June 27, 2010
William G. Carter
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “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.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Luke describes the Christian life as a journey. Faith is a travelogue between beginning and end. There is a starting line, for all of us begin somewhere; and then we are off to travel our lives with Jesus. It is an expedition full of adventure and growth. The journey is just as thrilling as the destination. As a way of teaching us about the journey, he describes the journey that Christ took.
There was a day, says Luke, when Jesus decided to go to Jerusalem. In the words of Isaiah, “He set his face like flint.” Jesus left behind the carpenter shop and the teaching stump. He left behind what was known, settled, and comfortable. And he stepped out to travel toward the cross. That was his destination, his calling. It was the way that he lived out what it meant for him to be God’s person in the world.
The Bible says this is our journey as well. It is journey where Christ is loved and honored. His concerns become our concerns. We are called to join the ministry of Jesus – come what may. We take up his mantle, and do his work with our own heart, minds, hands, and feet.
And that is exactly how the story unfolds for today. Jesus and the boys are traveling. They begin his final journey toward Jerusalem, a journey that will take half this book. He knows where he is called. He knows what he is destined to do. It doesn’t matter if others understand his purposes or not. Jerusalem is his end.
Along the way, in a story that is ready-made for a three-part sermon, he encounters three different people who could be part of his journey. Each one hears his invitation, each one responds a different way, and in each case Jesus reveals what could be a detour from being his disciple.
The first person steps up to Jesus on the road. He’s a volunteer and says, “I will go wherever you go.” It is a noble idea, but I think Jesus cracks a smile. It’s that very noble word “wherever.” The man says he will go “wherever.” Really? The word is worth a deeper examination. Are we willing to go wherever? Would we do anything?
Jesus pushes back. “Foxes have holes, and birds have nests…” He speaks slyly in a code language. In his day, there were some affluent people related to King Herod called “the Herodians.” They were people who fancied themselves as the ruling class. They lived in great comfort, and Jesus says, “If you want nice curtains and comfortable beds, the foxes have their holes.”
The Roman army was portrayed popularly as a flock of birds. Vultures perhaps, or certainly hawks. They swarmed into a village and plucked everything out of the ground. They take whatever they need from others, and fly away. “If you want to consume vigorously and viciously, the birds build their nests.”
“But the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” That is strange and disturbing. In the Jewish scriptures, the Son of Man was the supreme authority over all the nations. He has power, glory, and might. And in the same breath, Jesus adds, “He is homeless.” Or maybe another way to say it, “Every place is his home.” He gets around. And he’s not staying in the holes of rich foxes or the nests of violent birds.
It is a jarring retort. It is not merely that he declares we have to be itinerants to follow him. But he seems to be saying that we cannot be in love with our own comfort. If we follow Christ, there will be no pillows to soften the trip (I’ll say it with a wink: why do you think we took so long to pad those pews?). There will be no extravagance (like those school board members who got a free trip to Orlando). There will be no resting place to lounge and become lazy. A listless disciple is a contradiction in terms.
Oh, says Jesus, if you want to follow me, live modestly. Stay portable. Don’t anchor yourself in the ports that are protected from the acts of God. Become familiar with people who are deprived of comfort. Don’t let all the world’s goodies separate you from the world’s needs.
He says this, I think, because his face is set toward Jerusalem. He is called to give his life in the most costly way. This is the cross before him. Golgotha is not a place where he has gone before. It will not be familiar or comfortable. Jesus cannot expect it to be easy or fun. His destiny is not in a five-star hotel.
And then Jesus spots a second possible disciple. He is a recruit and he is willing to follow – or so it would seem. But he has a grief problem. He has a father that he needs to bury. We might think that is a justifiable excuse, but Jesus blasts him with a harsh word: “Let the dead bury the dead!” It is one of the rudest, coldest things that Jesus ever said.
Or is it? Our Men’s Breakfast group was studying this passage a month ago or so, and discovered there is more to the story. The Middle Eastern scholars tell us that, in that culture, the man was not asking permission to attend a funeral. If there was really a funeral, he would have been there. He wouldn’t have been hanging around the road, waiting for Jesus to walk by. Oh no, he would have been by his father’s coffin, surrounded by the whole family.
It turns out that it’s a traditional phrase. As somebody notes, say, for instance, that a Jew of Jesus’ day announced that he wanted to move to Brazil, assuming he knew where Brazil was. All of the neighbors would ask, “But aren’t you going to bury your father first?” His father might still be as healthy as a horse. The cultural expectations are that you stick around, that you take care of father and mother, that you put your own decisions on hold until your family responsibilities are concluded. If it takes another twenty years for the Old Man to die, it takes another twenty years. Your life has to go on hold.
