As was common with many teachers of his day, as Jesus walked from place to place, a whole company of people walked with him – not just his coterie of disciples. As they did so, it was understood that they were listening to Jesus teach, discussing amongst themselves what he was saying, and even occasionally sidling up next to him to pose a question, or to make a remark. We see three abrupt examples of this behavior in Luke 9:57-62. We know from verse 51 that Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem, that he knows he is going there to die, and so it seems likely that these three encounters occurred while Jesus was on his way there.
Each candidate stands before Jesus pledging potential membership in his collective, but each offer to follow comes with some qualifications or modifications to the proposed agreement. In his response, as is sometimes the case, Jesus comes off as rather harsh. This section of Luke is often seen as useful for reckoning the cost of following Jesus, because following him is a call to a rigorous life of disciplined commitment, and a prerequisite course for following Jesus is coming face-to-face with and accepting that cost.
Would-be Follower #1
As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, “I will follow You wherever You go.” And Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” – Luke 9:57-58, NASB
Here we have a member of the crowd who wants very much to look like a disciple. He or she may even be sincere in the expressed desire to join Jesus’ company of disciples while being unaware of exactly what such a decision involves. The response from Jesus is clearly designed to begin that line of consideration. “Son, I do not believe you have fully considered what you are proposing. I am something of a vagabond. I have no permanent residence and typically use a stone for a pillow. If you follow me, that is what your life will look like. Are you ready for a life like that?“
In contemporary society, when one makes the statement that they wish to follow Jesus, our typical response is one of joy or elation. We encourage them and affirm their decision. Rarely do we see Christ-followers sit the deciding individual down, saying, “Wait just a minute. Not so fast. There are some things you really need to consider before making such a declaration.” Yet that is precisely what Jesus has just done. Jesus has pulled the reins back on this would-be follower and directed them to re-think their proposal.
Furthermore, following Jesus has the side-effect of making a man or woman intensely unpopular with the world. The apostle Paul warned Timothy of this in his second letter to Timothy. “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” I am struck by the certainty of that verse. Paul does not say, it could happen, or that it might happen. He said it will happen.
In light of that reality, we do not follow Jesus lightly or haphazardly. We do not follow Jesus because he is interesting. We do not follow Jesus for material gain or for status. We do not follow Jesus because it is a fad. We follow him because we can do nothing else but that. It is an all-consuming, life-altering resolution. A preparatory course for following Jesus is earnestly considering the implications of doing so.
Would-be Follower #2
He said to another man, “Follow me.” But the man replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” – Luke 9:59-60, NIV-1978
This would-be follower is distinguished from the first in that it is Jesus who initiates the discussion, telling the man, “Follow me.” We do not know what precipitated that call to follow, but we do know what happened immediately afterward. The man agreed to follow Jesus on the condition that he first be allowed to go bury his father. Taken at face value, it seems that there is a pending funeral, and once that service is completed, the man is willing to come follow Jesus.
As a young believer, this passage bothered me a great deal. It seemed so harsh, so devoid of the compassion I had come to know in Jesus. It was not until I figured out that this man’s father is not dead, or even seriously ill, that it began to make sense to me. Had this man’s father just died, he would not even be here for Jesus to extend the invitation to follow him. Rather, he would be busy with burial arrangements since it was the custom of the Jews to bury their dead on the same day they died. If this man’s father were alive, but seriously (terminally) ill, he would be asking Jesus for a healing, rather than time to complete burial rites.
The society in the context of this passage is one in which a male, particularly the eldest son, has a sacred responsibility to stay at home and care for his father until his father is in the ground. The man called to follow Jesus in this event is not asking to finalize a pending burial, but is instead asking permission to care for his father until his father is resting peacefully in his grave.
Even today, this same idiom is used in the middle-east, and everyone understands what is meant when they hear it. If a young Middle Eastern man announces his intentions to immigrate to the West, his friends will gently rebuke him asking, “Will you not first bury your father?” In doing so, they are imploring the man to recognize his father’s authority, and his responsibility to his father. Once the man’s father is dead, the young man is free to do whatever he pleases. What this would-be disciple is telling Jesus is that even if he wants to follow, he cannot do so until his father’s authority is buried with him in the grave.
