It’s so easy to lose track of the original mission of Israel, the purpose of the Covenant. Israel was to absorb and live by the revelation of God, and in turn draw other nations to Him by their visible blessings of shalom. After centuries of corrupting the message for themselves and destroying their witness to the world, it stands to reason the Messiah would demand repentance. So drastic was the distance between where they were versus where God wanted them that this level of repentance would be extreme.
This would share something with the call of Abraham, and with the Exodus: Leave behind everything you know and travel to a different world. This time, Jesus is talking about a truly different world, the otherworldly Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus used a common feudal expression for the petition to join His Messianic Kingdom: “If anyone comes to Me.” What does a person have to leave behind to enter the Messiah’s service? Jesus emphasized the depth of commitment necessary by using a term best translated as “despise” but is more typically cited as “hate.” You must be ready to lose your entire clan, because they each have to come on their own individual calling. This isn’t just a matter of property and comfort, but your whole identity must be sacrificed for a new one.
This is not news to those Jesus taught that day. Any Eastern potentate would reject a half-hearted offer of partial loyalty. The Messiah was no different. To make the point painfully obvious, He refers to the most horrific method of execution in use at that time, introduced by Rome. He implies that He would eventually take up His own cross, and anyone who followed Him would have theirs, too.
If you build a fortress, don’t you first ensure you have the resources for what’s in the architectural drawing? Nothing says a king is a loser like an unfinished fort. And what kind of king is so incompetent at warfare that he doesn’t evaluate whether he can fight an enemy marching toward him? Do you have the training and tactics to take down a superior force, or should you seek terms of peace before they get close enough to attack? In these stark terms Jesus warns the people following Him around to decide if they really intended to follow Him to the death. Had they given thought to what serving Him would demand of them?
It’s not that He wanted to turn them away; He wanted them to know the terms of service before they got to the point when He began choosing who was invited. Could they defeat the army of human weakness inside themselves? Could they trust what He said enough to build a life that would withstand the Devil?
More than once Jesus had referred to the cheap household salt used in those parts. The common grade of salt for peasants was harvested from salt marshes in dry weather. It was rather impure, but usable. It went bad pretty quickly if exposed too long to open air, particularly in houses where things were a little damper than outside. The pure salt crystals in this mixture would precipitate out with the moisture and leave the grungy impurities. These were just salty enough still to be a threat to crops, so you had to make sure it went only into the streets where it wouldn’t harm anything.
He knows these people have broken and imperfect lives, but God can still use them. Indeed, there’s no other kind of people available. However, they must retain the characteristics that make them useful. They have to preserve holiness and make the world palatable to God. There is no secondary or neutral use, no freeloaders. Whoever is not building the Kingdom is tearing it down. If they aren’t useful, they will be discarded without mercy because they become a threat to holiness and shalom.
Finally, Jesus warns that what He had to say required more than just hearing the words. This truth had to processed in the heart. Only the heart knew the ultimate answers to His questions.