26 April 2020
“When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” With those words, Luke tells us that Jesus’ ministry on this earth is drawing to a close. Jesus has a single purpose now, and that is to get himself to Jerusalem, so that he can fulfill his calling and mission as the Messiah. From our perspective, as we read these words, the pronouncement may seem awfully premature. We are actually only a little less than half-way through Luke’s Gospel, and careful readers of the gospel will discover that Jesus goes to many places, towns, and locations after this pronouncement that cannot be described in any way as a physical journey toward Jerusalem. At least he does not take any route that we would take if we were to travel from Galilee to Jerusalem. Instead, Jesus takes more of a meandering route. And that route brings him as close to Jerusalem as Bethany, but then after that, we find Jesus back in Galilee once again.
And so when Luke tells us that Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, we understand it less in the literal sense, and more in a metaphorical sense. It is absolutely true that Jesus will ultimately end up in the city of Jerusalem to celebrate his last Passover with his disciples, and it is there, in Jerusalem, that he will die on a Roman cross. But in verse 51, Luke wants us to know that Jesus has already begun that journey in his heart. This is a profound turning point in Jesus’ life and ministry. It is a point of resolve for him, and one from which he will not waver. He is going to Jerusalem to die. It will take him some time to get there, but his heart has already begun the journey.
And as if to illustrate the profound importance of this dramatic turning point in Jesus’ life, Luke includes a rebuke of Jesus’ disciples, who have vengeance on their minds, and the stories of three people who might have become followers of Jesus, but who had to overcome some tremendous obstacles before they could give up their lives to follow Jesus. And this raises a bit of a conundrum for us: on the one hand, we would all agree that it is very easy to become a follower of Jesus. Some people encourage the use of various methods and actions and words and prayers, but it all boils down to his: it is immersing ourselves in the life and ministry of Jesus, and it is learning to fully appreciate the sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf for the forgiveness of our sins. And then in response to that realization, it is to engage in the mission that Jesus modeled for us, while he was here on this earth.
So why, then, does there seem to be such a problem for these three people in our passage to become followers of Jesus? Sadly, each one of them lacks the willingness or the ability to make the commitment that is required of one who would follow Jesus. So, let us look at them individually and see what it is that stands between them and Jesus, and that prevents them from becoming one of his followers.
The first person that we meet is rather ambitious; we might even say, enthusiastic. “I will follow you wherever you go.” Every pastor wants a church member who is this enthusiastic, but Jesus seems to be not overly impressed with this person’s enthusiasm. And, his response to this individual is rather enigmatic, at least until we give it some thought. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus, of course, has suffering and death on his mind, and it is very likely that this fellow has not the slightest inkling of any of that, not for Jesus and certainly not for himself. Jesus knows that his ministry is coming to a close, and that it will end in death. He also knows that this fellow has more enthusiasm than commitment. Jesus knows that this fellow’s heart is in the right place, but that his relationship with Jesus will never move beyond that, to the place where he will actually follow Jesus anywhere, and certainly not to his death. This fellow has too strong an attachment to home and to to place to ever become a follower. However we define it, following Jesus means leaving home. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
As our enthusiastic friend fades away, hopefully to do some serious pondering, Jesus picks a person out of the crowd, and says to him, “Follow me.” But once again there is a stumbling block in the way, that prevents this fellow from following. He wants to go home and bury his father, or at least to wait until his father is dead before he becomes a follower of Jesus. This fellow is not enthusiastic, but he is willing. He’s just got to take care of some family business first, and then, when the time is right, and things begin to fall into place, he will become a follower of Jesus. And once again, Jesus’ response is just as enigmatic: “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” From a Hebrew, or Jewish point of view, Jesus’ remark is nearly blasphemous. It is absolutely stunning and outright shocking. One’s obligation to the dead was sacred and holy. It was no to be trivialized under any circumstances. We know this because it is also true in our own lives. Our customary practices of tending to the dead have become radically altered over the last couple of months, because of all of the social distancing that we must engage in. And so we can readily identify with this fellow who wants to tend to his sacred duties.
Because Jesus invited this fellow to become one of his followers, there may be a bit of redemption in what Jesus has to say to him. It may be that this fellow has a calling that he can conduct from home. I’m not saying that this is the case, because I don’t know. The second part of Jesus’ remark to him is just as enigmatic as the first. But, there may very well remain the opportunity for this fellow to proclaim the kingdom of God in his own circle of life. This is certainly, at minimum, our own calling.
The final fellow, like the first, is also a volunteer. He wants to become a follower of Jesus, but like the other two, home and place and family relationships are important to him. He wants to go back home and say goodbye to his loved ones. But Jesus replies, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” It is possible that Jesus was making a reference to Elijah’s call of Elisha in his remark. You’ll have to decide for yourselves, but you can find that passage in First Kings, chapter 19, verses 19-21. At least in that story, Elisha got to go home and bid farewell to his parents, but he didn’t do any more plowing. He became Elijah’s disciple.
Jesus has boldly asserted in this passage that nothing must come before or beside him if we are to be his faithful followers. We look for kinder, gentler, more welcoming words from him, but we have no choice but to receive the harsh and demanding meanings of of the words that he puts forth as a challenge to us. We seek an out, or an excuse or even a different meaning for those words, but nothing of the sort can be found. Instead, we are left only to ponder the plain meanings, however enigmatic they may be. We must, however allow our Lord’s life to transform ours. There is no other way.