No turning back (Luke 9:57-62)
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, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet 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 his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Luke 9 v57-62
Now, I don’t know how this passage sounds to you. I must confess I find myself sympathising with these men. I mean, is it really unreasonable to want to bury your father? Is it not a bit unrealistic to expect someone not to say goodbye to his family before following Jesus? And must every disciple be homeless? What are we to make of these three encounters?
The first man speaks up by his own initiative, pledging to follow Jesus wherever He goes. Matthew 8:19 reveals that this man was a scribe – an expert in the law who administered its outworking. He is confident in His dedication and ability to follow. It sounds a bit like Peter in Matthew 16, when he says he’ll follow Jesus even if everyone else abandons Him and Jesus has to tell him he will deny Him three times. So, this man may mean well, but does he understand what discipleship costs?
Remember, Jesus said we must deny ourselves, take up our cross daily and follow Him (Luke 9:23). What will it mean to follow Him everywhere? Jesus points out that He has no place to settle down. Even foxes and birds have homes, but not Jesus. Ever since His baptism by John, Jesus has been an itinerant, traversing Galilee, Judea and Samaria. Looking forward, He can’t settle down because He’s going to Jerusalem to die and to depart this world.
Jesus shows this man that being His disciple, means putting Jesus before comfort. It was easy for the man to say He would go anywhere Jesus led him, but he clearly thought that would be a good deal for him. He must have thought, like James and John, that Jesus was going to establish the kingdom on earth. It’s easy to say you’ll follow someone you think is heading to a palace. Jesus will have comfort and the man will be with Jesus. But this man has miscalculated. Until He comes in glory, following Jesus will mean self-denial.
The call to deny self is a call to turn away from comfort and never to settle down in this world because it’s not our home. It won’t normally mean literal homelessness – that’s not how most disciples lived after Pentecost – but it will mean sacrifice, prioritising God’s kingdom above our own desires. It will mean giving as much as we can for the cause of the gospel, for example choosing not to live in the biggest house and drive the best car or to pursue the most lucrative career, but rather using every opportunity, gift and resource for God’s glory and the good of others with the priority of making disciples for Christ.
The second man does not approach Jesus. Rather, Jesus calls him to follow, but he responds with an excuse – let me bury my father first. Jesus responds, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God”. Now that sounds harsh, does it not? But, just as the response to the first man is not to be taken literally – Christians won’t usually be homeless – so this should not be taken as an absolute call on Christians to neglect family. Indeed, the New Testament clearly teaches a Christian responsibility to family. Jesus upheld the Old Testament law (Matthew 5), the command about honouring parents is repeated in Ephesians 6 and 1 Timothy 5:8 says starkly: “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever”. So, Jesus isn’t saying we shouldn’t care for our parents.
What, then, is the issue? I see a couple of possibilities. The first is to do with timing. It seems unlikely this man’s father was already dead. Bodies were not kept for long before being buried in that culture and climate. It’s possible his father is old, maybe ill, perhaps expected to die, but it’s equally possible he was fighting fit. This might be a request to delay following Jesus for an indefinite period. It rests on another misunderstanding of Jesus’ mission. The first man’s offer to follow wherever Jesus went was misplaced – he could not follow to the cross. This man’s request to bury his father is misguided – Jesus doesn’t have unlimited time. There’s a sense of urgency in His determined progress towards Jerusalem.
This man won’t have unlimited time either. There’s a sense of urgency in Jesus’ call to follow. It’s a sad fact that many people miss out on the kingdom because they think they can live as they like for a time and do business with God later. Sadly, they don’t always have that chance! The only time we can be certain of is the present. Now is the day of salvation.
There may be another reason why this man shouldn’t bury his father first. It’s true that the New Testament expects Christians to care for their families, but Jesus also warned that loyalty to family may be a barrier to discipleship. In Luke 14:26, He says: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” This sounds even more shocking than Luke 9! Do Christians really have to hate our family members? Well, not in the way we would mean. Jesus is speaking in a figure of speech familiar to first century Jews. They used the word ‘hate’ comparatively to emphasise strength of love. Jesus is saying their loyalty to Him must make loyalty to family seem like rejection and, by comparison with their love for Him, their love for relatives will look like hatred.
This might still sound shocking, but it expresses a vitally important truth. I’m sure you want to be a good son or daughter, mother or father, husband or wife. But how can you be the best you can in these roles? You might think it’s by working hard on that relationship, investing all your energy into it. Push your children. Sacrifice yourself for their progress. Give them every opportunity and every gift you can. Lay down your life for your parents. Dote on your spouse. But, when we do that, we soon turn our loved one into an idol. And we cannot truly love what we idolise. We turn idols to our own ends. My children become my means to my sense of fulfilment. Their achievements prove I’m a good parent. They make me proud. I live my dreams through them. Or my love for my wife becomes selfish – I love her because I want her to love me.
