June 30, 2013
My dad grew up on a dairy farm. Although he became a carpenter and contractor, his life, our lives like most people in small Midwestern towns, were dominated by the world and ethos of farming in which we lived. His church was surrounded by cornfields. Most of his friends still were farmers. He used to joke in the summers that you could tell how the crops were doing by the prayers that were offered at Sunday morning church services.
As we drove through the countryside, he would often comment not just on how the crops were doing, but also on the skill and work ethic of the farmers. That area of northwestern Ohio is almost perfectly flat, so the grid system that was laid out in the early nineteenth century continues to dominate the landscape. It’s easy to tell if a farmer plowed a straight furrow. And my dad was as likely to comment on a crooked row as he was on a poorly framed house. My dad knew that to plow a straight furrow, whether with a team of horses or a powerful modern tractor, needed keen focus and single-minded attention on the field in front of you.
Today’s gospel brings together several sayings of Jesus that seem intended to emphasize the importance of such single-minded focus on the reign of God and following Jesus. But it begins with a different sort of reminder of Jesus’ single-mindedness: “Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
It’s an ominous and important statement, marking a geographical and thematic shift for Luke. Jesus had been traveling about Galilee, which is north of Jerusalem. As we saw last week, he occasionally made forays into neighboring territory, in that case across the Sea of Galilee to Gentile territory on the other side. But from now on, he will be single-mindedly focused on Jerusalem, and as he nears it, the cross will loom ever larger on the horizon.
This little verse is significant for another reason, however. It marks another shift in Luke’s gospel, as he begins to diverge from the outline and content of the gospel of Mark and introduces much material that is unique to his gospel, including many of Jesus’ most familiar and beloved parables. I would like to point out one other significant aspect of Luke’s depiction of Jesus. I know I’ve mentioned it before but it’s worth repeating. Luke emphasizes Jesus’ continuity with the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible. In particular, he draws several parallels between Jesus and Elijah/Elisha. What’s interesting here is that Luke subtly distinguishes between Jesus and those two ancient prophets.
It’s rather obvious in the story of Elisha’s call that we heard today. In the story from I Kings, Elijah watches as Elisha passes by him while plowing. Elijah covers him with his mantle, denoting Elisha’s call to be a prophet, but Elisha says, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” Jesus tells the one who wants to follow him but first say good-bye to his loved ones, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Elisha throws a farewell feast but Jesus turns his back on those who would acknowledge their ties with family and loved ones.
The other allusion to the Elijah/Elisha cycle is in the story about the Samaritan village. It’s quite odd, really. Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem, but the first village they come to, a Samaritan town, doesn’t want to have anything to do with him. In response, John and James ask whether they should call down fire from heaven to destroy the village. It’s almost word for word a repeat of a story in I Kings where Elijah calls down fire to destroy his enemies. The point here is that while there are similarities between Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, there are also significant differences. All of this helps to contribute to the sense of urgency, the sense that now we are on the way toward the cross, toward Jesus’ crucifixion. The sayings about discipleship heighten that sense of urgency. These teachings about discipleship confront us in our contemporary lives.
These hard sayings of Jesus, sayings that seem to call into question the things and people we hold most dear, often seem utterly disconnected from our lives in the twenty-first century. While we may know of people who given up everything to follow Jesus either in the present or the past, our own lives and our commitments tend to be much less focused on following Jesus. In fact, it’s likely that all of those other commitments–work, family, hobbies–leave little time or energy for following Jesus. We worry about paying bills, our own and our children’s futures, aging parents and loved ones, and so many other things. Leaving all of that to follow Jesus seems inconceivable.
So what do these words have to say to us today? Are they so alien as to be meaningless, or might they help to provide some perspective on everything else we do? We tend to hear them as directed to us individually, or to those ancient would-be followers of Jesus, but is that the case? The sayings are introduced differently. In the first instance, someone comes up and says, out of the blue, “I will follow you wherever you go.” In the second instance, Jesus says to someone, “Follow me.” In the third, again someone offers to follow Jesus but only if he can say good-bye first. And we don’t know whether the first person followed Jesus–the text is silent what happened after he heard Jesus’ response. For that matter, we don’t know whether the other two followed Jesus, either.
One way to read these sayings is to see them in their ancient cultural context. The obligation to bury family members was one of the most sacred obligations of all, in Jewish law deriving from the commandment to honor one’s father and mother. We see in the third saying another example of the power of family ties. But Jesus is creating a new community made up of people who are following him, committed to his message and to the reign of God. That new community takes precedence over traditional family ties and offers new relationships, based ultimately on one’s shared commitment to God and to Jesus. I think the question for us is not whether we can imagine giving everything up to follow Jesus, but whether in the new community gathered by Jesus, we experience life that is as rich and meaningful, as abundant and grace-filled, as our other relationships and commitments, jobs and hobbies? If not perhaps instead of blaming the institutional church, we should look inward at our own level of commitment to Jesus Christ.
At the same time, it’s important to ask whether the joy and fulfillment we get from these other pursuits, even our deepest relationships, can ever attain the fullness of life lived fully in the presence of and commitment to Jesus Christ.
There was a piece on the New York Times website yesterday entitled “The gospel according to me.” In it, the authors argued that Americans have replaced the gospel of the New Testament with a gospel of self-realization and authenticity. Looking at new age spirituality and the wild popularity of self-help books, they write, “well-being has become the primary goal of human life. Rather than being the by-product of some collective project, some upbuilding of the New Jerusalem, well-being is an end in itself.”
Following Jesus is not a means of self-actualization. As we shall see in the coming weeks, following Jesus comes at great cost. Jesus asks us to focus on him, looking ahead with our hand on the plow, being willing to experience our relationships with others in light of, and subsidiary to our relationship with him, or to put it another way, to love God with our hearts, souls and minds, and our neighbor as our self.