Jesus says “Follow me. Don’t look back”
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer. Amen
Our reading from Luke is a difficult passage to preach on without feeling something of a hypocrite. It’s about how Jesus calls us to a discipleship not of prosperity and privilege, but service and sacrifice. It’s a hard part of the bible to read because it’s very easy to feel that we are not following Jesus very well at all. At face value, it’s not exactly one of the comforting passages of the bible.
The passage gives three examples of people offering to, or being invited by Jesus, to follow him. All of them are firmly though gently put down. The first man unequivocally says “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus doesn’t turn him down but his reply is a bit of a letdown; “Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lie down and rest.”
We don’t know what Jesus saw in the man that made him give this warning. At the very least Jesus seems to feel that the man doesn’t really know what he’s letting himself in for. What Jesus knows, and we know, but the man doesn’t, is that Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem, and Jerusalem means death on the cross.
Jesus has been setting his face towards Jerusalem from before birth. For Jesus, who existed before the world began; being born on earth at all was an act of humility and trust in his Father in Heaven. It would have been an act of amazing humility even if he had been born in a palace, let alone in a stable to parents soon to become refugees.
We don’t know what Jesus saw in the man’s heart, but at the time Jesus’ star seemed to be rising, and nobody but Jesus himself knew that it was going to end in the humiliation of the cross. Palm Sunday was closer that Good Friday, and much like James and John asking if they could sit at Jesus side, the man probably saw good times ahead if he stayed close to Jesus. Jesus knew better what those times were going to be like.
The second man is asked by Jesus to follow him, and he doesn’t say no, but replies “First let me bury my father.” It’s not clear if the father is already dead, but he probably wasn’t. Jewish custom is to bury bodies within the day, before they begin to decompose. It’s more likely that the son meant, “Let me care for my parents in their old age, and then, when they are dead, I will follow you.” If we take the second man’s statement at face value, rather than as a convenient excuse, it is a noble sentiment, embodying the commandment to honour your parents. For Jesus though this is not enough; “Let the dead bury their own dead. You go and proclaim the kingdom of God”.
The third man also makes what appears to be a reasonable appeal. “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go and say good-bye to my family.” Something is lost in translation here. The word translated here as “say good bye” is translated elsewhere as “take leave of”. The point being that that the person taking his leave is asking for the blessing and permission of those he is leaving behind. Presumably in this case his parents or elder brothers. Most parents would be inclined to refuse permission for their sons to leave home and follow an impoverished travelling holy man, and it might have been that this lack of permission is what the young man was banking on.
There is a parallel here with the story in our Old Testament reading about Elijah calling Elisha to follow him. When he is called Elisha asks to say good bye to his parents. It’s not clear from the reading whether Elijah says he can or not. Elijah actually says “Go back again, for what have I done to you”, which is more than a little obscure.
What is clear from the story is that Elisha burnt his plough and harness and slaughtered the oxen that pulled them. He was absolutely committed to following his master Elijah, and there was no going back. This story would be well known to Jesus’ listeners. This was the point that Jesus was trying to make also, because he too uses a ploughing analogy. “Anyone who starts to plough and then keeps looking back is of no use for the Kingdom of God.”
Using a plough was skilled work. You had to keep one hand tightly on the oxen’s reins, one hand firmly on the plough, and your eyes fixed on some immovable point in the distance in order to plough a straight line. A modern analogy might be, “You can’t drive a car in a straight line if you are always looking over your shoulder.”
Jesus’ response shows that he expects the young man to give him, Jesus, priority over even his family obligations, an almost unthinkable requirement. A dutiful Jewish son does not put anyone above his father – except God. That is the point of course. Jesus acts by Gods authority; he is the fixed and immovable point upon which we fix our eyes.
So how do we respond to these stories?
Well firstly, I think, by accepting them at face value. Jesus means what he says; there is nothing more important than following him by announcing God’s kingdom, without turning round and without looking back.
All those things which are important to us, our families, our jobs, and our freedom must come second to this. In a sense it is harder for us than it was for the people in the bible passage. They thought Jesus was going onto Jerusalem to take power. We know what he knew, that he was going to Jerusalem to die a slow, humiliating death on the cross. If we follow Jesus that is where the path winds, by way of the cross, because that is where Jesus first went.
