In this Sunday’s gospel passage, particularly the second half, we are confronted with what could be called ‘hard’ sayings of Jesus. He is on His way to Jerusalem on pilgrimage, and after an encounter with some inhospitable Samaritans, as He continues His journey with his disciples, he meets up and talks with several people about following Him.
In a sense, Jesus’ responses present us with a breakdown of the elements of discipleship; Jesus speaks in what to us appear to be extremes, because the seriousness of the Kingdom of God, of salvation is extreme.
St. Luke shares three particular encounters Jesus has with people, confronting each of them, and us, with the gravity of what being a true disciple of Jesus really means.
The first person very zealously announces, ‘I will follow you wherever you go!’ This sounds very much like later comments from St. Peter (about following Jesus even to the point of death, and Jesus pointing out to Peter that he would, when confronted, deny he even knows Jesus). It is clear to Jesus this person has not seriously contemplated what following Jesus wherever he will go actually means. Jesus tells them the Son of Man has nowhere even to lay his head – that complete detachment from the things of this world are necessary if we are to live in complete discipleship of Jesus. To completely empty one self, setting aside attachment to anything that could possibly interfere with a deep and complete relationship with God is where Jesus ‘will go’ – and it must be clearly understood that in this world, that is where a disciple of Christ must go too. This must be their clear intent.
The next person is someone Jesus actually calls, rather than responding to; ‘follow me,’ He says. But this person replies that he wants to go bury his father. Jesus response as St. Luke relates it sounds really harsh and cold ‘let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ We might first think Jesus is asking the impossible – but if we take the time to understand the context of the culture and the times, scholars suggest that this process of going and ‘burying’ this man’s father could be anything from waiting a customary period after death to clean and inter bones –which was up to a year – to meaning the man’s father is old and is waiting for death and this could be a lengthy period of time as well.
In fact, we don’t know what the circumstances or response were; perhaps Jesus was waiting for the man to respond to the calling by offering to proclaim the kingdom to his own father and family.
Whatever the case – Jesus makes it clear that when He calls, if we would truly be his disciples, we must respond immediately; we can’t say, ‘well Lord I want to be your follower, but let me go take care of this one thing.’ Human nature being what it is, there will always be ‘one more thing’ to take care of. Jesus is telling us anyone who would be His disciple must be ready to respond to His call to proclaim the Kingdom whenever the opportunity presents itself – whenever He calls.
The last person says he just wants to go say farewell first to his family. The writing of this encounter seems to suggest that this person has been following along the road with Jesus, embarking on life as a disciple, and then decides he wants to go back to his old life, just one more time. Jesus tells him whoever looks back, once he puts his hand to the plough, is not fit for the kingdom of God.
We are fortunate to live near rural areas, to see mile after mile of cultivated corn fields. Early in the season we see how the ploughs have tilled the soil and the crops are then planted in very straight symmetrical rows for maximum yield. You can imagine if, while plowing the field, instead of looking ahead and keeping straight on track, the operator were to turn around and look behind them while they drive. The rows would be winding, crooked and most certainly would not yield their maximum potential, if at all.
A disciple of Christ needs to keep their eyes focused ahead, always intent on God, rather than always looking behind at past mistakes, errors, previous hurts or misunderstandings. We are to always look forward to the kingdom, rather than dwell in the past, clinging to old ways or carrying old burdens. A disciple must be disciplined, committed to moving forward in the spiritual and Christian life.
So in these exchanges we have three characteristics of discipleship; the clear intent to follow Christ, being prepared to respond to His call at any time, and being disciplined, or committed to moving toward Him or ‘lining up’ our will to His.
We cannot overlook one more important aspect of this conversation in Luke’s gospel though. Jesus is with this group of people, traveling toward Jerusalem. He is present to them all, each in their own particular circumstances; and He doesn’t ask them to do anything that He isn’t doing Himself. He is accompanying them, and in His presence to them, He will be the support and focus that will give them the strength and the grace to live as true disciples, if they only ‘let go’ and follow where He leads them in their own daily lives.
That same invitation is extended to each of us, and the conditions of discipleship are no less extreme for us – but that discipleship is a response to the extreme love that Christ has for each one of us. And like those people on the road to Jerusalem, He accompanies us if we ‘let go’ and follow where He leads us too.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!