Today’s scripture readings:
1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
I remember once a few years ago working on a project with ISAIAH, which many of you know is a faith-based organization that uses the tools of community organizing to advance racial and economic justice here in Minnesota. I can’t recall now exactly what issue we were even working on at the time, but I remember that I was feeling daunted by what was being asked of me and of all of us who were involved. So I had a conversation with one of my community organizing mentors. The conversation was mostly just me whining about how overwhelmed I felt by it all: Come to this half-day training on a Saturday, make these 20 phone calls, have these half-dozen one-on-one conversations, show up in your clergy shirt at this press conference, give testimony at this committee hearing, attend these biweekly strategy meetings. I remember telling my mentor that it all just felt so unreasonable, and did this work really require such a huge commitment of time and energy, and couldn’t we get all of this done with fewer and shorter meetings? His reply was something like, “The revolution will not be won by well-intentioned people who go to a few short meetings.” That wasn’t exactly what I was needing to hear, but I got the point. The status quo is deeply entrenched, and those who benefit from the status quo have built tall walls around it to ensure its protection. In the face of so many barriers, the difficult work of exposing injustice and bringing about structural change requires everything we’ve got.
I don’t think we can fully appreciate what’s going on in today’s Gospel lesson without paying special attention to the very first verse—from chapter nine, verse 51: “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” This verse marks a major turning point in the Gospel of Luke. Up until now, Jesus has been teaching in and around Galilee—the northern part of the region where the Jewish people lived at that time. Galilee was far removed from Jerusalem, which was the cultural, religious, and political center of the Jewish world, and the rural Galileans were routinely scorned by the more sophisticated and enlightened Jews who lived in the big city. The Jesus movement originated as a movement of these despised Galileans who were fed up with the way they were treated by the political and religious elites in Jerusalem.
Now, at the beginning of today’s Gospel lesson, we read that Jesus has “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Jesus has built a movement; now he senses that it’s time to confront the powers in the capital city. But this passage begins with those ominous words, “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up….” The Gospel writer is foreshadowing the end of the story, reminding us that what’s coming is Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension to heaven. Jesus has been proclaiming this hopeful and radical good news around Galilee, and he’s begun to develop a following. And now in chapter nine, Jesus understands that it’s time to take this movement to the next level, to go into the belly of the beast and confront the authorities—and here the Gospel writer hints at the heavy consequences of this decision. Whether or not we believe that Jesus had supernatural powers of divine foreknowledge and actually knew everything that lay ahead of him in Jerusalem, he could have certainly predicted that his arrival in the city and his confrontation with the authorities would spark a conflict and land him in hot water. But he knows that achieving the kind of change he is looking for and ushering in the world God envisions for the people requires nothing less than the complete dismantling of the world as it is. And so, Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem.
I think we have to understand all of that context to really appreciate what Jesus says to those poor would-be followers later in the Gospel lesson. Having set out toward Jerusalem, Jesus encounters someone who says he’d like to follow. Jesus responds that foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Maybe Jesus is saying that on this journey to Jerusalem, there isn’t going to be any rest. Or maybe he’s saying that the message he brings is so off-putting that nobody along the way will dare take them in or provide shelter, that nobody will have them as their guests for the night. Maybe the message is that from here on out, he and his followers are going to feel very far from home, far from any place that offers rest, security, and stability; that from now on they are going to feel estranged and alone. Whatever the case, it seems clear that Jesus is offering this man a warning, that following Jesus to Jerusalem isn’t going to be all sunshine and roses. There’s no glory in this path. So sure, come along and follow if you like, but don’t say I didn’t warn you that this would be a long and difficult journey.
The next two people Jesus encounters along the way are people he invites to follow. But each of them asks for a delay. The first says, “Yes, I’ll follow, but first let me bury my father.” That sounds like a reasonable request to me. And in fact, in those days and in that culture, children had a solemn obligation, which was mandated by the law, to bury their parents. When Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead,” he’s not just saying, “No, this is more important—come and follow me now”; he’s saying that his mission to Jerusalem is more important even than the obligations prescribed by their religious law. The next man Jesus meets says he’ll follow, too, but just wants a moment to say goodbye to his family. At this point we’re not surprised to hear Jesus say, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
These are harsh words, but I think we get the point. Following Jesus will be difficult and lonely. It will demand our undivided attention. It will mean giving up everything that has made us feel safe and adopting an entirely new way of life. Following Jesus will require everything we’ve got.
I remember another time I was at a racial justice training. It was a room full of mostly white people, and a young woman of color who was leading our session had the courage to speak a difficult truth. She said one of the things she has noticed is that white people have a choice about when and where to think about racism. It’s more of an intellectual exercise, something white folks can work on for awhile and then move on. For people of color, racism is inescapable. It’s not something you have much of a choice about; either you work to end racism or it will work to end you. It’s something that defines every moment of every day, not something you can think about for a little while and then take a break. She said, “You might think working to end racism is an interesting and important project, but for us it’s a matter of life and death.”
Today I hear Jesus challenging our assumption that following him to Jerusalem, embodying his love and justice, and confronting the powers is work that we can do at our convenience; something we can do for a little while and then take a break. It’s work that has to become a way of life, not something we do occasionally with our free time.
It all sounds so overwhelming, but here’s the thing: I think all of us want to make a difference in the world. None of us want to be part of the problem, to be overcome by complacency or distracted by issues of secondary importance. I would bet that most of us feel disappointed in ourselves when we realize our efforts have fallen short, or we could be doing more, and that most of us would like to do better. So I think it’s actually good news that while Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, he finds us along the road and says, “Follow me.” Maybe we drag our feet or have second thoughts, but the invitation is there and Jesus promises to show us the way. He promises to show us how we can be part of his mission to bring about the kingdom of God. He helps us get clear about what matters most so we won’t fall behind or get knocked off course. Jesus doesn’t give up on us but keeps calling us to follow, guiding our feet each step of the way.
Justo L. González, Luke, in the Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible series, eds. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).
Karoline Lewis, “But first…” on WorkingPreacher.org, June 24, 2019, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5362.
Sharon H. Ringe, Luke, in the Westminster Bible Companion series, eds. Patrick D. Miller and David L. Bartlett (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995).
Marilyn Salmon, “Commentary on Luke 9:51-62” on WorkingPreacher.org, 2010, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=623.