51When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54When 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?” 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village.
57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And 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.” 59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
I don’t know about you, but I really struggled to make sense of today’s reading from Luke, especially the second half of it. It’s one of those sections of the gospels where my natural inclination is to read it, pause, spend a few seconds wondering what I’m missing, then shrug it off and keep going. I may not get anything out of it that way, but at least I don’t sit there confused, or indignant, at what I’ve just read.
If you ask me, confusion and indignation would both be very appropriate responses after hearing Jesus tell us that becoming his disciple means having to shunt two basic, core responsibilities to our families. To one man, Jesus says that he has to miss his own father’s funeral. To another, Jesus says that he shouldn’t say good-bye to his family before embarking on what is implied to be a lifelong journey of itinerant ministry. Don’t we normally expect Jesus to encourage loving actions and family values, not abandonment? These harsh commands are not what we expect to hear from our loving teacher and savior. This, in short, is why I often gloss over this passage without trying to understand it. It’s too hard, and more importantly, it’s too unpleasant, to want to believe.
This week, though, because I’m preaching on this text, skipping over it is not an option. So, let’s look at this story again, but with new eyes. Is Jesus really saying what it sounds like—that being a Christian and being a good family member are incompatible—or is there another message here for us?
In this passage, we meet Jesus as he is starting to head to Jerusalem, where he will eventually be arrested and killed. His disciples are with him, and they have just passed through a village in Samaria. Of the three exchanges Jesus has with different disciples in this text, the first one is probably the least offensive to us. As they all are walking down the road, one of the disciples, feeling inspired as he contemplates what an amazing leader Jesus is, says to him, “I will follow you wherever you go,” (v. 57). In this way, this disciple speaks for all of us. We all have our moments of optimism, of passion, when we feel like we could and would do anything for God. But Jesus knows that the road ahead is far more complicated than the rosy picture in our minds. He tells this disciple that following in his footsteps means roughing it: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man [and by extension, his followers] ha[ve] nowhere to lay [their] head[s],” (v. 58). This disciple is free to follow, but he needs to know what he’s getting into. This is not a commitment for the fainthearted. In this case, following Jesus means journeying where the Spirit leads, and this requires being homeless.
While being homeless is not exactly anyone’s dream, it at least has a noble quality to it when done for a good cause. The next two things Jesus says are harder to get behind. First, he calls to a different disciple, “Follow me.” And the man makes what sounds like a reasonable request: “First let me go and bury my father,” (v. 59). However, instead of agreeing to that one, very understandable, condition, Jesus refuses. Instead of allowing the man to fulfill this important family obligation, he is told to “go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (v. 60). There is some debate among scholars as to precisely what is meant regarding the burial of the man’s father. Some believe that the disciple wanted to continue living at home as usual until his father died and was buried, and then come follow Jesus. Others see it as a more immediate event—the father has just died and will be buried soon. Either way, though, Jesus makes it clear that family obligations—even important ones—cannot match the urgency of the coming kingdom of God. And this is not an easy truth to hear or accept.
The last disciple we encounter in this passage tells Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home,” (v. 61). Again, this sounds like a very reasonable request. If I were about to leave home for months or years to go follow a traveling preacher, I think that the very least I’d owe my family would be a nice good-bye. How would they feel if I just went away without saying good-bye? Since when is abandonment a Christ-like thing to do? And yet, Jesus’ response indicates that saying good-bye was too much to ask. He says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God,” (v. 62). It’s an unexpected and indirect answer to the man’s question, but the implication is clear. Rather than honoring the man’s simple request to say farewell to his household before joining Jesus’ ministry, Jesus tells him that he has to follow without looking back. Considering the fact that the prophet Elijah accepted Elisha’s request to kiss his parents good-bye before he joined Elijah’s ministry (1 Kings 19:20), Jesus’ refusal here is all the more noteworthy. Again, we see Jesus emphasizing that following him is no easy task, and its importance surpasses everything we normally hold dear.
So according to this passage, proclaiming the kingdom of God is more important than having belongings or a place to stay. Following Jesus is more important than following the commands of the Torah such as honoring one’s parents through appropriate burial. Living into the kingdom of God is even more important than upholding the rituals of the most beautiful of human relationships, the family. In short, commitment to God’s kingdom must come first, before anything and everything else, no matter how valuable. And that is a hard, hard truth.
And yet, could it be any other way? Think for a moment about these disciples’ requests. Outside of the context of this story, they are honorable and reasonable requests. They show strong commitment to family and living up to one’s responsibilities. Similarly, wanting to provide a balanced, nutritious, filling meal for your child is very honorable and appropriate. But what if you’re on a boat filled with dozens of sick and starving people and there is only a small amount of food to go around? In that context, is it still right to give your child enough food to provide a complete and nutritious meal? Or would it be better to limit what you give your child so that the other children on the boat might not starve?
In other words, priorities change in different contexts. What Jesus is expressing to his disciples here is an urgency that they were not understanding. It’s not that any of their requests were wrong; it’s that the kingdom of God is just that important. And that immediate. As important as family and other relationships are, they are not God. To put them first, before God, even if done out of love and good intentions, is one form of idolatry. And I say this as someone who is just as guilty of this as anyone, especially now that I have a new baby.