And my loyalty to my parents could become an idol too, as it seems it was for this man. He thought couldn’t follow Jesus until He had done his duty by His father. This seems far-fetched in our culture because, frankly, we don’t honour parents, or older people generally, in the way first century Jews did. That’s not so for all cultures today, where people feel a greater sense of duty to honour their parents that may even keep them from professing faith in Christ until they have died.
Jesus says, “leave the dead to bury their dead”. If this man doesn’t follow Jesus, he will remain spiritually dead like his unbelieving siblings. But, if he follows Jesus and proclaims the kingdom of God, spiritually dead people will come to new life. Evangelism must have priority over loyalty to family or customs of this world. There’s no point doing good deeds for someone that bless their body or make them feel honoured, if they die in their sins. We must share the gospel. That may put our relationship with them at risk. Jesus also acknowledged that. In Matthew 19:29, He says, “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” But, by sharing the gospel with them, we might see them entering the kingdom. Putting ‘respect’ for people above the responsibility to share the truth with them is not truly loving.
So, loyalty to Jesus must shape our family relationships. What your children need most is not a great set of advantages in life but your living example of true discipleship. What your parents need most is not your faithful care but the gospel. What your spouse needs most is for you to love Jesus more than you love him or her.
Then there’s the third man. Like the first man, although with less bravado, he says he will follow Jesus, but like the second man he immediately sets a condition on when he will do so. He wants to go home to say goodbye to his family before following Jesus. That seems innocent enough. It doesn’t seem to be a request for indefinite leave of access like the second man, although some commentators suggest that is his problem – the farewells expected in that culture would entail a long run of parties, during which the man might have a change of heart, especially if people pleaded with him to stay.
That may well be the concern, but we must also remember that Jesus knew the hearts of people. He knows this man personally. Indeed, His responses to each of these three men are tailor-made. He puts His finger on the issue that would keep each from following. He does the same in our lives too. Jesus knows the real issue for this third man is not that he wants to say a quick goodbye but that his heart is torn. He’s not fully decided and less than totally committed. And, Jesus says, you can’t plough in a straight line if you’re looking over your shoulder. Like Lot’s wife, who looked back as they fled Sodom and was turned into a pillar of salt, there is great peril if we out taking the name ‘Christian’ then go back to things we know He called us to leave behind, whether pleasures or people. The call is to take up your cross daily. Not just an initial choice, but a repeated commitment.
So, these three men’s requests seem natural when we look from this world. But when we look from the perspective of God’s kingdom, we see differently.
The first man can’t find a settled home in this world by following Jesus, but, by denying His desire for comfort, He can find the promise of an eternal home in God’s presence.
The second man thinks his duty will be done if he buries his father, but by following Jesus and proclaiming the kingdom of God he may see his father come to faith in Jesus and ready for the resurrection of the righteous unto eternal life.
The third man wants to say goodbye to his family, but Jesus says he must look only in one direction. Only by loving Jesus more than His household might he cut a straight furrow for them to follow him into God’s kingdom.
Now, by this point you might be thinking this is an impossible standard. How can anyone do it? A single glance back spelt doom for Lot’s wife. A look back to the world after professing faith in Jesus makes us unfit for the kingdom. How, then can anyone be saved? The answer is found in the opening verse of our passage, verse 51. “Jesus set His face to go to Jerusalem”.
He was the original homeless man putting the kingdom above comfort.
He didn’t abandon His responsibility to His mother – from the cross He entrusted her to the care of John (John 19:25-29) – but He put obedience to His heavenly Father above His human instinct to be there to bury her when her time came and in doing so, He became her Saviour and ours.
He never looked back, but kept ploughing His furrow, even when the Roman scourge ploughed furrows in His back.
Jesus calls us to live as He lived. But His death is the answer to our failure to live that life. He lived the perfect life we couldn’t live. He died the death we deserved to save us. Our hope is not in our ability to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus. If it were, we would have no hope at all. Rather, our hope is in the One we follow, God’s perfect Son. And, joyfully fixing our eyes on Him, we find freedom and power to say no to our own sinful desires.
We don’t know if any of those three men continued to follow Jesus or if they walked away to a more settled life and a lost eternity. We do know James and John persisted, despite their wrong ambitions and short tempers and Jesus’ rebuke. They lived and died for their Lord – James beheaded by Herod and John exiled to the island of Patmos.
And the challenge is this to us. Now is the time of salvation and the opportunity to proclaim the kingdom. Samaria may have been reached, but many across the world still aren’t. Who will follow Jesus and, leaving comfort and family, go to them? Where the gospel has already been preached, many still haven’t heard or haven’t responded, perhaps even among our own families.
Will we follow Jesus and proclaim the gospel, or will we allow some other loyalty or value to have priority over Him?
This post is based on a sermon I preached in Bethany Church, Finaghy, on Sunday 15th May 2022.