Sermon preached on Luke 9:57-61 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 02/20/2022 in Novato, CA.
Today, we have another passage where Jesus teaches on discipleship through dialogues with three would-be disciples. I would note that the discipleship that is in mind here likely especially had in mind becoming part of that group that traveled around with Jesus and closely followed along with him in his ministry. Nonetheless, there are certainly applications here for all disciples of Jesus. As we study through each of these three dialogues, let us observe that Jesus is speaking in proverbs here. He’s not speaking in ordinary, straightforward speech here. No, these are proverbial statements that he speaks in response to each would-be disciple to challenge them on whether they are truly ready to follow him. Because of this, realize that Jesus is not giving absolute commands to be woodenly applied to all discipleship. Rather, there is something enigmatic here, and like all proverbs, you would be a fool to just simplistically apply it to any and all circumstances. Instead, we need to use wisdom to carefully consider what these proverbs teach us about the nature of discipleship and then apply them from there. We will endeavor toward such wisdom today as we seek to follow Jesus as his disciples. We will then consider each of these three dialogues one-by-one today.
First then, we begin with the first dialogue in verses 57-58 between Jesus and a would-be disciple. In this one, it is the would-be disciple who initiates the conversation with a bold declaration that he will follow Jesus. Notice, he doesn’t just say that he will follow Jesus. His statement is bolder than that. He says he will be follow Jesus wherever Jesus goes. There is much confidence in that statement, but Jesus’ proverb in response challenges the person. Did the person truly understand what such a commitment would look like? Had he truly counted the cost before making such a grand promise?
So then, Jesus’ proverb is there in verse 58. Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Again, we note that Jesus doesn’t just come out and plainly say whether this man would be able to keep his bold promise to follow Jesus wherever he went. Rather, in such enigmatic words he speaks poetically here a pithy statement to consider. And yet that is what makes his words timeless and not just something specific to the would-be disciple who made such a promise. So then, Jesus’s words here employ the imagery of animals in their normal, natural habitat. Foxes and birds typically have their homes. That’s true for most creatures. Will and I were talking about spiders recently and commenting how tarantulas have different homes than most spiders since they typically live in the ground in holes. So, animals typically have their own homes where they live and especially sleep. And its not just foxes and birds and animals in general. That’s true for humans as well. Ordinarily, humans have their own homes. Yes, it is not always the case. Some people are indeed homeless. But it is not the norm. That’s why we have fancy words like vagrant, hobo, tramp, etc. to describe various specific circumstances for why someone doesn’t have their own permanent home. My point is that it is normal and ordinary for animals and humans to have homes. But Jesus, the Son of Man, did not have a home. In other words, there was something extraordinary that Jesus did not have a home of his own.
Let us appreciate again how Jesus in Luke’s gospel continues to develop this self-revelation of Jesus as the Son of Man. It began with repeated descriptions of the great authority and power Jesus had as the Son of Man. But recently it has turned to be used repeatedly to describe the suffering ahead for Jesus. This usage continues when he speaks of the Son of Man not having a place to lay his head. And realize what he refers to her. It’s especially in the context of back in verse 51. Jesus’s ascension back to heaven is fast approaching. He’s going to be leaving this earth soon. But first he has to go to Jerusalem where he will be betrayed, arrested, and put to death on the cross. So, verse 51 said that because of this, he has eyes fixed on Jerusalem and heading on his way there. And yet, this is his present work in his role as the Son of Man. He has a work of suffering ahead before he can enter into his subsequent glory. That means no home for him or whomever is with him while he is on his way to Jerusalem.
We should add that while he is heading toward Jerusalem, he is not just going straight there. We’ll be seeing how he is doing a lot of ministry in route to the cross, preaching in various towns and villages along the way. And what we’ll see in chapter 10, in verses 4-8, is that this involves in each town they enter to find someone who will open up their home and show hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. And so, Jesus’ words here about the Son of Man having no home means that in the immediate any disciples who are closely following with Jesus will literally also not have a home.
Did this would-be follower understand this when he vowed to go with Jesus wherever he went? Was he prepared to follow Jesus to that end? Was he willing to deny himself such typical creature comforts for the sake of following Jesus? And not having a home would surely just be one example of many different things he would have to deny himself. Was he prepared for that?
We don’t see the would-be disciple’s response, and that is good because it reminds us that this is more for our benefit now. It gives us time to ask these questions of our own discipleship. If you are intending to follow Jesus, have you properly appreciated what is involved in that? And I’m not talking simply about not having a home, because I don’t think that is the most immediate application for us today. Yes, some missionaries and some ministers find themselves in such literal circumstances today, but it is not the ordinary lot for a Christian. Yet, there is something to understand that discipleship still involves forms of self-denial for the sake of the kingdom of God.