So Jesus slaps the son with a hard word: Let the dead bury the dead. That is, he is saying, “Let the spiritually dead bury their own. But if you’re going to be part of my Father’s Kingdom, if you are going to be part of my kingdom, than I come first. The Kingdom of God comes before family duties and neighborhood expectations. Christ is more demanding, more central, more significant than anything or anybody. Especially if it’s a lame excuse by a man who is hanging around by the road and whose father is not dead yet.
Jesus says, “Follow me!” The man responds, “I’d love to, but . . .” I’d love to, but. Sometimes we say such a thing to define ourselves, over against the primary call.
I’d love to do the work of servant, but . . .
I would gladly serve as a leader, but . . .
I know the junior high group needs a teacher, but . . .
I know those hungry people have great needs, but . . .
I know there are mourners who would appreciate my consolation, but . . .
It can be a way of saying we recognize what God’s invitation entails. That is different from the first guy, who didn’t seem to know. Yet for some reason, even we know it, we cannot yet do it. We end up defining ourselves by saying, in essence, “I discern the need, yet here I am.” We keep it at arm’s length.
And then there’s the third person. He is another volunteer and willing to follow Jesus, too – but he states his condition: “Let me go home first and take my leave.” That’s what it really says – he’s not merely going home to “say goodbye,” or “bid farewell,” but to “take his leave.”
This is a phrase we don’t use very much, but they know all about it in the Middle East. If you are invited to a party, you honor your host by attending. If you have something else to do, and it cannot be rescheduled, then you ask permission to not attend, or to depart early. This is called “taking your leave.” It is requesting permission from the main figures of the household for them to excuse you. It is the polite thing to do.
So this third guy wants to go home and request permission from his father to let him follow Jesus. If it is the planting season, he’s out of luck. If it’s the growing season, he’s out of luck. If it’s the harvest season, he is really out of luck. Do you get the picture? He is putting his family ahead of the call of Christ. He is letting them call the shots on whether or not he will get in step with Jesus. As Jesus puts it, he is taking his hands off the plow.
It’s an issue, of course, that still comes up in a hundred different ways. As we will hear Jesus say in one of the texts this summer, “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division . . . I have come to set father against son, daughter against mother” (12:51-53). Again, it’s a troublesome, divisive word - - because Jesus is saying that he is more important than those who are dear to us. He is at the center of our lives. He demands our complete obedience and our absolute attention. Jesus is the One who calls for us. He enlists us to serve, and empowers us to do so. He frees us from every other distraction, beginning with the relationships that lie closest to our hearts. And he persistently asks, “Do you love me more than these?”
Being a Christian is not merely a matter of going to church. It is first and foremost a following of Jesus. We learn how to do this better when we go to church, as the scriptures are opened, as the prayers are voiced, as the mission is named and engaged. But the heart of being Christ’s disciple is traveling with him, going to the places where he leads us and calls us. It’s doing the kinds of things that he wants us to do. We love the stranger, for Jesus breaks down human divisions and extends God’s reach. We welcome people regardless of politics, gender, or income, because Christ welcomes all to his Table. We offer the cold cup of water to those who are thirsty. We offer the kind blessing to the person ravaged with despair. And we keep listening for what he wants us to do.
Four summers ago, I was retreating in a remote monastery, and a woman came to visit her father. He was now one of the brothers there. He joined the monastic community after the death of his wife, who was also her mother. There had always been the tug on his heart to join up with such a community. He had heard about them as a young man, but fell in love, got married, went to work, and they had a child. He never forgot the Voice of love calling him to a life of prayer. They raised the daughter. His wife was sick, and he nursed her until death. Then he had a big yard sale, put the house up for sale, unloaded everything, and then joined the monastery. That was fifteen years before.
Now she had traveled for two days to visit him. Twice a year the abbot permits the visit. She drove out to meet him, bringing him a bag of chocolate bars to share. The vow of silence was lifted by the abbot. They shared good memories of times past, told stories about their current lives, laughed and joked. The visit ended with an embrace, a promise to pray for one another and to write once a week. Then he returned to the cloister and its silence.
Then she explained to me, “This is what God has called my father to do. I respect that. He will remain with these brothers until he dies and he is in better hands than mine.” She said, “I am grateful that he took time out to marry mom, to raise me, but now it’s time for him to do what God calls him to do. He has never been happier.”
It was a shocking, stunning conversation. It reminded me of the ongoing call and cost of discipleship. You and I are called to follow Christ too, even if we are not called in the same ways that man is answering his call.
Yet one thing was very clear to me: he is keeping his hands on the plow.
(c) William G. Carter
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