In Luke 15, we have the story from Jesus commonly known as “the prodigal son,” a parable in which a brash young man approaches his father and demands his share of the inheritance. In sharp contrast to the man who has just told Jesus, “I must first bury my father, and my father’s authority,” the prodigal in Luke 15 has quite rudely said to his father, “Father, I can no longer wait around for you to die. I want my inheritance now.” As long as the man’s father is alive, the father’s authority is intact, despite the fact that the man is thirty and the father is fifty-five. This cultural reality is the source of the conflict between this would-be disciple and Jesus.
Would-be Follower #3
Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” – Luke 9:61-62, NIV-1978
As with our second would-be disciple, the response of Jesus to this man comes off as a bit harsh. We reason within ourselves that all the man wants, after all, is to say “Good-bye.” What could be so wrong with that? We know that Elisha was allowed to kiss his father and mother good-bye when Elijah called him to his prophetic ministry. Indeed, it would seem rather rude to do otherwise, would it not? What kind of family member disappears without so much as a word? If one of my children did such a thing, I would be deeply concerned regarding their whereabouts and their unannounced disappearance. How many faces have we seen on milk cartons of those who have simply vanished with no warning and no trace?
The reality of the event is that this man is not asking to say a simple good-bye to family members. He wants to “apotaksasthai” – to take his leave of them. Consider yourself at a gathering with friends when you realize the hour is getting late. You are likely to locate the host who invited you to the gathering so that you can take your leave of them. This is not unlike what the man is explaining to Jesus. He is proposing that he be allowed run home quickly and obtain permission to separate himself from the family, suggesting that he withdraw from that arrangement. The same term is used of a soldier who is attached to, and detached from, an assignment.
The earliest known gospel manuscript translation is the Syriac version, commonly called The Diatessaron, a harmony of the Gospels done by Tatian in the late second century AD. In this early melding of the four gospels, Tatian translates the response of the third would-be disciple something like, “…let me go and explain my case to those at home.” Similarly, Eugene Peterson’s The Message says it in this way, “but first excuse me while I get things straightened out at home,” and Young translates it, “but first permit me to take leave of those in my house.“
These translators knew perfectly well that the man was not going home to say good-bye to mom and dad, but rather that he is going home to get permission from dad to allow him to follow this new rabbi. He wants to appear willing to follow Jesus, but as with the second disciple, he recognizes that he must secure permission from the head of his house. This permission is not likely to be granted, thus the man leaves himself well-positioned to appear as one who would have followed Jesus if only his father were more understanding and willing to allow him to do so.
Matthew Henry suggests that for the man “to go and bid them farewell that were at home at his house would be to expose himself to the strongest solicitations imaginable to alter his resolution.” Fausset, Jamieson, and Brown take a similar view, saying, “Those Hindu converts of our day who, when once persuaded to leave their spiritual fathers in order to ‘bid them farewell which are at home at their house,’ rarely return to them.” There can be no divided loyalties with the follower after Christ. When I make my decision to follow, I cannot be second-guessing, and I cannot serve two masters. I cannot be faithful to, or responsible to more than one leader.
As one who grew up in Kansas farming communities, the plowing metaphor resonates with me. Every young man or woman taught to drive a non-GPS-enabled tractor knows that you pick a point on the horizon and you drive straight toward that point. Otherwise, all your plowed rows are wavy and crooked. You do not veer left or right, and you certainly do not look behind you. The Christ-follower single-mindedly keeps his or her eyes on one thing, and that is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Victoriously in Christ!
– Adapted from The Christ Saturated Life, Chapter 2 – Prerequisite Courses, by Damon J. Gray
– Next week: Part 4, Ignoring Prerequisite Courses
Over to you: What fine-sounding excuses have you used, or heard others use, to avoid following Jesus without wavering?