But I think an application that we should especially take is to understand where our true home is. What do I mean? Well, consider Jesus. Even after the cross in Jerusalem, he still did not take up a home here. Rather he then ascended back up to heaven. There, he did find a home, a glorious home. In John 14:2, Jesus would speak in advance of his ascension that he was going to his Father’s house; a place with many rooms – a word really referring to your home where you would lay your head. That is where Jesus went in the ascension, and he said he was going there to prepare places for us there too. And so that’s the biggest application I take from this first proverb here by Jesus. As disciples, we need to keep a vision of where our ultimate home will be. That is what Jesus himself did while on earth. As his disciples, no matter whether we have an actual home on this earth or not, let us remember that getting to our ultimate home in glory is our real goal. In the picture of eternity, any home we have here and now are more like a motel room in the big picture. Let us take that perspective from this first point.
Turning now to our second point, let us look at the second dialogue which is found in verses 59-60. Here, it is Jesus who initiates the conversation with this would-be disciple. He calls that person with the simple words, “Follow me.” That is when the person responds by asking for permission to first go and bury his father. Jesus again responds with another proverb of sorts, which is there in verse 60. He says, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Let us note that surely Jesus is not saying that Christians should never attend funerals, especially of loved ones. Jesus is also elsewhere on record as criticizing people who don’t honor their fathers and mothers by claiming that they are giving that honor to religious service instead, Mark 7:9-13.
So then, in the immediate incident, we recognize that this man had a rather extraordinary opportunity that while Jesus was passing through, Jesus had issued this very special call to the man to follow him. Elsewhere we see those same words issued to various of his inner circle of twelve disciples. And in those instances, those of the twelve respond to such an invitation by dropping what they are doing and beginning to follow Jesus. And so, this was not just a general call to be a disciple of Christ, but an invitation to something special with Jesus. This was something that in the grand scheme of things is not only a once in a lifetime opportunity but once in history opportunity. But unlike say Peter and Andrew who immediately left their fishing nets and began to follow Jesus when he called them, this man asked if he could do something “first”. He was willing to accept Jesus’ special invitation, but he desired to do it on his own terms, and so he tries to negotiate the details here.
But in classic Jesus fashion, he uses this for another teaching moment. To say let the dead bury the dead is to use the word dead in two different senses. It’s to say let those who are spiritually dead, who have not known the true life that is found in Jesus, let them attend to the burial of the physical dead. By Jesus speaking in such way he implies that to follow Jesus is the way of life, something Jesus also has said explicitly elsewhere. In other words, this parable-like statement of Jesus brings again to our attention the realities not only of physical life and death in the here and now, but also to the more important state of spiritual life and spiritual death. And it also then draws our attention to our final state, to the reality of eternal life versus the death of eternal damnation.
And so, Jesus uses this dialogue about the person’s father needing to be buried to get us to spend some time in relative comparison in matters of life and death, physically, spiritually, and eternally. Disciples of Christ should have a concern in all of these, but they are not all of the same import. As but a simple example, you might imagine someone today who has taken every precaution possible to try to not contract COVID-19 yet doesn’t know the LORD. Taking reasonable precautions for your physical health is important, but obviously our eternal state must inherently be something of even greater importance. Jesus’ dialogue with this man reminds us to have these considerations and priorities before us as his disciples.
I would also like to note in Jesus’ response here that he also then explicitly references the kingdom of God. I think we should see the kingdom of God in the backdrop for all three of these dialogues, though he explicitly mentions it here and in the final dialogue. In this one, Jesus mentions it to say that the man should be concerned to be proclaiming the kingdom of God instead of the burying the dead. I think this adds another important dimension to this dialogue because the contrast is between burying the physically dead by the spiritually dead with the need to proclaim the way of life to the spiritually dead, so that they might be made alive and become a part of the coming kingdom of God. And so, this gets us to consider that our discipleship is not only something to benefit ourselves in terms of eternity, but also looking to help others too.
Let’s turn now in our third point to consider the final dialogue with a would-be disciple in verses 61-62. Here again, the conversation begins with a man approaching Jesus with a promise to follow him, but he too has something he wants to do first. First, he wants to say goodbye to his family. Again, Jesus’ response isn’t a straightforward yes or no, but he again answers enigmatically with a proverb. In this case, Jesus is quoting an ancient proverb that can be found in literature all the way back to 800 BC. He says in response to the man’s desire to first go and say goodbye that “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Based on Jesus’ proverbial response, we see that he calls into consideration one’s focus and vision. The analogy of a person plowing a field speaks to this. When you plow you better be watching where you are going. You don’t want to be looking back all the time. You need to keep your eyes on the road. Isn’t this why cars today have rear view mirrors, so you can keep your eyes forward and on the road when you are driving? So, when this man asks to first go back home and say goodbye, he raises the question of focus. Will this man be focused ahead on the work of discipleship as he follows Christ? Will he keep his focus on moving forward toward the coming kingdom of God? Or will be constantly looking back, home sick for his old life? Again, for Jesus to answer this in a proverb is to raise the question especially for us to consider in terms of our discipleship.
