June 27, 2010
Luke 9: 51-62
Ursulines, Willow Dr., N.R.
“No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9: 62).
Following the theology of the day, St. John Bosco grabbed that verse as evidence of the danger inherent in walking away from a religious vocation once one had set out upon that vocational path.*
The entire passage is really about discipleship, about following Jesus attentively and wholeheartedly. Having just predicted his own passion and death—our gospel last Sunday (Luke 9:22)—and predicted it a 2d time (9:44), and foreshadowed it in his conversation with Moses and Elijah during his transfiguration (9:30-31)—all this is in Luke’s 9th chapter, like our passage today—Jesus “resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem” because “the days for [his] being taken up were fulfilled” (9:51). These are the days for the accomplishment of his Father’s plan, for him to do the work of our redemption.
As you’ll recall, last Sunday’s gospel also included the teaching that the disciple must take up her cross daily and follow Jesus, walk with Jesus on a road of self-loss, self-denial, self-emptying (9:23-24). The various examples in today’s gospel reading reinforce that teaching.
If we would follow Jesus, we don’t give way to anger, and we don’t wield authority with a heavy hand, much less a heartless one. Jesus doesn’t snuff a smoldering wick nor snap a bruised reed (Matt 12:20); he doesn’t call down fire and brimstone on an unwelcoming village nor permit his followers to do so. He’s gentle with the erring and the reluctant, giving them time to open up to his mercy. In fact, Luke will later record how many of the Samaritans accepted Jesus’ teaching when Philip the Deacon brought it to them, and the same John who now wants to toast them will be one, instead, to call down on them the grace of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:4-25).
As Jesus and the apostles proceed toward Jerusalem—as Jesus proceeds toward the fulfillment of his mission—3 people offer to join him on his journey. As he’d told the 12 earlier, his journey involves carrying a cross, and those who would join him must carry it as well. To these 3 he gives particular warnings; specifically, examples of what they must leave behind when they come with him.
The 1st says, “I’ll follow you wherever you go” (9:57). Jesus advises him that being a disciple means leaving behind comfort; it means never being quite settled; it means always being restless. “The Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head” (9:58) in this world. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in” our Creator—and there are limits to how much that’s possible in this life. We’ll never be fully at home in this world; “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). The journey we set out upon with Jesus is indeed toward Jerusalem—the heavenly Jerusalem (like Bunyan’s pilgrim)—and we’ll have ample hardships on the way.
Christ calling disciples (Tissot)
The 2d would-be disciple says, when Jesus invites him to follow, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father” (9:59). Filial obligations are certainly important, and perhaps none more so than accompanying one’s father (or mother) to death and burial. Yet Jesus responds, apparently harshly, “Let the dead bury their dead. You, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (9:60). Following Jesus, being an apostle, announcing the kingdom—this is one’s highest priority, one’s highest duty. Even family responsibilities are 2d to that. Most of us have known preachers of the kingdom who became missionaries, so dedicated—especially in the years before air travel was common—that they’d leave home and not see their families for years, if ever. That’s total dedication to following Jesus!
The 3d would-be disciple, like the 1st one also is a volunteer. He says, “I’ll follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home” (9:61). He seems to be imitating Elisha in our 1st reading (1 Kings 19:20), doesn’t he? But Jesus doesn’t answer like Elijah. Instead, he tells this volunteer that there’s no looking back. Following Jesus is that urgent. Following Jesus supersedes any earthly relationship, even a familial one. We might think of Thomas More, whose memorial we kept last week, sadly, very reluctantly, leaving behind his dear wife and four children for the sake of God’s kingdom rather than Henry’s.
Choosing Jesus as our Master, choosing Jesus as the one who will guide us to eternal life, to the heavenly Jerusalem, may mean forgoing some of the comforts of life, not to mention any pretense of luxury. It’s a commitment with its own obligations and a new set of relationships that surpass those of a citizen of this world. And it’s a total commitment. We can’t be a part-time disciples of Jesus.
* “Importance of Following a Vocation,” in the introduction to the Constitutions, 1875. Eng. ed. of 1957, p. 7.