How do you follow?
People followed Jesus. For whatever reason, he seems to have attracted interest, crowds trailed him, anxious to see miracles, or hear a story. They marvelled at his teaching, which had authority. Some became closer, travelling with him and listening to his teaching with greater depth. The fishermen, Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John. seem to have left everything and followed Jesus, just when he asked them to. Others seem to have wavered: a man who says he will follow Jesus wherever he will go is told that the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head; another, when asked by Jesus to follow, requests that he is allowed to bury his father first – only to be told to let the dead bury their own dead, but he is to go and proclaim the kingdom of God; a third, when also asked to follow, wants to say goodbye to his family: but he is told that no-one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the Kingdom. (see Luke 9:57-62). Did these people leave all and follow Jesus? We do not know. Yet their requests are not unreasonable: who would not want to say goodbye before leaving everything to follow Jesus? Indeed, it makes sense to let your loved ones know where you are, and to wish to bury your father is also only natural.
But … I can imagine (and this is only my imagination) that the first man came and volunteered to follow Jesus, full of dreams about how close he would be to Jesus, and what marvellous deeds he would do, only to be brought down to earth with Jesus’ comment about having nowhere to lay his head. A kind of spiritual pride, puffed up with his own imaginings, but with no thought for the practicalities. As for the man who wished to bury his father … again I don’t know, but it is possible that he is asking to stay with his father until he dies, and then he will be free to follow. Not necessarily because his father is in need of the man’s support, but because his father, as head of family, would have some say, if not control, over the man’s life. I may be wrong – I am not an expert on first century social practices – but I suspect that he was not saying ‘Just let me attend my father’s funeral and then I will be free to come’, but something much more about honouring his family and social obligations before following Jesus. The last man simply wants to say goodbye; but yet again, I wonder if there is more to it than this. That this man wasn’t fully committed to following Jesus, that saying goodbye to his family may have been in the nature of an excuse (would his family have been happy for him to say goodbye and go? or would they have persuaded him to stay?). Compare these men to the fishermen, who left everything and followed (see Luke 5:1-11, Mark 1:14-20 and Matthew 4:18-22). I’m kind of wondering whether these stories are in the gospel because these men eventually did follow; but maybe they are there because they didn’t.
Whatever happened – and whatever the story behind the story really is – they have implications for our following of Jesus as well. It reminds me of the passage later in Luke about counting the cost of being a disciple (see Luke 14: 25 onwards). These are indications of the kind of costs we have to count. Now, today, most of us won’t be required to give up our homes, and most of us will stay in touch with our families, and attend their funerals. But I don’t think it is necessarily about this deep down. What Jesus is saying to the first man is, basically, count the cost, be realistic. Are you willing to follow me when I have no home base? Are we willing to follow if that takes us to places we hadn’t expected, or to lives with less security, or less control, than we might otherwise have had? Have we thought out the practical implications of following Jesus?
The second man wishes to bury his father, and the third to say goodbye. Compare that to Luke 14:26. Does Jesus really wish us to hate our families? Probably not; but I think we are asked to put Jesus first and foremost: before what may be our social obligations, before what people may want us to do. To love our families, but not at the expense of our love for Jesus. Moreover, as the second man was told to let the dead bury their dead, and to go and proclaim the Kingdom of God, so may our proclaiming of the Kingdom (whatever form that takes) be prioritised, not be held back by others, whom we may love but may not share our faith. The third man wished to say goodbye - but Jesus response hints at second thoughts. Have we really thought through our following of Jesus? are we following because we want to, or are we attending church because it’s what we’ve always done? Are we genuinely prepared to make Jesus the priority in our life? Are we truly focussed on Jesus, as we need to be to follow him; or are we distracted by other factors in our lives?
But I think also that this is about trust; trust in the one who calls you. In all three synoptic gospels, Jesus heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law: in Luke he does this before the call of the fishermen, but in Matthew and Mark, they have already been called and left their nets and followed. There is no request to check with their families, or say goodbye. They followed Jesus. Yet it is clear in both Matthew and Mark, that Simon Peter still had a home, that Jesus went there, and finding Simon’s mother-in-law ill, Jesus healed her. I am not an expert in Biblical studies, so I am not aware of current thoughts (if any) on how much time the disciples spent at their homes, with their families, or indeed if they maintained their homes. Paul mentions in one of his letters that the other apostles travelled with their wives, so evidently family links were maintained. It may be that the fishermen trusted Jesus not only with their own lives, but with how their family lives would work out. But that those anonymous men in the first passage did not. That their first priority was not following Jesus, but in meeting those needs that they set before Jesus. I wonder which is the case for us?