Come on Jesus, you’re saying I can’t go and bury my father!
The dead are suppose to bury the dead!
I can’t kiss my family goodbye, seriously!
Jesus, you’re ripping my heart out here man!
That’s not reasonable!
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, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet 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 his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
The Gospel reading today from Luke contains one of the harder teachings of Jesus, it is one of those passages that we have a tendency to skip over and talk about some other Bible passage instead on that Sunday. But, we don’t have to do that and in talking about this passage we don’t want to only hear what we think we are hearing but remember this context and original language is ancient and Eastern, where we are post-modern and western; so we want to see what is actually happening and in what ways is God’s eternal word lifting us up today to the life we are called to live as Christian disciples following Jesus and releasing all ownership of our life to God to whom it already belongs in the first place.
Let’s approach this passage like we are looking at a framed work of art, one of those pieces at an art museum where you look at it from a distance and you see the frame and the painting inside but it’s not really clear to us yet.
The frame of this work of art is the context. This is a middle eastern culture some 2,000 years ago with a political and social climate much different from ours but very similar to middle eastern cultures of today. They were an oppressed people underneath Roman rule, family and community expectations owned you in a very real sense and decided how you would live and who you would follow.
Moving in closer from the frame to the painting, Jesus is with his disciples on the way to Jerusalem where he purposefully goes knowing His crucifixion is ahead. These passages are part of what is called the travel narratives, some of Jesus’ final words on the way to His death.
Moving in closer still, many thought of Jesus that this was a triumphant march and it looked like that as it led to the celebration of Palm Sunday, but it was not triumphant in the way many thought or wanted. It would not be a political and military victory that would make Jesus an earthly king and all of his disciples powerful. No, this would be a victory that had to go through suffering, death and the cross.
Now let’s zoom into our painting and look at these three small conversations between would be disciples and Jesus.
The first conversation:
“I will follow you wherever you go.” But Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head.”
These two words, foxes and birds are almost like code words. Because the Jews lived under oppression, think of living under a conquered country during the Nazi regime, you couldn’t speak plainly about the dictators; torture and death were a very real reality for those that did. A language grew to represent those forces that oppressed them. Birds came to represent the gentile forces, like Rome and the fox represented those that ruled harshly over the people for their Roman overlords, like King Herod, who Jesus explicitly in other places calls him a fox. In this passage Jesus is saying to the would be disciple, if your looking power in following Jesus, you’re looking in the wrong place, go to the Romans and King Herod, they have that kind of power you’re looking for. Following Jesus means always following a rejected and suffering savior and you will walk in the same footsteps as Jesus when you follow Him.
Then focus in on the second conversation.
To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
This is one of those places especially where we have to understand the context or the picture gets fuzzy and distorted and we start thinking that Jesus won’t let this guy go to his dad’s funeral. Let me give you an example. For those of you that text message often, what does this mean? BTW NP LOL CUL. It’s like hearing another language and so is this. When we read this passage and the guy says to Jesus, let me go and bury my father it’s like saying something in text message, you have to know the meaning behind it. For them in that culture and time and in the middle eastern culture today, this doesn’t mean that guy’s father just passed and he’s taking care of the service. Instead, the father is alive and well and within reason would be for another 20 years or so, he’s saying, let me go and serve my father first for 20 years and then when he is dead I’ll follow you. This was a community expectation that was and is long standing and still said today in the middle east but those community demands are not higher than Jesus’ authority and claim on a human life.
The final conversation.
Yet 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 his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Again, we see this one and it feels like Jesus is saying you can’t go say bye to your family but the context is not what it appears to be. When we lived in Jersey and I was away from the house a lot, more than was healthy or good, we would get sales calls at the door all the time, don’t know why but we did, guys trying to sell us a new roof, trimming branches, gutters. Whenever my wife just said no, they would always pester her and try to convince her but when she said, I have to talk to my husband first, knowing full well what I would say anyways, they didn’t have much to say after that, what could they say, “no, you can’t talk to your husband!” This is the same thing, this guy is offering to be Jesus’ disciple but he already has a ready made excuse to why he won’t be able to. Kissing parents goodbye, meant asking their permission before the son would go on a new venture or trip and in this kind of situation, it was very unlikely any parent would say go and follow a 30 something guy that they thought was trying to take over Jerusalem! I would tell me kid no too! But in this way the guy could look good on the outside with the best of intentions but still really mean no.
Looking at the painting, can we see it a little clearer now? I hope so, I hope it doesn’t look like Jesus is saying you can’t go and bury your father, because, that’s not what it’s about at all.
Now that we can see the picture more clearly, like any great work of art, there is deeper meaning as well, meaning that we can take with us when we leave. Because the heart of each of these conversations was ownership, who dictated and directed a person’s life. We could describe the three competing claims as possessions and power, my own desires owning me, my community expectations owning me and family expectations owning me. But the claim that Jesus put upon each of those people was that He is God, everything belongs to Him, including them and that in his calling it is time to follow Him, even when our own desires, community and family expectations tell us otherwise. They had it backwards, instead of God’s call and claim upon their life being central and flowing through them to how they managed each of those areas of their life, (self, community and family) they let those areas of life which came from God in the first place dictate to God that they knew best, God didn’t.
Ownership, who do you belong to?
Walk back from the painting now that you have seen it a little more clearly and bring it’s message into your life. We deal with ownership questions all the time, though we might not put it that way. When our own desires dictate how we live, when those desires are hurtful to our responsibilities and duties in life and our relationship with God. When family pressures are contradictory to God’s desires for our life and actually push us to obey our family instead of obeying God and when the same is said of our community, like when the priority for sports becomes all encompassing and takes over and replaces the cycle of the Christian life of worship, all these things own us and dictate how we are to live. Where does that get you but nowhere in the end, like the blind following the blind.
But when we say we belong to God, it means God’s priorities dictate our life and actions. What are God’s priorities but that we have salvation, life eternal and a meaningful life now filled with lasting joy, dignity, faithfulness and faith.
When we recognize that we belong to God, that becomes the center and from that center of faith and salvation flows out to our other areas of life, possessions and desires, community and family informing how we live and managing those areas in Godly and faithful ways.
As for you, you Christian, you belong to God, and from that center you live out and manage faithfully and godly all of the other areas in your life, not letting them own and manage you. Take that work of art home with you and place it on your wall. You belong to God.