The Challenge of Following Jesus - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 3C-Proper 8 (Luke 9)

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.”

           When it comes to following Jesus, shouldn’t we be all in or not at all? Looking back and wondering about the path taken can be a problem, just ask Lot's wife. Thus, if we're going to follow Jesus then we'll need to abandon the old life and embrace the way of the Spirit. Anything else, wouldn't be appropriate, right? That's the path that St. Francis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer took. In fact, Bonhoeffer spoke of discipleship in terms of dying to self. 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?

                 Here in the Gospel reading from Luke 9, the text designated for Proper 8 (Pentecost 3C in 2022), we hear Jesus tell the disciples that if they were to follow him they would have to leave everything behind, including letting the dead bury the dead. Of course, in Luke's telling of things, Jesus has set his sights on Jerusalem, where he will meet death. So, are we willing to take the same path and be his disciple? 

                This passage marks that moment when Jesus' ministry that has been centered in Galilee transitions to Judea. To this point in the story, Jesus has been working in his home turf. While he has been drawing crowds in Galilee, 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 head south knowing that he likely would never return home. There would be no looking back for Jesus.  

                 There is more than one way to get to Jerusalem. The shortest route often wasn't the one Jews used to get to Jerusalem from Galilee, because the central route ran through Samaria. Though related Jews and Samaritans didn't get along. So, taking this path might be quicker it also led through hostile territory. Nevertheless, that is the path he chose to take and so he sent out an advance team to prepare the way for his journey. 

            Now, 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 the Samaritans as half-breeds at best, believing they 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. As you might expect, the members of the advance team weren't at all pleased with their reception and were so offended 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 from his destiny. So, they continued on with their journey south.     

              As they moved on toward Jerusalem the topic of discipleship came up. Some of the people they met along the way expressed interest in joining Jesus' merry band. Jesus was open to adding to the number, but he offered a warning about the challenges of being a disciple, since Jesus, unlike a fox, didn't have a place to lay his head. In other words, they were homeless.
         There were others whom Jesus invited, but they turned him down. They told Jesus they were interested in joining his band but they had some things to do before they could devote their lives to being one of his disciples.  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? To be honest, in a predominantly Christian nation, it's not much of a challenge to be a Christian. 

                It is important to remember that Jesus wasn’t a settled pastor. He didn’t have a parsonage or housing allowance. Unlike even the foxes, he didn’t have a den to live in. There was no pillow to lay 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 goodbye 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 realm of God would be inaugurated. Although the movie and book The Last Temptation of Christ imaginatively allowed Jesus to contemplate what life might be like if he climbed down from the cross, married Mary Magdalene, and lived a normal life. But that's not the way Luke tells the story. According to Luke, Jesus didn't look back. If in our passage Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem and probably death, are we willing to go with him on this journey called discipleship? 

Image Attribution: Tissot, James, 1836-1902. Looking Back - the man at the plow, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved June 18, 2022]. Original source:


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