June 30, 2013
A hen and a pig were out for a walk one day, when they pass by a church. They see a flyer posted on the church’s bulletin board asking people to help feed the poor and hungry.
The hen looked at the pig and said, “I know how we can help feed the poor and hungry. We can give them bacon and eggs.”
The pig replied, “I have just one problem with that plan. From you it requires only a contribution. But from me it asks for total commitment.”
It’s an old joke and a funny one, but it brings up a crucial fact about discipleship –discipleship is total commitment. That’s what this whole Christianity, following Christ life is all about, isn’t it? Total commitment. Even to the point of giving up our lives for the sake of following Jesus.
But are we really ready to do that? Are we really ready to take that step, set off down that path, and be willing to give up everything, even our lives, to follow Jesus?
That’s the question that Jesus has for the three would-be followers in our passage from Luke. The time for the cross has drawn near so Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem. Jerusalem, the place where his last days would be lived out, where he would stand up to the powers and principalities, not with violence nor bloodshed but with love and the power that comes from being the suffering servant.
Jesus has set his face. In other words he’s going to Jerusalem no matter what. There’s no looking back, no looking in any other direction. This is not the road most people would choose willingly, but Jesus knows that this road will make all the difference.
So our scene is set and Jesus is on his way. In the first part of this narrative Luke tells us that Jesus sends messengers ahead of him. They stop in a Samaritan village but are not welcomed there because Jesus is heading to Jerusalem. The enmity between Jews and Samaritans was deep and wide, so I suspect that just the idea that Jesus was going to Jerusalem, the center of Judaism, was enough reason for the Samaritans to refuse him welcome. When James and John witness this they are outraged and ask Jesus if he wants them to rain down fire on the village. But Jesus rebukes them because they have missed the point – again.
They continue on. As they are making their way, the first of the would-be disciples approaches them and declares to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
Seeing as how Jesus’ disciples often made the decision to follow him in an instant, it is surprising that Jesus doesn’t immediately take this person up on his offer. But Jesus replies in an unexpected way, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
Then Jesus calls to another person, “Follow me.” This person tells Jesus that he must first go and bury his father. Jesus’ responses continue to surprise. “Let the dead bury their own dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Jesus approaches still another person who tells him that he will gladly follow him, but first let him say goodbye to the loved ones back home. For the third time, Jesus responds with the unexpected, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.”
Strange answers all three. They are a crucial part of the challenge of this passage. These people were not making radical or frivolous requests of Jesus. They were willing to follow, so why did Jesus answer so oddly, so harshly?
Think about the first person. He wants to follow. He’s eager to follow. He seeks discipleship with Jesus voluntarily. But Jesus issues him a stern warning. Even animals have a place to call home, but the Son of Man doesn’t. And the implication of this is that anyone who follows Jesus will suffer the same consequences. So are you ready? Are you really ready to follow Jesus, to be without security, without home? Are you ready to face the trials and tribulations that will inevitably be encountered on the road of discipleship? Have you counted the cost?
The next prospective disciples are also willing to follow Jesus, BUT. The first follower must go to bury his father before he can set off on the road with Jesus. There is great debate over how this should be interpreted. Does it mean the obvious? The man’s father has died and he must go and bury him. Burial was serious business. The burying of one’s parents was an act of respect, honor and duty according to Jewish law and custom. It was part of the requirement of the commandment to honor your mother and father. This man was duty bound to bury his father.
However this could also mean that the man’s father is old and the son must stay with him and care for him until he dies. Again this was the expected duty of any child.
The third man also has family members to attend to. He will gladly follow Jesus but first he wants to say goodbye to the folks back home.
To our ears none of these requests seem frivolous or flippant. They were not out of the ordinary. Yet Jesus answers them in a way we don’t foresee. Jesus tells the second man to let the dead bury the dead. Some commentators believe that Jesus means that the spiritually dead should bury the physically dead. But one of my New Testament professors made us spend practically an entire semester exegeting this passage and the word for dead in both cases means dead. Physically, in the flesh, dead. Let the dead bury the dead. It would seem that following Jesus trumps even that time-honored responsibility.
And Jesus response to the third wannabe disciple implies a reference to Elijah and Elisha in I Kings. Elisha is plowing a field and promises to follow Elijah, but first he must go and kiss his parents goodbye. But Jesus denies even this simple appeal. If you’re looking backward when you’re trying to plow the furrow will be crooked. And to look back, to family, to friends, instead of forward to the cross is to be unfit for the kingdom of God. Unfit and unready.
Have you counted the cost?
The Biblical scholars I’ve read agree that Jesus’ responses are harsh. They are. It would be easy to try and explain this away by saying that Jesus was using hyperbole, deliberate exaggeration to make his point. But that doesn’t do justice to Jesus’ words. Jesus’ words also reflect his urgency. His face is set toward Jerusalem. He’s going, and he knows what lies ahead. He’s told the disciples, twice, what it means for him to be the Son of God. He will suffer. He will die. He will be raised again. Jesus knows what’s coming, so there is no time for waffling or entering into a casual kind of discipleship.
Jesus tells them all, if you want to be my disciple, there’s a cost. You need to count that cost before you follow me. Discipleship comes with a price. It may be a home, a duty, leaving behind friends and family. The road of discipleship does not come without trade-offs. Before you follow me, before you take one step on this road, you have to count the cost.
As un-Jesus like as all this may seem, Jesus makes them and us face the hard truth about discipleship. Discipleship means that following Jesus the first priority. Everything else, family, responsibility, security, comes after. This isn’t easy news to hear. And it isn’t easy to do. Have we counted the cost?
When I’ve preached this passage in the past, I haven’t always been able to name what it is about Jesus’ responses that most frightens me. It should be obvious. The cost of following Jesus means that we have to be willing to leave behind people and places and things that we love. That should be enough reason for fear. But something I read this week made me realize that underlying all of that, the real thing we have to give up is control.
I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it many times again, for me this is a problem. I may be able to intellectually acknowledge that there is very little I actually have control over, but at a gut level I fight that reality with kicking and screaming. I want to be in control – of my life, my future, my destiny. I have plans and I expect them to play out. But it seems to me that what Jesus is telling all of them – the disciples already following and those who are still thinking about it – is if you want to throw your lot in with mine, give up the idea that you are in control. The plans you’ve made for your life, let them go. The course you may have set for yourself or the path you thought were choosing let all of that go. Following me won’t be easy or neat. You can’t drop a trail of breadcrumbs so you can go back to where you were before. Following me means that you may be led into chaos and suffering. Following me will require something of you that you will think is impossible. Following me means that you’re going to have let go of control and embrace trust. Following me means that you have to not only trust that you are becoming the person you need to be in the place where you need to be, but that you are not alone in the process. Following me means that you have to trust that I am right there with you. Following me means trusting me.
That’s the real cost. Following Jesus means that we let go of all that we think we want or need, all that we seek to control. Following is trusting. Following means trusting that Jesus is not just pulling us behind him as though we are puppets on a string, but that he is right there with us, through everything. Following Jesus means trusting that our decision to say “yes” to his call is worth the cost. It makes all the difference. Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”