Thirteenth Sunday – Follow Me: Death and the Kingdom

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We finally return to Ordinary Time, and our orderly reading through Luke’s Gospel. 

We begin at the defining turning point of Luke’s Gospel, Luke 9:51: “When the days of Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined [literally: set his face] to journey to Jerusalem.” 

(Much of the material from Matthew and Mark comes before this turning point: Luke 1-4, like Matthew 1-4, is the infancy and then the temptation and baptism, but Luke 5-9 crams in the rest of Matthew 5-25: calling the disciples, cleansing lepers, healing paralytics, questions about fasting, Lord of the sabbath, the sermon on the mount/plain, the centurion’s servant, the widow’s son, the woman who anoints his feet, the parables, the storm, the demonaic, the sending of the apostles, the five thousand, the confession of Peter—phew.  From Luke 9:51 until chapter 22, the last supper and the crucifixion, we find all the exciting, unique parts of Luke: the Good Samaritan, Martha and Mary, the midnight begger, the rich fool with his barns, “come up higher,” inviting the poor to your feast, the prodigal son, the dishonest steward, the rich man and Lazarus, “we are unworthy servants, only doing our duty”, the persistent widow, the Pharisee and the tax collector, let the children come to me, Zacchaeus the tax collector, weeping over Jerusalem, the widow’s mite.)

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The second half of our Gospel reading is more memorable: “foxes have dens,” “let the dead bury their dead.”  But the deeper point is in the first half.

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Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem.  That is his identity: focused on his mission, facing the cross, pressing on.  For Luke, this is the heart of the Gospel.  But as he goes through Samaria (the region between Galilee and Judaea, where Jersualem is), “they would not welcome him because the destination of his journey was Jerusalem”—or, literally, “because his face was of one going to Jerusalem.” 

Now, part of of the Samaritans’ problem was that they were the location of the Lord’s temple before David and Solomon built the capital and the temple in Jerusalem; they dispute the importance of Jerusalem.

But in our context, the bigger point is that Jesus was facing his destiny—and they didn’t want that.  They were comfortable where they were.  That’s the setup for what’s coming, about foxes having dens, etc.

Then Luke gives a brilliant flipside.  James and John respond, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?”  (What an odd question!)  Ironically, in their opposition to the Samaritans, James and John are a lot like them: they too are focused on here and now, on winning battles, on control—whereas Jesus is focused on going to meet his destiny in Jerusalem.  James and John—and all of us, in our nasty anger—want to have dens like foxes, and to destroy anyone who tries to invade our comfort.  That is not Jesus.

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In the second half, Jesus is not as contrary as we think.  (This is impotant, because there’s a tendency to say Jesus is using “Semitic exaggerations,” and he doesn’t really mean what he says.  I think it’s better to look at what he actually says, which tends to be true, and to demand that we take him literally.)

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The first guy says, “I will follow you wherever you go.”  Jesus responds, “Foxes have dens . . . but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”  That’s not a rebuke, it’s only a warning.  Yes, good, follow me.  But know that you’re not following me to a place of comfort and rest, but to the cross.  That’s what it means to follow.

The second guy, on the other hand, says nothing—till Jesus says, “Follow me.”  He responds, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.”  We read too fast, and we think Jesus says, “No, you’re not allowed to bury your father, you have to follow me”—and we think, on the one hand, that Jesus doesn’t seem to appreciate the goods of this world, and on the other hand, that we can’t possibly take him literally.

But that isn’t what Jesus says.  Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their dead.  But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”  Notice the details.  Jesus tells him to “go.”  In fact, it’s the same word the man says, “Let me go.”  In the Greek, it’s even specific, in both cases, “let me go away.”  Jesus does let him go away—he commands him to go away, which is, on the literal level, the opposite of “follow me.”  Jesus was setting him up: he says, “follow me,” and then lets the guy discover what that following means: for him, yes, it does mean “going away,” instead of following Jesus to Jerusalem.

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But what Jesus changes is what the man is going away to do.  He doesn’t tell him not to bury the dead.  He does tell him to “proclaim the kingdom of God.”  Since Jesus has his face set toward Jerusalem—and one of the last things he said before he set his face toward Jerusalem was, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men,” he understands death.  Yes, whether you go with me to Jerusalem or whether you stay to bury your father, you are entering into death.  But proclaim the kingdom of God.  That’s what it will mean for you to “follow me”: whether in Jerusalem or right where you are, death and the kingdom.

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And so when the third guy says, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home,” Jesus does not say, “nope, you’re not allowed to say goodbye,” but “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”  In plowing, as in sailing, you cut a straight line by keeping your eye on your destination—your face set on Jerusalem.  If you look away, you go off course. Just as with the previous man, he doesn’t tell him to ignore his family.  He does tell him that, wherever he goes, he needs to keep his face set on Jerusalem.  It’s as if, just as the first man says, “I will follow you wherever you go,” Jesus says, “I will follow you, wherever you go.”

It will take Jesus thirteen chapters to make his way to Jerusalem.  There’s plenty for us to do between here and there, and Jesus is not denying that we should do it.  He is saying that we must keep our face resolutely set on the goal, facing death and the kingdom of God without flinching, no matter what we do.

Are there parts of your life where you think you need to take your eyes off of Jesus?

eric.m.johnston

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