Sermon: No Excuses
One of the well-documented advantages of the Internet is the opportunity to buy goods at reduced prices. Not only are items frequently cheaper, there are websites and other tools that enable you to compare prices and find the best bargain. Perhaps after this last week’s Emergency Budget, with all its cuts and the forthcoming VAT rise, these things will become even more popular. We all want to reduce our costs.
And Jesus knows there is another area where we want to reduce the cost. Many want to reduce the cost of following him. In our reading, three different characters are interested in following Jesus. The first and third approach him; Jesus calls the second. But what is common to all three is their desire to reduce the cost of discipleship.
How so? When we examine the background to what they say and Jesus says, we’ll see how they are trying to lower the cost of commitment[i]. But we’ll also recognise that some of their reasons for trimming the cost are similar to ours. This being so, we shall gain a picture of what real Christian discipleship involves.
Let us listen to the first conversation Jesus has:
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.” (Verses 57-58)
I suppose we are used to seeing this dialogue as being one that illustrates the poverty Jesus embraced as part of his mission. He is effectively homeless. (Although there are some Gospel texts that may imply he had his own house – see Mark 9:33 and Luke 5:18.)
Being willing to give up so much is challenging enough. Yet this conversation may be about more than what lifestyle preferences we might give up in order to follow Jesus. It seems to be a dialogue about rejection. The references to foxes and birds of the air may have political overtones. ‘Foxes’ was the name Jews gave to the Ammonites, a racially similar group who were their political enemies. It’s perhaps significant that four chapters later in Luke, Jesus calls the ruler Herod Antipas ‘that fox’. He was a despised ruler from a mixed race family. ‘Foxes have holes’ might therefore be a reference to the comfort that enemies have.
Similarly, the birds of the air. In the time between the Testaments, they were a symbol of the gentile nations, and so here Jesus may be referring to the occupying Romans who are, so to speak, feathering their nests.
Put all this together and Jesus may well be saying that those who oppose the will of God will often have a comfortable life, but those who come his way will have to get used to discomfort and rejection.
How do we receive a word like that? If you grew up in a generation where Christianity was respected – even if sometimes it was only honoured in the breach – then the idea of rejection will be strange to you. More likely you will witness certain changes in our nation and protest, “But this is a Christian country!” I’m not sure what a Christian country is, or even whether such a thing can exist, but I am sure of one thing: this nation isn’t.
We have to get used to the fact that we are a minority faith in a world where faith matters very little. Read the latest edition of Radio Times and you will see an article by Alison Graham about swearing on TV. She refers to an OFCOM report, based on focus group research. While the ‘f’ word and the ‘c’ word are still kept after the watershed, ‘Jesus Christ’ is OK before 9 pm. While she rightly says we should be concerned about images of violence against women on television, it’s clear that people just don’t understand (or care?) about insulting our Lord and Saviour.
Furthermore, while many people will be willing to do things for others, a lot will be offended by the Christian insistence on resolutely putting others first – that saying ‘charity begins at home’ is really an excuse for selfishness.
So just as Jesus prepared that person who claimed they would follow him wherever he went for the likelihood of rejection, so he prepares us for a similar fate. Even if we go to a society that is sympathetic to faith, it will always be the case that if we are serious about following Jesus, that will lead to us embracing a lifestyle and values that conflict with the prevailing ones in that culture.
If you want to follow Jesus, pull out of the popularity contests.
Now let’s hear again the second conversation:
To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” (Verses 59-60)
To our ears, this sounds unbearably cruel. Would Jesus really expect a son to leave his family in the middle of mourning a belovèd father? Where is the compassion of Jesus here?
However, everything changes when we consider the Middle Eastern background. We are used to there being a gap of one to two weeks between a death and the committal at the crematorium. That didn’t happen in Palestine, and it still doesn’t in the Middle East, nor in Jewish or Muslim traditions elsewhere, as a result. The hot climate meant it was imperative to bury the body as quickly as possible. If this man’s father had just died, the son would either be keeping vigil over the body or participating in the funeral. That he wasn’t tells you that his father isn’t dead.
