Let the dead bury the dead

Pentecost 5

Luke 9:51-62

Marian Free

In the name of God who asks that we love him with all our hearts, our souls, our minds and our strength and that we love our neighbour as ourselves. Amen.

Three potential disciples, three unexpected, almost callous responses. What was Jesus thinking? What is going on here?

The first person offers to follow Jesus wherever he goes – a generous offer and, one would think, a sign of great faith. Instead of commending the person, or showing any gratitude, Jesus responds by pointing out that he has nowhere to go.  The second person is asked to follow Jesus. When he (quite reasonably) says: “first let me go and bury my father”. Jesus retorts: “Let the dead bury their own dead.” Lastly, another person offers to follow Jesus – after he has said ‘goodbye’ to his family. This time Jesus says: “‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God”.

It makes one wonder – does Jesus want anyone to follow him? He sets the bar so high and makes such unreasonable demands. Instead of welcoming, he berates those who want to be disciples and he questions how genuine their response to him is.

Does this mean that the only way to be disciples is to be homeless and to completely abandon one’s family and one’s responsibility? The latter almost certainly can’t be true as elsewhere Jesus criticises the Pharisees for neglecting their duty to their families.

It is possible that Jesus is just having a bad day. After all, Luke has just told us that the days were drawing near for him to be taken up. Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem. He has begun a journey to what he knows will be his death. That alone would make anyone impatient with those who didn’t understand the implications of what he was doing. Jesus is making it clear that being his disciple is not going to be easy – it involves commitment, courage and single-mindedness. Discipleship is not comfortable and there are costs to be borne.

It is reasonable to assume that Jesus speaks so harshly because he is conscious of his own destiny, and because he wants these would-be followers to understand to what they are committing themselves. His demands are shocking because he wants these potential disciples to focus their minds on what they are doing. Are they acting on the spur of the moment, or are they truly committed to Jesus mission? Are they looking for short-term fulfillment, or are they interested in sticking with Jesus for the long haul?

Jesus is being confrontational to help these people be clear about what they are doing. Are they ready and willing to make the sacrifices that discipleship requires? Are they seeking the values of the kingdom or are they still bound by human institutions and human expectations? Do they understand that following Jesus means adopting a new set of values, measuring themselves and their actions against the expectations of God and not by human standards? Do they realise that following Jesus is a matter of all or nothing – one is either a follower or one is not.

Jesus asks the disciples to leave everything and follow him. Jesus asks the same of us.

The wonder of it all is this: if we make Jesus our first priority, if we value following Jesus above all else, if we seek first the kingdom of God; everything else will fall into place. Our relationship with the world, with our families and our friends will not be diminished but enhanced because it will be informed by our relationship with God. Our fathers can be buried, our familes farewelled, we do not have to feel guilty about a warm bed and a roof over our head, but all that we do will be seen from the perspective of faith and we will be the richer for it.

When we give our whole lives to God, we discover that we lose nothing and gain everything.

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