57 As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
58 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
59 He said to another man, “Follow me.”
But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
61 Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”
62 Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
Last Sunday I received one of the greatest Father’s Day presents ever when the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Golden State Warriors to win the National Basketball Association Championship. Cleveland became the first team to ever come back after being down three games to one and win it all. This victory was even more special because the Warriors had defeated the Cavaliers in last year’s finals and then had gone on to set a new record this season for the most wins in a season. Add to that the fact that it had been 52 years since a major sports franchise had won a championship in Cleveland, and this win becomes something even bigger.
And don’t think for a second that I don’t remember who all raised their hands last week and said that they were cheering for Golden State.
I often profess my love for Ohio: for our athletic teams, for the rolling farm lands, the culture, and yes, even the cheese. I’ve now lived in Virginia for 11 years, and some of you may be wondering, If you love Ohio so much, why don’t you just move back?
I’ll give you four reasons: spring, summer, fall, and especially winter. When I first considered leaving Ohio for seminary, I was looking at going either to northern Indiana or western Virginia. One of my friends said it best when he said that if I choose based on the weather and the scenery, the decision would be a no-brainer.
I can say today without hesitation, reservation, or equivocation that I love Virginia. So when I speak of the great state of Ohio, know that I do love my birth state. But I love my adopted state as well.
My fond recollections of my home state illustrate a strange phenomenon witnessed within the human psyche. We tend to remember the past as being better than it really was. We hear politicians saying that we need to make America great again, and we hear retired folks talk about the good old days. Those of us with young children remember the days when we had the freedom to go out and get ice cream at 9:00 pm on a school night, back before we had children. We look backwards and remember the past fondly, perhaps making the past out to be a little better than it really was.
When was America great? When millions of slaves were brought to the new world and sold like cattle? Or years later when African Americans were “free,” but couldn’t sit in the front of the bus? Maybe it was when women couldn’t vote or get a decent job? Sure, there are a lot of things about our world today that I would change, but my point is that the world has never been great. Whether it was better or not is surely a matter of opinion. My point is simply that we often look backwards with rose-colored glasses, and if we really think about it, maybe those days weren’t as good as we remember them.
Rather than going back to the good old days, whenever that might have been, I would suggest something else. Let’s try moving toward something better. But here’s the problem: even when we know that what he have isn’t always great, it is known. And while it isn’t necessarily perfect, it may be comfortable. Or, to say it differently, a known negative is often preferable to an unknown possibility.
Our text for this morning is a weird one, isn’t it? This seems especially strange in our 21st-century church culture where the success of a church is measured by the number of people sitting in the pews and the amount of money in the offering. To put it crudely, many churches measure their success by “butts and bucks.” Modern churches seem to be stumbling over one another, trying to get more people to come and more people to contribute financially.
Notice what Jesus does when he has a conversation with three different “would-be” disciples. Jesus doesn’t make the way any easier or bend over backwards to bring people in. He actually turns some people away, not because he doesn’t want more followers, but because they don’t seem to be fully committed.
The first person approaches Jesus and says, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
Jesus didn’t tell the guy no, you better just go back home. But he did tell him to get ready because his followers are going to be doing a lot of camping. In the first century it was common for a person to never leave their home village throughout their entire life, except for their trip to Jerusalem for the Jewish holidays. So Jesus’ response to this guy who says he will follow him wherever Jesus goes is to say, Are you sure? Because even the animals have a more consistent home than I do.
Jesus could have promised the guy that he would be home every weekend. He could have offered to put him up in the Hilton. But instead, he said that the animals have it better off when it comes to housing.
Jesus comes to the next would-be follower, and this time Jesus offers a personal invitation to follow him. But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
Logic would tell us that this man’s father recently passed away, or else he is just keeping his dead father around for some unknown reason. This would seem to me to be a reasonable request. His father has probably been dead less than one week and the man doesn’t seem to be putting this off indefinitely. Just let me burry my father, and then I’ll be right there with you.
I would think that this man is actually following one of the Ten Commandments, which says to honor your father and mother. A decent burial seems like the least one could do to honor their recently-deceased parent! But how does Jesus respond? With nonsense! Jesus said, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Jesus, that doesn’t even make sense. How are the dead going to bury anybody? Obviously, Jesus is speaking about the zombie apocalypse.
We could make some assumptions about what is going on here. Maybe Jesus is talking about allowing the “spiritually dead” bury the physically dead. Or maybe Jesus knows that this man’s father isn’t really dead, and it might be months, even years until he passes on. What I think is more likely is that Jesus knows that if this man goes home he will never come back to follow Jesus.
Notice that this man calls Jesus “lord.” He believes that Jesus is the messiah; today we might even call him a Christian. But when Jesus calls him to take his faith to the next level, the man has an excuse. I think it is a really good excuse, but it is an excuse, nonetheless.
Jesus then interacts with one additional would-be follower. Again, like the first potential follower, this one approaches Jesus. He says, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”
To me, this seems like an absolutely legitimate request. The guy that wanted to bury his father may have changed his mind about following Jesus after a couple of days. This man was asking for a few hours, maybe just a few minutes, to go and say goodbye to his parents, his wife, maybe his children. That just seems considerate to me. If you don’t tell your family where you are going, they will surely worry about you when you don’t come home.