No: he wants to stay living at home until his parents have died, and only then follow Jesus. Now it was the normal custom to do this. It was an expression of respect for parental authority that you did so. That gives a different twist to Jesus’ challenge here: he is saying that following him ranks higher in importance than the demands of family and the customs of the community. Therefore this second dialogue is about authority.
What might that mean for us today, in our very different culture? Perhaps peer pressure is an expression of social expectations today. We know how strong peer pressure is for children and teenagers at school: you have to appear ‘cool’, and in with the right people. It isn’t that much different for adults. There are certain expectations, not all of which sit with the call of Jesus. There are certain things we are expected to say or do at work. There are particular ‘right’ opinions to hold in an office conversation around the water cooler. Given that most of us have a desire to feel accepted, there is considerable pressure upon us to go with the flow of peer pressure, even on the occasions when it is not being applied heavily.
We may not want to pay the price of being left out of the gang, or the mockery. Yet the question for us as Christians is about remembering the price Jesus paid for us. Often he is asking us to pay a much lower price than he did. Yes, for some Christians it will end up being the same terrible cost – the price of a life – but in the ordinary turns of daily life, can we not, with the help of the Holy Spirit, choose to follow him when it is to our disadvantage, and be honoured that he has asked us to do that for him?
Finally, let’s turn to the third conversation:
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 a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Verses 61-62)
Again, to our ears, Jesus sounds like he’s being unreasonable. Surely you should be able to say goodbye before venturing off, who knows where, following him? It made me think about someone I know whose brother is giving up his job, house and possessions to become a Franciscan monk. He has taken great trouble to spend time with his relatives and friends before entering the monastery permanently. Would Jesus condemn him for half-heartedness?
But rather than ‘say farewell to those at my home’, a better translation might be ‘take my leave of those at my home’. The distinction is important. When you take your leave of someone, you ask their permission for you to go. Even today in the Middle East, middle-aged professionals ask their parents’ permission to make major life decisions. The man in the story here is not saying, “Let me just nip home to say goodbye before I join you,” he is saying, “I will follow you – if my parents give me permission!”
In response to this, Jesus claims higher authority than the man’s parents. He responds with the image of ploughing a field. To use a first century Palestinian plough required full concentration as you co-ordinated the use of hands and eyes. Failing to give the task your undivided attention led to crooked furrows, and depending on what part of the process you were involved in, you could ruin the drainage of water or the covering of the seed.
What does this say to us? Parental authority is much diminished in our culture. However, there are plenty of other replacements. Perhaps most notable is the idea that I am my own highest authority. What I want, goes. But if we exalt ourselves, Jesus says, you can only come with me if you accept that I have supreme authority. Whatever we elevate to the highest position in our lives has to bow before Jesus. Nothing else is true discipleship.
Why? Because Jesus wants our undivided attention. Tilling the soil of God’s kingdom involves concentrated effort, even if we do undertake it in the power of the Holy Spirit. One of the unfortunate misunderstandings in our society is the idea that the church is a ‘voluntary society’. People can opt in or opt out, depending on their mood and whether or not they like what’s going on. As I’ve often observed, if there are religious advertisements in a local newspaper, they will usually be found in the leisure section.
Jesus is here to tell us that following him is not a leisure activity. The illustration I often use of this is one I borrowed from the late John Wimber. In one of his books, he described the expectations of some Christians as like turning up at the docks to board a ship. Arriving at the quayside expecting to find a luxury cruise liner, we discover instead that rather than boarding a sleek, white boat, ours is gun-metal grey. It is a battleship.
You may or may not like the military image, but the point is clear. Signing up with Jesus is not about taking up a hobby or joining a club – even if some churchgoers do treat church as a club. We have committed ourselves unreservedly to the cause of building for his kingdom. That means unswerving dedication, not opting in and out as the mood suits us. It means we don’t accept our society’s assessment of where true authority lies – because our fundamental allegiance is to Jesus. It means we will resist peer pressure, even if that means reduced popularity, or even rejection.
Why? Jesus, whom we follow, ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem’ (verse 51), where he knew what he would face. His total dedication to the will of the Father, even at the cost of ultimate human rejection – the Cross – is our model. In normal terms, it may not be an attractive model. But it is the way God extends the kingdom. May the Holy Spirit help us when we need to walk the narrow way.
[i] What follows is based on Kenneth Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, pp22-32.