I would also note about Jesus’ response that his use of a plowing metaphor in context speaks further about the work involved in following Jesus. In just a few verses, in 10:2, Jesus will say that the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. Basically, Jesus is saying there that the work of proclaiming the kingdom and making converts and disciples is ready to bear much fruit. But that there is a great need for more current disciples to be proclaiming to others the coming of the kingdom. And so the idea of here of plowing a field is a very fitting agricultural image. Disciples of Jesus are part of the work of looking to grow a crop of converts unto a wonderful spiritual harvest. And yet, while Jesus will say next chapter how much he needs more workers for that harvest, today’s passage says that not everyone will be fit to be such workers. I love that contrast. There is a great need for more disciples of Christ, more servants of Christ, but not everyone who says they will follow Christ is really fit to follow Christ. Today’s passage has been helping us to consider what it truly means to follow Jesus as his disciple. And in this section he teaches that when you become a disciple there needs to be a real break in some sense with your former life so that you are not constantly split focus and looking back and missing where you came from.
I think we can wonderfully see this in the Old Testament passage in 1 Kings 19 where Elijah calls Elisha into discipleship. When Elijah calls Elisha into discipleship, Elisha answers in the same way this would-be disciple answered. He asked permission to go back and kiss his parents goodbye. Elisha grants the request. We might at first ask was Elisha then not fit to follow Jesus, based on his response? We’ll, while on the surface it looks so similar, it’s what then follows with Elisha that is so important. As part of Elisha saying goodbye, he sacrificed his yoke of oxen that he would have used for his own plowing at home and enjoys their meat in a final farewell feast. In other words, Elisha destroyed his former means of providing for his sustenance as a farmer in view of the fact that he was then taking on a new job to be Elijah’s disciple and apprentice. So, while Jesus’ question to this would-be disciple would have also been fair to say to Elisha, we see in Elisha’s actions that in fact he would not be one who is looking backwards when he is supposed to be looking forward. In fact, Elisha’s example of sacrificing his oxen before he goes shows the kind of cut with the past and a new single focus that surely Jesus is calling for of his disciples. Elisha becomes a wonderful example of the very point of single-mindedness that Jesus wants.
So, again, I hope you see how we shouldn’t take Jesus’ proverbial statement here as some wooden prohibition of saying goodbye to your family, or that to become Jesus’ disciple that you need to give up everything of your former life. The backdrop with Elisha would have been in mind here to the original audience of this passage and it should be for us too a wonderful illustration of the principle. To follow Jesus does involve a certain break from the past, to be like Ruth, for example, and say that my old gods will no longer be my gods but I will now serve and follow the one true God. Spiritually speaking, we need to not look back but keep our eyes forward. We need to have that heavenward focus and vision and trajectory that we read about with Paul in Philippians 3:14 where he forgets what lies behind and strains forward to press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Trinity Presbyterian Church, Jesus has given us these three proverb-like statements today that help us to reflect on our discipleship. Have we set the right priorities in life? Do we have an eternal perspective? Do we have the zeal and focus for Christ that we ought? Surely if we examine ourselves we will find ways we fall short in truly following Christ. Surely, we don’t pursue him with all that we are like he truly deserves. Surely, we do struggle with half-heartedness and double-mindedness at times. Surely, we do fall short in self-denial and that daily taking up of our crosses. To examine the state of our discipleship and see how far we fall short reveals how much we still need Jesus to shepherd us.
For the very things Jesus raises here, is what we see of him here in Luke. Jesus himself was focused and fixed on going to Jerusalem. There he would literally take up his cross and die. There he would be buried by those who were dead but had become spiritually alive on account of his sacrifice. And indeed, Jesus did not have a home here so he could ultimately bring us to his heavenly home which is far better. What Jesus’ asks in discipleship is not anything more than what he himself has already done. And what Jesus has done is because of how much we do fall short in our discipleship. So then, may all this serve to have us be recommitted to follow Jesus. For he is both our shepherd and our savior, both our Lord and redeemer, both our example and our atonement. He calls out to you today, “Follow me.” May we indeed say and mean, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Amen.
Copyright © 2022 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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