Let’s just pause this story right there for a second, and turn back a bit to 1 Kings 19:19-21. This is the story of the prophet Elijah calling his disciple, Elisha. (That’s not confusing at all, now is it?):
19 So Elijah went from there and found Elisha son of Shaphat. He was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen, and he himself was driving the twelfth pair. Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak [mantle] around him. 20 Elisha then left his oxen and ran after Elijah. “Let me kiss my father and mother goodbye,” he said, “and then I will come with you.”
“Go back,” Elijah replied. “What have I done to you?”
21 So Elisha left him and went back. He took his yoke of oxen and slaughtered them. He burned the plowing equipment to cook the meat and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out to follow Elijah and became his servant.
Elijah sees Elisha out plowing, and he knows that Elisha is to be his successor. So Elijah puts his cloak, or his mantle, on Elisha, which symbolizes a passing of the responsibilities of being God’s prophet. Elisha seems to accept this responsibility. All he asks is that he be permitted to return home to kiss his parents goodbye. But Elijah protests this act, which again seems totally appropriate to me.
So what does Elisha do? It is hard to say if he actually says goodbye to his family or not. But what is clear is that Elisha dismantles his plow, uses the sharp blades to slaughter the oxen that he was using to pull the plow, makes a fire using the wood from the plow to cook the ox meat, and feeds the oxen to his neighbors.
That’s call being “all in.” There’s no going back after that.
So how does Jesus reply to the man that asked to first say goodbye to his family before leaving to follow Jesus? He said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
I can’t say for sure if Jesus had the story of Elijah and Elisha in mind when he spoke to this man who asked about going to say goodbye to his family before following Jesus, but it seems that there are a lot of similarities. Was the reference to plowing meant to make the person remember the story of the calling of Elisha? Was Jesus lifting up Elisha as the prime example of what was expected of a disciple of Jesus, to be “all in,” to put to death the old way of being? Perhaps, though I can’t say for sure.
I looked through several commentaries and read a few websites, and some people offer explanations for why Jesus spoke as he did, even though it seems absurd to us. But we can easily miss the point of this text if we try to understand every last detail. The point that Jesus is making is that something better is laying ahead and turning back, for whatever reason, could keep a person from joining in this kingdom of God that he came proclaiming.
There were many jobs that I did not like when growing up on the farm. Some were extremely hot, some extremely dirty, and others extremely stinky. But one job that everyone seemed to like to do was to plow. You get to drive the biggest tractors, which always had a cab, radio, and sometimes even air conditioning. We had gone to chisel plowing when I was growing up, which turns up less of the earth and causes less runoff, but every now and then we would hitch up the old moldboard plows and turn over some serious sod. Moldboard plowing is therapeutic, watching the soil flip over 180 degrees. It is fun to see worms squirm away as they are forced out of their relaxed state and exposed to the sun. And it is rewarding to watch the ground turn from green to brown as you travel back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
When you go to moldboard plow a field, you start in the middle. That first trip from the front of the field to the back is very important, because you are digging a trench called a furrow, which will be your guide as you plow the rest of the field. You want that furrow straight, and you want to divide the field evenly. So the obvious thing to do would be to get out your surveyor’s equipment, measure the distant across the field, divide it in half, and then first paint a line down the center of the field. But who has time to do all of that?
When I would plow, the first thing that I would do would be to find some object off in the distance, beyond the end of the field, and line that object up with the hood ornament on the tractor. I would choose a tree, a fence post, or a cow. No, not a cow. Something that would not move. That first pass through the field, you do not take your eye off that distant object. If you start looking around, you will drive crookedly and make a mess out of your furrow.
This is why Jesus says that no one who puts hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom. You need to have your eyes set on the goal, something off in the distance, not the things in your past.
But we know that this is hard. We always look back, and to make matters worse, when we look back we remember things as being better than they actually were. The good old days maybe weren’t as good as we remember them, but they were known, and there is comfort in the known, even if the known isn’t that great.
I remember a group of people from my church in Ohio who started a wonderful ministry where every Sunday throughout the summer they would take picnic meals up to a park in Cleveland and share this food with the homeless people who lived in the park. They didn’t just give them food, they ate with them. People from church would bring sack lunches each week to send with these families who had started this ministry. They not only fed the hungry, but they built relationships with these people.
One person who they built a relationship with was named “Jimmy.” Jimmy had his problems, most people do. He didn’t have work, he didn’t have a home, he didn’t have food, and he didn’t have family. But he wanted to change all of that. So the families from our church found him a place to live in our neighborhood, and they found him a job just a few steps away from his apartment. He wasn’t working at a Fortune 500 business, but it was a decent job and a decent apartment.
Jimmy worked that job and lived in the apartment. He even came to church every week…for about a month. Without any notice, he left and went back to living in the park in Cleveland.
My friends, change is hard. Change is scary. It is a lot easier to sit back and complain about the way things are than it is to do something about it, even when we know exactly what needs to be done.
When the would-be disciples find excuses for not following Jesus, I can’t imagine that this surprised Jesus one bit. What we know, no matter how bad life is, what is known is easier and often less intimidating that what is unknown.
But we are called to set our eyes on what is beyond us, to aim for that distant target, the fence post, the tree, the kingdom of God. As tempting as it might be to look back, we must strive to continue forward. No matter how scary that might be. We must be all in for the kingdom.