The Middle Way Isn't the Easy Way

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 13
June 26, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Having told his disciples for the second time what would happen to him in Jerusalem, Jesus sets his face decisively for that city. We're told about three people who want to follow Jesus "but" - but want to put their own conditions on discipleship. As he is starting out with the Twelve, Jesus has to rebuke two of them who want to punish a city that refused to receive him. Those two extremes, of halfway commitment and fanaticism, are to be distinguished from a total commitment to follow the way of Jesus.

"When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem." That tells us the direction in which we're headed in today's gospel and, in fact, in our readings for the next several weeks. Jesus has just told his disciples for the second time about the rejection and death that's waiting for him in Jerusalem. The time has come for him to be "taken up" - a loaded phrase that refers to his cross, resurrection and ascension as a single event. (In Luke's account of Jesus' transfiguration earlier in this chapter, his being "taken up" is referred to as his "departure" [literally, "exodus"], which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.)

In a deliberate and determined way he "sets his face" to Jerusalem. Jesus knows what he's doing and doesn't intend to be turned aside from his goal. He is on his way, and who is going to follow him?

Would-be followers

We're told about three potential disciples. The first one takes the initiative - he has, as people say today, "made a decision for Jesus." Many leaders of religious movements are eager to get recruits, but Jesus' response to this person is a challenge. "Do you know what you're getting into? Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." We just got a sample of that when that Samaritan village back there refused to give us a place to stay for the night. Following me, Jesus says, is not the way to success and comfort in the world.

Then Jesus calls a second person, saying simply, "Follow me." He had said the same thing earlier to the tax collector Levi, who immediately left the tax booth where he'd worked and followed Jesus.1 But this time the response is that there's something else that has to be taken care of first. "Lord, first let me go and bury my father" - then I'll follow you.

It sounds like a very small request, but actually it's a quite important one. In Jewish society, as in many others, burial of the dead is an important moral obligation. The Christian tradition includes it as one of the "corporal works of mercy." It's especially important to see that your family members, and particularly your parents, receive decent burial.

Now in fact, we don't know the condition of the father of this person whom Jesus had called. Had he just died, or was he close to death? Or was he perhaps in good health, with the possibility of still living for a few years? It really doesn't matter because Jesus' response is uncompromising. "Your job is to proclaim the kingdom of God. The dead can bury their own dead." The commitment that Jesus calls for goes deeper than even the most important social obligations or natural loyalties.

The third would-be disciple is another volunteer who wants to follow Jesus, but on his own terms. "I will follow you, Lord - but first I've got to wind up my affairs at home." Again, it sounds reasonable, but what it really means is, "I'll follow Jesus if he's willing to be in second place." But that isn't enough. "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God," says Jesus. Being a disciple of Jesus means beginning a new life.

There are second chances

We may feel sorry for these people because they lost their chance to be Jesus' disciples, but we can't be certain about that. People do have second thoughts, and sometimes they realize that they made the wrong decision about an important matter. That wrong decision may be irreversible, but that's not always the case. Sometimes we do get second chances. And nothing in scripture says that a person gets only one opportunity to start following Christ.

People born in Christian families will find as they grow up that there are other religious and philosophical beliefs, and some may come to think that the Christian message is inadequate. Other ways of thinking seem more satisfactory. But they can then encounter people and literature that bring them to see the deeper truth of Christianity.

So we don't really know how the stories of any of those three people ended. Like many stories in the Bible, this one is open ended - which is to say that we get drawn into the story ourselves. We're not just left wondering what some Palestinian Jews did 2,000 years ago, but are invited to think about our response to Jesus' call.

The fanatical followers

But we do know that the discipleship Jesus calls for means that following him is to come first. It's a call for total commitment to the kingdom of God, not a commitment that only goes part of the way. And because it is an unqualified commitment, people can think that it means an all too familiar religious fanaticism. That type of thinking leads to religious or quasi-religious "holy wars." (An old Bolshevik is supposed to have said, "The sword of history is in our hands, and we must use it ruthlessly.")

That seems to be the way James and John were thinking at the beginning of our text. When a Samaritan village refuses to welcome Jesus, they want permission to imitate the prophet Elijah and "command fire to come down from heaven and consume" the people of that village. But we're told that Jesus "rebuked them." Some manuscripts of Luke's gospel have Jesus expand on that and say, "You do not know what spirit you are of, for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them." In other words, "I don't work that way."

We have here two possible responses to Jesus' call: On the one hand, an unwillingness to make a full-faith commitment and on the other, a self-righteous fanaticism. Yeats spoke of those extremes when he wrote, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity."2 Some may be repelled by the idea of a holy war, but only because they can't imagine anything worth fighting or dying for.

Simply following Jesus

We are called to follow with total commitment, but that isn't the entire story. It's crucial for us always to remember who it is that we're following. Being Jesus' disciples means that our lives are to be conformed to the pattern he has given us - the pattern of the one who "set his face to go to Jerusalem," knowing that the cross was at the end of his journey. Unqualified commitment means willingness to follow Jesus on that same path. Luke tells us later in the book of Acts that James, who in our text is rebuked for his misunderstanding, was the first of the apostles to die for his faith.3

The sword of history is not in our hands but in God's. We aren't called to save the world - Jesus did that when he reached Jerusalem. We have no authority to call down fire from heaven upon anyone. Far from calling for revenge on those who would kill him, Jesus prayed that they be forgiven.4

We don't know where in this world the path of discipleship will take us. What we do know is that the one who calls us has given his life for us and intends to give his peace to the world. Following Jesus means that we are given opportunities to be the means by which his gift of life rather than death is spread among people.

In the Bible we're told about various people who heard Jesus' invitation to follow him and the ways in which they responded. That was in the past. When we hear the gospel today, the question for you and for me is, "How am I going to respond?"


COVID-19 and Proclaim Sermons : We are very aware of the innovations pastors are making to bring their preaching directly into homes. We want to help in every way we can. Please feel free to use Proclaim Sermons in any way you need to in your efforts. This includes copying it into emails, using it in video broadcasts or on your website ... frankly, please use it however you think will best serve your congregation.