With what shocking urgency Jesus confronts his would-be followers in today’s Gospel reading!
As they were proceeding on their journey, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”
No “soft sell” here. Following Jesus offers no promise of comfort.
And to another he said, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord let me go first and bury my father.” But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
On the face of it, this statement sounds as if Jesus is not allowing the man to fulfill the Fourth Commandment by seeing to the proper burial of his father. But a bit of cultural background may make this challenge understandable. It was the expectation of that time and place that the eldest son would stay with his family of origin until the death of his father, for whose burial he would be responsible. In that context, Jesus’ challenge can be understood as an invitation to leave that eventual responsibility to another family member and to come and follow Jesus now. That is still a starkly unconventional move, but at least it is understandable. Still hanging in the air: the strong judgment on the rest of the family embedded in the statement: “Let the dead bury the dead.”
Another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” To him Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is for the kingdom of God.”
Not even a good-bye? Again, one has to wonder about filial piety.
The letters of Paul are evidence enough that early Christians lived a settled life in cities and maintained households. But those letters also demonstrate that following Jesus meant careful discernment regarding where to blend with the conventional world—and where to resist cultural pressure and choose to live otherwise. Notice, for example, what Paul says about sexual abuse (1 Corinthians 6) and Christians suing one another before the pagan judges (1 Corinthians 5).
The stark urgency of Jesus’ statements to those three would-be disciples is meant to shock us into some discerning prayer. It prompts me to ask if I don’t have some fresh choices to make about truly following Jesus today. It could mean some tough choices about how I spend my time, how I treat other people, how I eat and drink, how I go about my work, and what kind of entertainment I choose. Jesus put this in another way elsewhere: “Whoever loses his life for my sake and for the Gospel will save it.” If Jesus’ language sometimes shocks, it is to nudge us into the fullness of life.
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