Luke 9:51-62
Year C, Proper 8, Track 1 (RCL)

The opening line of today’s Gospel sounds like a reading for Lent: “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up …”. But this isn’t Lent – it’s the season of Pentecost. And it’s near the beginning of Pentecost; Lent is months away.

In our Lectionary, Year C, our current year, is given to readings from the Gospel of Luke during Pentecost. Today’s lesson is fairly early in the Gospel of Luke – it’s chapter nine of twenty-four total chapters; just a little more than a third of the way into the gospel. Luke structured his gospel so that most of Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God occurs during Jesus last trip to Jerusalem. The journey to Jerusalem begins here in chapter nine and continues through chapter twenty-two. During the rest of Pentecost we will read parables and sayings from these chapters. It is important to understand that Luke is presenting these to illuminate the meaning of Jesus life and ministry, and the new Kingdom. Luke is telling us that these are the teachings of Jesus as he was preparing to complete his earthly ministry. These teachings show us the meaning, and demands, of discipleship. These are thoughts which should stay with us and guide us.

Today’s gospel has three brief summaries of encounters with would-be disciples. Though brief, they are important. And in case you didn’t note it earlier, the language is strong:

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.”

In the first encounter, someone says, “I’ll follow you anywhere.” Jesus replies (paraphrasing), “I have no home.” A home isn’t just a dwelling – it’s a place of security and protection. The fox goes into it’s den to be safe from predators. Jesus is saying, “I have no such place of security and rest.” Jesus’ reply is not really about himself: Jesus is telling the would-be disciple that following Jesus requires that one give up the apparent security of home and be willing to go anywhere, to live and work among strangers and strange people. Instead of fleeing into a den to avoid predators, we are asked to be among the predators. We are asked to look to God for security and protection instead of to our home and family. It isn’t really about whether one owns a home or has a family. Some are called to forgo these but others are not. It’s about the source of our sense of security. Do we feel secure because of our home, our family, our ability to provide, or because of reliance on God? Only God can provide true security; a sense of security from possessions and abilities is false and shallow.

We also called to see the world, our community, as our home. The good parts, and also the bad. We are called to dwell among the weak, the powerless, the poor, and the sick. This is our family. We are called to love and help them, and to be in the midst of them. We are called to assist those who can profit from our help, and to give up our false sense of security and to be vulnerable ourselves.

The second would-be disciple is willing to follow, but he needs to first bury his father. This was (and is) a very serious obligation for Jews. What does Jesus tell him? “Let the dead bury their own dead.” That is harsh. Taken literally, it doesn’t make sense, for how could the dead bury the dead? What Jesus is saying is that if one is to be his disciple, then one’s obligation is to Jesus. That obligation has to come first. It doesn’t mean that we have no obligations to others but it does mean that those obligations have to take a back seat to the work of proclaiming the Gospel and promoting God’s kingdom.

We all have social and familial obligations – they don’t go away simply because we’re Christians. If we failed to fulfill our obligations then people would be harmed. Parents need to feed their children, for example. But sometimes we fulfill obligations, not because of what doing so gives to others, but because of what it does for us. It feeds our egos. Perhaps Jesus sensed that the man’s request to bury his father was based, at least in part, on the man’s desire to be seen as a good son and as someone who followed the Jewish law. And it isn’t acceptable to ignore the requirements of the Kingdom in order to feed our egos. Our goal and purpose must be the building up of God’s kingdom. This requires regular, serious examination of our motives.

The third would-be disciple has a simple request: “Let me first say farewell to those at my home.” This seems reasonable since Jesus told the first person that following Jesus would mean (in some sense) giving up home and family. Jesus response? “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Again, rather harsh. But behind the harshness is something beautiful. Jesus is saying that following Jesus is a new thing, a new beginning, and this new thing will be better, much better, than what you leave behind. Therefore, we ought not look back on earlier days and desire for things to go back to how they were. This is true even when things are going very badly for us. When things are bad, we’re tempted to remember “the good old days” – which usually weren’t as good as we remember. God has forgiven us, and in doing so, God has put our past behind him. We should do the same: put the past behind us and move on.

If we turn to look back, and long for our earlier lives, then we are turning our backs on the goodness of God in our future. We can and should have good memories, but we should expect that the future will be better than the past. Maybe not better health, maybe not more wealth, but it will be better spiritually for God is at work. And it will be a better life. It will be better in ways that we probably cannot understand at present.

In the gospel lesson, Jesus is going to Jerusalem to meet his death. Luke tells of him journeying steadily to Jerusalem. Jesus’ single-mindedness in finishing his task paves the way for these words to the disciples that they too must not let even plausible distractions deter them from persistent discipleship.

The way Jesus takes, the way to which Jesus calls us, involves an unprotected mission, a clear choice about priorities, and a clean break with the past. Single-mindedness is required.

Jesus’ demands in the lesson are rigorous and severe, and the words leave little room for debate. If they don’t seem severe, then we aren’t taking them seriously enough. When we read this lesson, we’re inclined to think, “Well, sure, that’s what Luke says, but Jesus didn’t mean that the way it sounds. He was exaggerating. It’s okay if I soften it a bit.”

Maybe Jesus did exaggerate. Maybe he doesn’t intend us to take these words the way they sound at first hearing. But our temptation is to water down the text and make it acceptable to our situation; to adapt the words so that we don’t have to change. If we do that then we have certainly abused the text. There may be hyperbole in the lesson, but the certainty is that Jesus is requiring us to take his mission seriously, to change our lives, and to be single-minded in our pursuit of the kingdom of God.

We can and should ponder the meaning of the text for our lives in this community in 2013. We should spend some serious time in meditation on this lesson.
We should ask:

  • What is the source of my sense of security? Is it the Lord of Creation, or is it my bank account, or my talents & abilities?
  • What were my priorities today? Did I place the advancement of God’s kingdom first, or did I act in order to promote my own agenda?
  • Am I looking to the future or am I dwelling in the past? Am I expecting God to give me a better life or do I long for something which is gone?

I invite you to do so this week: take a few minutes each day and reflect on the text. Take the scripture insert with you for easy reference. Maybe the interpretation won’t be as strong as the text sounds. But one thing is clear from the Gospel: if our interpretation of the text reaffirms our status quo, then we have misunderstood. Jesus calls us to continual conversion, and that means change: the status quo is not acceptable.


copyright 2013 by the author