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.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet 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 his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Luke 9.57-62.
When, at the age of sixteen, I decided to leave the Closed Brethren and return to the Methodist Church in which I had my childhood roots, the elders were not for letting me go so easily. I was harassed on a daily basis and all kinds of abusive pressure was put on me to stay, but it finally came to an end with a note pushed through my letterbox bearing words taken from this morning’s reading: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” In the eyes of the Closed Brethren, to reject them was to forfeit membership of the kingdom of God. I was lost!
Clearly, that is an unacceptable interpretation of the text, but I wonder this morning whether other, more usual, interpretations are any more accurate? This passage is regularly taken to mean that failure to be utterly single-minded in one’s commitment to Jesus shuts one out of the kingdom, but I think that that might be to miss the point of what Jesus is actually saying here.
It is rightly said that a text without a context is a pretext. In other words, a saying of Jesus such as the “hand to the plough” one and the others in this morning’s reading, can, if divorced from the circumstances in which they were spoken, become nothing more than a means of wrongly bolstering up some fondly-held (but possibly mistaken) belief that someone is seeking to propagate. And that is never more true than of this morning’s reading. I have heard more sermons than I can count on this passage where the bottom line of the proclamation is that we are all called to be disciples of Jesus and that calling demands of us a total commitment to him of everything in our lives.
So what’s wrong with that, you might be asking? Am I suggesting half-hearted allegiance is perfectly acceptable? No, I’m not. But I am about to suggest that the level of commitment of any “normal” Christian to Jesus is not what is at issue in this particular passage of Scripture. Let me explain …
Anyone who reads the Gospels can hardly fail to register the fact that great crowds “followed” Jesus throughout his ministry. To “follow” is akoloutheō from a signifying “together” and keleuthos meaning “a way or path”. It means to walk in the way with someone, to follow someone in his path. Jesus was clearly happy to be “followed” by people in this way and he ministered to them on a regular basis – teaching, healing, forgiving sins. However, there were only a few to whom he specifically said Akolouthei moi – “Follow me” – and that “following” seems to have been of a different order entirely. Those who responded to that call became oi mathētai autou – “his disciples” – and the demands on them were the same as any rabbi of those days made on his disciples. Peter summed it up when he said: “We have left everything to follow you!” (Matthew 19.27).
The rabbi-disciple relationship was intense and uncompromising. The rabbi protected and cared for his disciples; the disciples served the rabbi, shopping for food (John 4.8) and preparing meals (Matthew 26.19). In return, the rabbi taught them his understanding of the Scriptures (his “yoke”) and they had the privilege of being with him 24/7, listening to him, watching him and learning to imitate him so as to become like him. But the cost was very great. Possessions had to be given up as well as homes, families, occupations. Hence Jesus’ command to his disciples to leave their nets. And the point I am trying to make is that the passage quoted above is of the same order as the “leave your nets” passages.
It is all about the demands Jesus made on those who came to him wanting to be a “disciple” and on those he called to be his “disciples”. But Jesus never made those demands on his followers in general. Mary, Martha and Lazarus, for instance, were clearly “followers” of Jesus but they lived out their daily lives in their home in Bethany, providing a haven for Jesus when he needed it (Luke 10.38). So too presumably were the unidentified persons who provided the colt on Palm Sunday (Luke 19.33) and the upper room for the Last Supper (Luke 22.10). So too was the man in the region of the Gerasenes who wanted to become a disciple of Jesus after he had been delivered of demons by Jesus but was told “Return home and tell how much God has done for you” (Luke 8.39). So too was the woman of Samaria (John 4.28-29). So too were the “more than five hundred” brethren mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15.6 to whom Jesus made a resurrection appearance and the 120 “believers” mentioned in Acts 1.15.
Interestingly, the term “disciple” is never used by Paul to describe a Christian – presumably because, once Jesus had ascended to heaven, there was no longer a rabbi to whom any disciples could become attached. Discipleship was a unique calling confined to the rabbinic tradition within Judaism, and Jesus, it seems, adopted that tradition as a useful vehicle for fulfilling his ministry and for training a number of key people to carry it on after his departure; but with his departure, it ended and there have been no disciples in the true Biblical sense of the word ever since.*
That is why we need to be cautious in the way we interpret and apply this present passage and others like it. All Christians are called to make Jesus Lord of their lives – no question about that – and that means to put everything we have and are at his disposal. We are to be his servants. But while he might ask of one such servant that she, let’s say, gives up her home in the US to work as a medical missionary in Africa, his call on another might simply be to be the best lathe operator in the factory and the best husband and father his wife and kids could ever have. And there is nothing insufficiently radical or uncommitted about that latter vocation. We need only read the closing chapters of most of Paul’s letters to see that his concern is for the great majority of Christians to lead very normal lives – as fathers, mothers, children, employers, employees etc – but to lead them in Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. What higher calling do we need than that?
* It is true that Luke uses the term “disciple” of ordinary followers of Jesus in the book of Acts, but Luke was a Greek and there he was using the word mathētēs loosely, in a non-technical, non-rabbinic way.