The thing is, none of these requests sounds excessive at first. But any and all of them could easily lead down a rabbit hole of “just one more.” In the example of burying his father, there are so many other things that happen when someone dies (and this is assuming the father has already died, which is unclear in the text). Can’t you just imagine the man finishing the burial and then wanting to stay just to get the house settled, just to plant the crops this year, just to wait until harvest, just to get a good nest egg saved up for his mother, just… just… As the saying goes when it comes to any big decision—going on that big trip, trying to have a baby, changing jobs, moving—there’s always some reason to put it off. There’s never a “perfect time.” And Jesus knows this about us, even when we don’t realize it ourselves. We will always find that next excuse to wait until later, or to decide that the commitment isn’t for us. If Jesus had let the man go bury his father, would he ever have come back?
The same problem applies to the man who wants to say good-bye to his family. I would know, since I’m from Minnesota: home of the so-called “Minnesota good-bye.” In my 3 years so far in South Dakota, I’m pretty sure you have it here, too. It’s when you announce that you really should leave soon, then have another round of dessert or coffee, then spend a half hour talking at the door, then another 45 minutes talking next to the car, and then another 20 minutes chatting through the rolled-down car window before finally driving off. Good-byes can last forever. Especially when saying good-bye to loved ones, it can be incredibly difficult to pull ourselves away and actually go through with leaving. I imagine that this disciple might have some “just one more”s of his own: just one more hour, just one more night, just one more hug, just one more kiss… Again, Jesus is showing us that he understands. He knows what it’s like to be human because he’s experienced it himself. If we give even an inch, we may soon find ourselves a mile away. And when the goal is something as important as the kingdom of God, that mile is too much to risk! So when these disciples ask him for an inch, he doesn’t give in. Instead, he reminds them why he’s here in the first place.
Jesus didn’t come to Earth to uphold the status quo. He came to turn the world upside down: to pull the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly, to preach good news to the poor and release to the captives, to heal the sick and liberate the oppressed. And this message, this mission, is something worth giving up everything for. When Jesus calls to us, “Follow me,” he isn’t inviting us on an afternoon excursion. He’s calling us into a kingdom of new possibilities that go beyond our imagining. The sorrow, pain, and injustice we see around us—brought to light so excruciatingly in the recent shooting in Orlando—will not last. God is transforming this world—our broken, sinful world—into a kingdom of peace, life, and wholeness. And Jesus calls us, inviting us to follow him into that new world of transformation.
It sounds crazy—impossible, even. And I’ll be honest, I still don’t really understand how this will all happen, even though I believe it. If God can come to earth in human flesh, can drive out demons and heal the sick, and can die but rise again to new life, then who are we to say that God can’t transform the entire world!? I’ve felt the power of the Holy Spirit working through me to accomplish things I’d never be able to do on my own. I’ve been in Spirit-filled gatherings where people display inhuman amounts of love as they collaborate and come together in spite of divisive differences. I’ve met people whose lives were completely turned around after encountering Jesus Christ and people whose sense of peace truly does pass all understanding. These, I believe, are all examples of God’s kingdom coming to fruition in the here and now. Even in the midst of all that’s wrong with the world, transformation is happening. New life is bursting forth out of places of decay. Joy is erupting in the face of sorrow.
The closer we follow to Jesus, the more of this transformation we can see. And not only see, but also participate in. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ means living as he did: righting wrongs, feeding the hungry, comforting the grieving, and healing the sick. We may do it in ordinary ways rather than miracles like he often performed, but that doesn’t change the fact that each one of those actions is a beautiful example of transformation. But we need to be paying attention in order to find those opportunities and experience those moments.
To the third disciple in our passage, Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God,” (v. 62). I’m not a farmer, but I’ve heard that looking backwards while plowing is a bad idea. And when the rows are not of corn or beans but rather seedlings of God’s kingdom on earth, it’s even more important to plant them straight so that they have the best chance at growing strong and tall.
In my opinion, this image really gets to the heart of what Jesus intended with all of his comments in this exchange. It’s not just about making sure we count the cost of discipleship or that we put God first. It’s about knowing who we are, whose we are, and where we are heading. If you know where you’re going, the rest will take care of itself. But if you’re looking back, or procrastinating, or making excuses, then you get so sidetracked that you forget your goal in the first place. When we follow Jesus into the kingdom of God, we need to be looking straight ahead. No matter what else comes up, we must remember the promise of the coming kingdom and orient our lives toward it: toward healing, peace, justice, and abundant life.
And when we do, those other requests are no longer relevant. When we have the kingdom in view, we can continue to pursue it in all aspects of our lives. Instead of asking Jesus those evading questions of “But first…”, we will be forging ahead excitedly, saying “But also…”! Not “But first let me bury my father.” Instead, “But also let me anticipate the resurrection, even when the time comes for my father to die.” Not “But first let me say good-bye to my family.” Instead, “But also let me share the good news of God’s kingdom with my family!” In Jesus Christ, in the earthly moments of transformation that show us the kingdom of God arriving, there are always new possibilities. It’s just that we miss them if we don’t look forward.
Let us look forward, then, with our faces turned toward resurrection and life, and take those first trembling steps in the path of Jesus. Amen.