The first thing you need to know if you’re serious about being a disciple of Jesus is that Jesus is unreasonable, and following where he goes is unreasonable.
Having said that, I’m going to back up just a moment. We’ll spend the rest of this year, through Advent, in the parables of Jesus. This is officially the first sermon in this series, but really, last week was. There, we saw Jesus drive home the point that there are ultimately only two ways to live: either you build your life entirely on him, or you don’t. He was quite clear that building on him is the hard way, and the other is the easy way. Here in these three encounters in Luke 9, he makes that point even more clearly.
A few verses up the page from this, Luke says, “As the time approached for him to be taken up, Jesus set his face like a cliff toward Jerusalem.” (That’s the Rich Mullins version, by the way.) Everything that happens in Luke from this point through his arrival in chapter 19 happens as Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem: he is going to his death. In these brief encounters, he offers parables about the way spoken on the way.
First, someone volunteers for the mission, in the most grandiose terms: “I will follow you wherever you go.” No limits, no exceptions, no fine print. Wherever you go, whatever you do, I will follow. I suspect he saw Jesus as a rising star, a gifted religious leader, maybe even the long-awaited Messiah, and wanted to go along for the ride. This as Jesus was literally on the road to Skull Hill. Would this guy have said this if he’d known it would mean suffering, rejection, and the cross? I doubt it.
So does Jesus, clearly, because he doesn’t welcome this would-be disciple; instead, he says, “Foxes have their dens, and the birds of the air have roosts, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” It’s a powerful picture of poverty and rejection: even the animals and the birds have someplace to rest, but Jesus has nothing. This man would have to give up his social position and all assurance of comfort and safety for the uncomfortable, risky life of a vagabond.
Jesus’ rebuke must have come as a shock. How could the Messiah be a homeless wanderer? And yet, he had to be, for the reason Rich Mullins captured in his song “You Did Not Have a Home”: if he’d had a home, a wife, a formal position in society, he would have been part of the system. The world would have owned a piece of him, and that would have given it leverage. Instead, he was outside the economic and political system, a free radical with no handles for anyone to grab. The only thing the authorities could take from him was his life, and that was part of his plan. Jesus’ powerlessness was necessary to his power.
We don’t know how this unnamed volunteer responded; as with other parables, we’re left hanging. As Kenneth Bailey puts it, “We do not know whether the volunteer tightened his belt, ‘set his face steadfast,’ and stepped into line with the others, or whether, stunned at the price to be paid and at the shocking prospect of a rejected leader, he fell back . . . and watched them pass.” Either way, the point is clear: following Jesus costs. Are we truly willing to pay the price?
That question hits us from another angle as Jesus continues on his way. This time, he calls out someone along the road: “Follow me!” The man responds, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father, and then I’ll follow you.” To us, that sounds reasonable; if his father has just died, shouldn’t he stick around for the funeral? But that’s not what’s going on. This man wouldn’t be hanging out by the side of the road if his father had died, he’d be with his family keeping vigil over the body. The twelfth-century Arabic scholar Ibn al-Ṣalibi tells us the real story: “‘Let me go and bury’ means: let me go and serve my father while he is alive and after he dies I will bury him and come.”
What we have here is a clash of competing authorities. Jesus has issued a command: “Follow me!” The person he’s called, however, has a duty to take care of his parents, and he knows it—and what’s more, so does his community, which expects him to fulfill that duty. Even into recent times, Dr. Bailey tells us, young men in the Near East who wanted to emigrate would be asked, “Are you not going to bury your father first?” In other words, “Aren’t you going to do your duty to care for your parents until their death before you go off and do what you want to do?” So it was for this recruit, and so he responds, “I have a duty to my parents which my community is counting on me to fulfill. Surely you don’t expect me to set aside their requirements in order to follow you?”
But that’s exactly what Jesus does expect, and in fact, demand. He replies, “Let the dead bury their own dead. You go proclaim the kingdom of God.” The expectations of those around you—your family, your friends, your company, your community—are not sufficient reason to set aside the call of Christ to follow him. Let the spiritually dead, who don’t care about Jesus’ mission and don’t have kingdom priorities, fulfill society’s expectations. His command to go proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God must take precedence. He accepts no authority as higher and no claim as stronger than his own.
This becomes even clearer in the third encounter. Here again someone volunteers to follow Jesus, but in this case the offer is dishonest. You see, he isn’t just asking to say goodbye to his parents, he’s asking to take leave of them. That might seem like nothing, but the difference is critical. In that culture, the one leaving would ask permission to go from those who were staying; this was “taking leave,” and it was those who were staying who would say goodbye. Thus, for instance, a dinner guest who desired to go home would say, “With your permission?” The hosts would respond, “May you go in peace.”
This supposed volunteer tells Jesus, “I’ll follow you—just as soon as I go home and get permission from my parents.” They of course will refuse to allow him to do any such crazy thing. He can then claim that he wants to follow Jesus—like the first guy, he no doubt sees a bright future ahead—without actually having to do so. After all, his father’s authority over him was obviously higher than Jesus’ authority, so of course he would have to have his father’s permission in order to follow Jesus.
Again, Jesus responds with a brief parable. Plowing was done with a light plow worked with the left hand; the right held the goad to keep the oxen moving. With that left hand, one kept the plow upright, held it at the proper depth, lifted it over stones in the field, and—above all—kept it straight. This needed careful attention and skill; with a moment’s distraction, the plow might catch on a rock, cut back into previously-plowed ground (destroying work already done), or veer the other way, making the next furrows more difficult. A mistake could damage the field’s drainage, or leave seeds exposed for birds to eat. Plowing took intense focus to work in harmony with the oxen, with the work already done, and with the work that remained to be done. A distracted plowman could not maintain this harmony, and in fact could destroy it, ruining an entire year’s work.
Jesus’ point is clear: there’s no room for divided loyalties in the kingdom. Anyone who would follow him must accept his authority absolutely, above all other authorities and loyalties—even family. This was a shocking demand in that culture, where parental authority was absolute, family loyalty was of ultimate importance, and calling God “Father” was giving him a promotion. Dr. Bailey recalls a class of Middle Eastern seminary students turning pale when they realized what Jesus was saying—the idea that he was claiming a greater authority than their fathers was that shocking and disturbing.