June 26, 2016

Our Gospel begins with these ominous words today, “Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

Jesus spent his whole life in the region known as lower Galilee.  Except for his birth in Bethlehem and his family's brief sojourn into Egypt, Jesus grew up and lived and worked in close proximity to the Sea of Galilee.

When he began his ministry, he located in Capernaum and, from there, went out to preach the gospel and heal the sick and proclaim the Kingdom of God to all who would listen.  But he never ventured out too far for too long.  He always came back to Capernaum by the sea.

And so, when we come to this pivotal verse in Luke's gospel, it's no small matter, for it represents a major shift in the thrust of Jesus' ministry.  From this point, he will take his message to the heart of the Jewish faith – to Jerusalem – and to its religious and political center, the Temple.

We all know what will happen when he gets there: He'll be confronted by the religious leaders.  Within days even the masses will turn against him.  Before the week is up, he will be crucified.  His decision to go to Jerusalem marks the beginning of the end.  This is the gravity of the situation underlying Luke's words when he says, "…he set his face to go to Jerusalem."

Jesus' resolve – his sheer determination to follow God's will regardless of the costs is the subtext of this passage. Just as Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, so God calls us to orient our lives towards God’s kingdom and and not become distracted from God’s call.

Jesus has begun his ultimate journey and nothing would interfere. Not an inhospitable Samaritan village. Not angry followers who ask if they shouldcall down fire like Elijah did to avenge the insult.

Someone came along who had an enthusiastic desire to accompany Jesus: "I will follow you wherever you go." There is the hint of a raised eyebrow in Jesus' reply: "You want to follow me? Really? Do you know what that might mean? 'Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.' In other words, are you ready to do without?"

Another joined the march. Jesus invited him, "Follow me." But he said, "first, let me go and bury my father."Strange reply from Jesus: "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." How are we to understand such a curious answer?

First, we can eliminate the idea that Jesus is suggesting that the man abandon the funeral arrangements for his Dad who has just passed away. Had his dad just died, the young man would not have had time to be on the road with Jesus anyway - the tradition of the culture (and the practical necessity forced by living in a hot climate) was to proceed to burial within 24 hours after death. This son was not being instructed to do something to which anyone with an ounce of sensitivity would have objected. Instead, we should understand the excuse as being, "Lord, I will follow you, But let me get all of my family obligations out of the way first." Even that does not sound especially unreasonable, but Jesus is expressing the importance of the mission superseding all other obligations.

Still, the "Let the dead bury their own dead" response sounds a bit harsh. Perhaps we should understand it in the same way as Jesus' instruction to pluck out our eye out or cut off our hand if we look at something or touch something we shouldn't - a bit of Semitic hyperbole that dramatizes a point but is not meant to be taken literally. Seriously, but not literally.

Now another says he wants to come along. "I will follow you, Lord; But let me first say farewell to those at my home." Jesus response draws on a bit of conventional country wisdom: "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." Every farmer will tell you that no one can plow straight without keeping their eyes focused ahead.

Jesus' answer also draws upon a story with which people of faith would have been familiar: the call of the prophet Elisha. God had told Elijah to anoint this young man as his successor as prophet to the nation of Israel. Elijah journeys to the town of Abel-meholah. He finds his spiritual heir-apparent plowing in the field (and, no doubt, keeping his eyes straight ahead in the process), and lets Elisha know of his divine selection by placing his own cloak or mantel, the symbol of the prophetic office, on the young man's shoulders. Elisha's response? "Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you."

Sound familiar? Scripture never says whether Elisha actually did as he had suggested, but we do learn of the young man's eventual unswerving loyalty and the incredible power that God gave him for his work. This was a story that Jesus' audience that day knew well. Elisha had his priorities in order and God blessed him.

This was Jesus' message: get your priorities straight. Then and only then will you be ready for God to rule in your life.

This is what following Jesus is all about – setting your sights on God’s kingdom and moving toward it, one step at a time; not letting the chaos of the world distract you, or the temptations of the world entice you, but striving by the grace of God within you to live after the example of Jesus.

What makes people faithful is not freedom from excuse-making or deliverance from distractions, but instead the lively realization that God remains bigger than our particular preoccupation, and that the invitation to follow Jesus is deeper and more resonant than our most potent excuses. God continues to call us even in the midst of the chaos of our lives and God’s presence will never leave us alone.

Jesus said, “Follow me,” and with the right intention and God’s help we can!