Luke 9:51-62 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53 but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 Then they went on to another village.
57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 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.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
I’ve read a number of books of late that raise concerns about the pursuit of certainty. Peter Enns calls it a sin. “The need for certainty,” he writes, “is sin because it works off of fear and limits God to our mental images. And God does not like being boxed in” [The Sin of Certainty, p. 19]. Enns is responding to the need on the part of some to hold fast to correct doctrine, but doesn’t being faithful to God require our complete attention? Shouldn’t we be all in or not at all? Isn’t look back and wondering if we’re on the right path problematic? Look what happened to Lot’s wife! So, if you’re going to follow Jesus, really follow him, shouldn’t you abandon your previous life and embrace him solely. St. Francis did it. Bonhoeffer spoke of discipleship in terms of dying. If you know nothing else from the pen of Bonhoeffer, you know that he declared that “when Christ calls, he bids us come and die!” So, are you in?
When we turn to the lectionary reading from Luke 9, we hear a call to leave it all behind. Don’t look back, for the past is irrelevant. That is, if you want to be a disciple of Jesus!
In Luke’s telling of the story of Jesus, to this point the adult Jesus has been spending his time preaching in Galilee. This is his home territory. He’s been drawing crowds, but the real action isn’t in Galilee. It’s in Jerusalem. Having experienced the moment of Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), Jesus decides it’s time to turn the page and head up to Jerusalem. It appears that Jesus got a sign of confirmation up on the Mount of Transfiguration. It was time to depart!
According to Luke, Jesus makes the decision to take the most central route to Jerusalem, the route that led through Samaria. In preparing for the journey south he sent out his advance team. Unfortunately, even though the path through Samaria was the quickest way, it held significant risks since going through Samaria was for Jews of his day hostile territory. Ethnocentrism and religious intolerance isn’t a new phenomenon! While Jews and Samaritans were of common stock, they were rivals as well. Samaritans thought of themselves as the descendants of the northern tribes that had made up the nation of Israel. Jews thought of them as at best half-breeds who descended from the folks the Assyrians had deposited there after the end of the northern kingdom. Besides, the two regions were not in agreement about where they could encounter God. For Jews it was the Temple in Jerusalem. For Samaritans it was the temple on Mount Gerizim. So, when the advance team entered the Samaritan village they didn’t meet with friendly faces. This didn’t please the disciples who were quite offended. So, they asked Jesus to bring down a bit of divine wrath on this recalcitrant people. Jesus ignored their demands for retribution. Whether or not the Samaritans received them hospitably was of little concern to him, for he had set his face toward Jerusalem. Nothing would deter him. And so on they went, finding shelter in another village.
As they moved on toward Jerusalem the topic of discipleship came up. There were some who expressed interest, but Jesus offered a word of warning. Others were invited, but they demurred. They had things to do before they could devote their lives to being a disciple of Jesus. What level of commitment were they comfortable with? What level was and is enough? Reading a passage like this from the perspective of one living comfortably in the suburbs, at what point am I willing to give it my all?
It is important to remember that Jesus wasn’t a settled pastor. He didn’t have a parsonage or housing allowance. No, unlike the foxes, he didn’t have a den. There was no pillow to law his head upon. To those who asked about how to sign up, he offered a warning—it won’t be easy. Think carefully, he told them. Consider the cost. Don’t make a hasty decision. Are you sure you’re ready for this? Lots of people jump on bandwagons, hoping to enjoy the ride. Jesus wasn’t looking for that kind of disciple. Join if you like, but be sure!
While he warned away some eager followers, he invited others to join him. These folks might have good intentions, but they weren’t ready to fully commit. Many of these offered up excuses. Among the excuses that he heard were these: Some said: “I’ll join you but first I have to bury my father.” In other words, “I’d love to follow you Jesus, but I have some family responsibilities to take care of first.” Jesus simply answers: “let the dead bury the dead.” I don’t know about you, but that’s not very polite. In other words, he was referring to the would-be disciple’s family as dead people. Let them take care of things. You have bigger and better things to do!
Another said: “Let me go and say goodbye.” We could take this in a variety of ways, but the excuse seems to suggest a need to tend to duties at home. I know that if I just took off without saying good-bye and wrapping up responsibilities regarding my family wouldn’t go over well with them. Yes, I have responsibilities!
But Jesus says: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” The kingdom demands all from us. Are we ready to go forward, or will we continually look back? This statement on the part of Jesus is clearly apocalyptic in tone. We can leave it at that. But should we? Do we let ourselves off the hook by simply equating this call to not look back as apocalyptic? Why do we look back? Is it not fear of the future? That’s why Israel looked back to Egypt while wandering in the Sinai.
Jesus had made his decision. Jerusalem was his destination. It was there that the kingdom of God would be inaugurated. Who is on board?
Picture attribution: Hofheinz-Doring, Margret, 1910-1994. Endless Road, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55314 [retrieved June 20, 2016]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Endlose_Stra%C3%9Fe,_Margret_Hofheinz-D%C3%B6ring,_Strukturmalerei,_1971_(WV-Nr.5001).JPG.