When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
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, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 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 a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Whatever we may say or think about Jesus, it’s hard to accuse him of false advertising. In today’s scripture reading, Jesus is brutally honest about the cost of following in his way.
Our passage begins with the words, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” These words in chapter 9 mark the beginning of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem that continue for many chapters of Luke’s Gospel. From this point, Jesus will be “on the way” to Jerusalem, where he will suffer and die.
Jesus’ journey toward crucifixion is a brutally honest truth, accompanied by another hard truth: Jesus calls us to join him on his journey. He tells his followers about the difficulties of walking in his way, a way that few want to walk.
We all love to welcome people to be included in our family of faith as we extol the joys of being part of Christ’s church. Many congregations put catchy phrases displayed on their front signs: “The church of friendly folks and warm hearts.” “Here you’ll find a home of love and acceptance.” “Hurting? Jesus cares. This is a place of healing.” “You’ve got questions? We’ve got answers. Come join us.”
But imagine if a church took seriously the message of the Gospel: “Come die with us!” Or, “Need a cross to carry? We’ve got the perfect fit!” Or, “Looking for a reason to suffer? We’ve got the Savior for you!”
Well, of COURSE, we don’t want to hear that! We want to be inspired and uplifted. We want to be told how to be perpetually happy, how to feel good, all the time. We want to find the answers to all our desires. Please, just give us the gospel of common sense and easy answers.
And that IS what many churches provide. Many worshippers in our country are being told how to have happier marriages, how to find satisfaction in their work, how to live with a positive attitude. Some of it may be good, common sense advice. But that’s all it is – advice – not much different than the advice you might get from any guru of whom you ask, “How can I get what I want out of life?”
In light of today’s Gospel reading, here’s a somewhat challenging question about the gospel of common sense: What if Jesus didn’t come to us to enable us to live better, happier, more comfortable lives? What if the way of Jesus is a way that’s actually very different from the way of easy answers? What if his way, the way of the cross, is a path that no reasonable, sensible, happiness-seeking person would want to walk?
In today’s Gospel, Jesus begins his journey down a narrow path that few want to travel. On his way, he invites people to walk with him. He sends a couple of his disciples on ahead to a Samaritan village. We read, “But the Samaritan villagers refused to welcome him.” Why? Not because of his interpretation of scripture, or because they found his criticism of leaders and authorities offensive. They reject walking with him because of the way he’s walking. When James and John want to flamingly retaliate against those Samaritans, Jesus dismisses the whole idea. It’s almost like he barely notices the Samaritans as he heads to Jerusalem – because he’s concentrating so hard on the road ahead.
Soon, he’s far more graciously received by others who say they want to follow him wherever he’s going. But when they hear Jesus talk about the specifics, they think twice.
While animals have a safe place to burrow, Jesus has “no place to lay his head.” One of the would-be disciples has just suffered the loss of his father, and he wants to first give his dad a decent burial. Jesus responds with a terse “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of God’s kingdom.” (Not the most gracious words to a grieving person.) Another says, “I’ll go with you; [but] let me first bid farewell to my family.” Jesus rebukes him, implying that he’s unfit for God’s kingdom. Talk about expectations that are hard to live up to!
What’s key to today’s passage is that what matters isn’t Jesus’ rejection by the Samaritans. What matters are the good, believing, dedicated people who say, “Yes, I’ll follow you Jesus” – THEY are the objects of concern. It’s we followers – not the rejectionists – who are Jesus’ focus. It’s we believers who Jesus is speaking to.
“Lord, I find you very interesting, and I really want to become more spiritual,” we say. Jesus replies, “Are you ready to leave your parents, family, home for me?”
“Lord, your church is filled with nice people who seem a lot like me and my family. Sign me up!” Jesus asks, “Are you willing to go with me among people whom you despise and try to be my church with people who are really different from you?”
Presumably many others came before Jesus, also saying they’d follow him anywhere, only to fall away when Jesus specifically told them where he was going. His way is not the way of good common sense, the way of comfort and contentment. His is the way of the cross.
How many among us, having put “a hand to the plow,” enthusiastic and energized and ready to serve, have decided that we aren’t really fit for this path when it means moving out of our comfort zones? How many of us respond to Jesus’ call to follow – with excuses? How many of us ask ourselves “Should I stay or should I go?” and end up staying where we feel safe?
The Rev. Raquel Lettsome, a pastor and author, asks some provocative questions:
Do we tend to wait for God’s action rather than getting our feet wet? Are you at the Red Sea, waiting for God to do something? Or are you at the Jordan River, willing to get your feet wet so as to enter into the promised land?
Are you waiting for someone else to speak justice? To call for righteousness? Or will you embrace the moment and proclaim the promise of God’s favor?
Are you waiting for others to stand up for those our world rejects and reviles? Or will you seize the moment and declare that God’s love is for all?
Today’s story tells us that following Jesus means the Kingdom of God takes priority over everything else in our lives. Following Jesus means serving the purposes of compassion, justice, peace, and freedom, even in the face of rejection, isolation, and persecution.
Every day, we need to ask ourselves: Does God’s presence, does Jesus, make a noticeable difference in my life? Does the grace, mercy, and love of God trump our plans and shape our lives? Or do we shape our faith to fit the lives we’ve already got planned out?
What if Jesus has come to us not to be used for what WE want, but instead to use us for what HE wants? What if Jesus wants more than an hour a week from us, more than our warm feelings, more than our good intentions? What if Jesus wants nothing less than full commitment to the creation of God’s kingdom on earth?
As a follower of Jesus, you may not always be able to keep up with him or to stick with him at every turn in the road. But still, you are there, on the road with Jesus. You may have reservations, questions, commitments, and loves that stifle you from complete, totally dedicated discipleship. Still, you are there, on the road with Jesus. You know that Jesus may tell you things that you don’t want to hear, truth about yourself that you’ve been avoiding. Still, you are there, on the road with Jesus.
Amidst the conflicting calls and competing demands of our lives, may we all continue to be there, on the road with Jesus, and follow in his way, together. Amen.