It might not be the big cross of giving up our lives, at least not here in Western Europe. But as Christians we face many other crosses, points where we have to choose which path to follow, the one which follows the world or the one which follows Jesus.
Life has a habit of throwing up these moments, and perhaps Christians today face challenges that they didn’t face until recently. There have been a number of high profile cases over the last few years that have highlighted this. The GP who talked to a patient about his faith and faced being struck off. The nurse who offered to pray for a patient and was suspended. The housing association van driver who was told to take down the palm cross he kept in his van, and was threatened with disciplinary action when he refused. The homelessness prevention officer in London who was suspended and later sacked for gross misconduct for suggesting to an incurably ill client that medicine hadn’t got all the answers, and asking if she had tried putting her faith in God. The supply teacher who was sacked from her job for offering to pray for a sick pupil.
Some of these were later reinstated, but not until after months of anguish. Others were not. Christians can and do risk losing their jobs, or their freedom or even their lives every day. “Follow me, don’t look back” says Jesus.
Secondly, having recognised that Jesus is entirely serious about putting him first, we can recognise how amazingly gentle and patient he is. The bible is full of people called by God who try and excuse themselves with excuses not dissimilar to the ones produced here. Many, if not all, of the giants of our faith, first offered excuses before accepted God’s call, and frequently stumbled afterwards.
Moses protested, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Gideon pleaded, “But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family“. Jeremiah protested, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Isaiah said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips…!” Peter denied Christ three times, Thomas refused to believe until he saw the scars of the nails in Jesus’ hands. Paul first hated what Jesus stood for, persecuted his followers and was complicit in their murder.
All these giants first declined to follow God, or looked back, yet God was gentle with them, let them pick themselves up and then follow him anyway. We don’t know what happened to the three people challenged to follow Jesus. Did they follow him or did they stumble and fall away? We don’t know. We do know that if they turned back to Jesus he would forgive them, because he forgave people far worse. More than forgiven he would have rejoiced with them.
The verse “Anyone who starts to plough and then looks back is of no use to the kingdom of God” has worried a lot of people over the years. I think it’s because it’s easy to misinterpret it as Jesus rejecting the man who wanted to say goodbye to his parents. Jesus didn’t reject any of the men in this passage, and this isn’t what Jesus is saying at all. Firstly he isn’t referring to people who look back once, or even several times, or even many times. He says “anyone who keeps looking back” anyone who continues to look back, is in the habit of looking back, who is locked into the behaviour of looking back.
Secondly, he doesn’t say they are excluded from the Kingdom of God, he says “is of no use for the Kingdom of God” It’s about effectiveness not exclusion. People who keep looking back rather than following Jesus aren’t any good at proclaiming the Kingdom of God.
So why do we look back? Well sometimes it’s because we look on the things of the world with envy, we regret the things we think we’ve left behind for God. But Jesus tells us that these things have no value separate from God anyway. “What good will it do someone, if they gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul.”
Other times it’s because we’re locked in regrets for things we’ve done, or that have been done to us, or by grief, or by the consequences of decisions we’ve made in the past. Jesus says “Don’t look back, follow me”, and through looking at Jesus and following him we can put things into perspective.
I look back with some embarrassment at my failure to work for my A levels, resulting in my failure to pass any at all. I went into nursing, which you didn’t need A levels for at the time. I got a degree later but ended up going back into nursing. I can’t imagine having more fulfilment doing any other job, or the sense that God is with me as I do it. “Don’t look back” says Jesus, “Follow me”
Bad marriages can lead to beautiful and much loved children. Surviving dreadful things can lead to closer empathy for the pain of others. We can learn to let go of our lost loved ones. We can learn to forgive ourselves for our past sins and mistakes as we learn how ready Jesus is to forgive us. And having learnt this we can begin to lead others to Jesus’ forgiveness and mercy, and that is proclaiming the kingdom of God.
“Follow me” says Jesus, “Don’t look back”.
Let us pray.
Lord, wherever we are in our faith journey, your call to follow you is a challenge. Help us to keep our eyes fixed firmly on you, in Jesus name.