The Rev. Melanie McCarley
As the disciples were going along the road someone said to Jesus, “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.”
The gospel lesson for today is difficult—to phrase it mildly. In this reading Jesus appears to be both discouraging to new coverts and unreasonably demanding of others. Dare I say, our Savior gives the impression he is lacking both in compassion if not also in reason. Indeed, were we to take this passage as a handbook on evangelism—well, then Heaven help us all.
We might reason that if Jesus really wanted these persons to follow him, he should have been a bit more accommodating. Of course we would agree that while the would-be followers should have been informed of the potential hazards of discipleship, yet, surely, following quickly on the heels of such a statement they should have been reminded that the blessings of the call of the Savior far outweigh something as paltry as harsh sleeping conditions. And really—what’s the rush? If Jesus is supposed to live up to the name of the “font of Compassion” what’s he doing encouraging children to abandon their filial responsibility to their dying parents. To say this sounds harsh almost isn’t emphatic enough.
The truth is, we should find this reading difficult. If we don’t, then I suggest we’re not really understanding the heart of what is being said. Put yourself in the place of the people who want to be disciples of the Lord. What would you have done? Would you abandon the comforts of home? Would you forsake a dying parent? Would you follow the Lord with the understanding that you are never to turn your head to look back? Only a fool would read this passage and proclaim that making a choice to follow Jesus in light of these statements is easy. And likewise, only a fool of a preacher would read this passage and try to tell you that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said. For, I believe he did. I believe he meant every word.
One aspect of this lesson which I find fascinating is how the conclusion is thrown back into the laps of ourselves, the listeners. For, you see, we know the challenge our savior issued to these would-be disciples, that’s plain enough. What we don’t know is the outcome. What did these people do? What choices did they make? The fact is, we don’t know. We’re left to ask ourselves the same question as that posed to the would-be disciples some two thousand years past. What would your answer be?
The questions facing the aspiring disciples in this reading are questions which face us all. And they revolve around two themes: freedom and time.
Some years ago, after a busy morning in the parish office, I leapt into my car on to way to visit some parishioners. Having calculated my arrival with few minutes to spare, it should surprise none of us that I found myself trailing, at a snail’s pace, two gigantic mowers, followed by a truck with a large sign plastered on its back. Realizing I had failed to plan for possible delays, I heaved an impatient sigh and settled myself in for a wait. And then I read the sign on the back of the truck: “Choose Today. Heaven or Hell. It’s your choice.” And I thought of the demands of the gospel.
The initial effect of my confrontation with the message “Choose today” was that it raised my hackles. It is a reflection of a style of evangelism I find heavy handed and all too frequently manipulative. But the more I thought about the message (I had some time, mind you—the mowers were really slow—and it was a windy road), I concluded that the message was essentially on target. “Choose today. Heaven or hell. It’s your choice.”
Like the sign plastered on the back of the truck, the challenge and demands of Jesus in the Gospel are both evocative and dramatic. The characters of those would-be disciples aren’t really important, nor, if you think about it, are the particular situations facing them at home. It is the questions themselves which are intended to underscore an essential truth about human nature—which is this. That given a choice, a good number of people will find a reason to delay making a commitment. I’ll grant you, the reasons might be good, but the end result is the same…a failure to commit. I know of a person who had been working on their Doctorate for twelve years. There is always, you see, some new point to be made, a question that should be rephrased, an element that must be researched. And so, there she is, constantly editing her manuscript, but never rising to the challenge of defending it.
And what do we make of the person who wants only to return home to bury a Father? The fact is, we don’t know how sick the Father is—or if he’s sick at all. It could be the Father could live for a week or ten years. And when he’s gone? What then? Will the person leave to follow his or her passion or will the concerns and obligations of family ties bind them tightly to path they were not meant to walk?
The Gospel (the Good News) demands an immediacy of response. Where many of us like to ponder—weigh our options and determine which course of action is in our best interest, Jesus demands that we set our considerations aside and make a decision. When God says: “Follow me.” The command doesn’t come with an addendum stating (only after two months, three days, when your credit cards are paid in full and your maiden Aunt is married). God wants your commitment. Today. And, what’s more, God is aware (perhaps even more than you) of what concerns and perceived obligations stand in the way of making such a decision.
The importance of immediacy may be likened to this. Imagine that you have been hit by a truck. You are injured—deathly ill due to a loss of blood. The paramedic arrives and politely leans down to inquire: “Would you like your transfusion now, or later?” The question is nothing short of ridiculous. The question God is asking you is that kind of questions—and it is being asked you with that kind of urgency. Does a delay make sense? It’s your choice.
It is interesting, is it not, that when stripped down to its elemental importance, that all other concerns and obligations of our lives seem to pale in comparison to the one decision that must be made. I believe this lesson in the Gospel is here to prompt us to consider—if we were to take the importance of our own salvation with the same measure of importance and urgency that we reserve for those occasions in which we fear for our health or the safety and well-being of our family, then the question of making a decision for or against the Gospel would hold primary importance. The reading today give us that kind of ultimatum. And make no mistake, God is waiting for your reply. In Jesus’ name. Amen.