings to self-righteousness. Again, the wise man recognizes the futility of self-justification. He is facing a battle he can only lose. The odds are overwhelming. The prudent king sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. He looks for mercy.
Now, let us return to the previous parable about the building of the tower. (Notice how Jesus connects the two parables with the word “or,” indicating that he is illustrating the same thing in two different ways.) The building of the tower is an enterprise doomed to failure, just like the king trying to fight the superior army. The tower can’t be built; there isn’t enough material. The king lacks troops; likewise the builder lacks resources.
The two parables present the same truth. The building of the tower , like the hopeless king’s battle, represents Man’s own religious efforts.
The charge here is to “consider the cost,” to do a proper estimate. Despite what commentators and Bible paragraph headings may say, this parable has nothing to do with the cost of following Jesus. The cost we are being asked to assess is that of righteous self-effort. Jesus is depicting a proud but foolish builder who would press on and say, “I can do this myself” though he clearly cannot. Likewise, the foolish king says “I can win this battle” though he clearly cannot.
The tower parable, then, is not a warning about the cost of discipleship. It is a warning to those who would continue to follow the Pharisees! Building a tower is like building a religious system. It is like erecting a bridge to God made of human works. He is saying that humans have insufficient material to complete that span.
Clearly Jesus is driving home the lesson that an attempt to reach God through human works or rituals or devotion is foolishness: an exercise in futility, a project that has no end.
The key words are “not able,” repeated three times. Religious experts try to coax more effort, more giving, more sacrifice out of their flocks. They plunge into their piety with enthusiasm. They believe themselves to be “able.” But like the foolish tower-builder, they never sit down and rationally evaluate the scope of the project they are undertaking. If they did, they would realize it is a hopeless task. This is the point of Jesus’ otherwise inexplicable answer to the rich young man (see “A Bigger Rock,” posted earlier.)
The honest man – the man who transcends mere religious duty and contemplates the glory of God – recognizes his own abject inability. He cannot perform enough works to please God. He cannot win the battle when faced with the righteous judgment of God. He apprehends the dilemma and cries out for mercy, like the tax collector:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about[a] himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”