We all know the pitfall of extravagant promises. There is a story I think of when I read about the three men who wanted to follow Christ: A young man very much in love emailed his girlfriend a card that said “I would cross the hottest desert, swim the deepest sea, and climb the highest mountain to be with you.” At the bottom of the message was a PS: “It is raining heavily here, so I can’t make it tonight”.
The passage we read today tells us about three men who were intrigued by Christ but found it hard to follow through with a commitment to Him. Many whom Jesus cared about or loved – like the Rich Young Ruler – and many that He healed, did not respond to His call; they did not become followers of Christ. Jesus offers abundant life and love, and a peace unlike anything the World can give. But He also calls us to follow Him. Following Christ is costly. It can be a difficult path with tough decisions and sacrifices – and in some parts of the world, it can still result in death.
Earlier in Luke 9, we find a couple of amazing incidents: the feeding of the 5000 and the healing of a demon-possessed boy. Jesus gathered crowds like crabs gather barnacles. Just as the encrusted barnacles take advantage of the crab in collecting food and plankton, the crowds fed off the excitement of listening to and watching Jesus. But Jesus welcomed the 5000-strong crowd. He talked to them about the Kingdom of God, He healed those in need, and He fed all 5000 of them.
Perhaps the three men we encounter in today’s passage were among that 5000. Perhaps they were among the crowd that witnessed the dramatic healing of the boy who was possessed.
It is in this context of large crowds of spectators and onlookers, that earlier in Luke 9, Jesus reminds His disciples that, if anyone desired to truly follow Him, they had to deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow Him. He tells them: “whosoever desires to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.”
We are not told who the three men are. They knew something about Jesus and His ministry, but they hadn’t understood what following Him as a Disciple really meant.
As Jesus walked along the road, the first man tells Him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” According to Matthew’s Gospel, this man might have been a scribe or student – he calls Jesus “Teacher”. If so, this was not such an unusual thing to say. Students often followed and lived with their teachers, in order to learn from them and their lives. But Jesus told this man that there was more to being a disciple than following Him around, watching and listening.
Jesus makes one of His most poignant declarations: “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” Even foxes have holes and birds have nests. We have homes. But Jesus did not. Jesus pointed out the instability of itinerant living and rejection that He and His disciples would face.
In fact, Jesus and His followers had just encountered this instability and rejection. They were on the 100 mile journey to Jerusalem. On foot it would take them several days. Jesus planned to break journey in a Samaritan village – perhaps the one he had visited before. This was not something every Jew would have done: Jews and Samaritans did not mingle, and Jesus had led those following Him into unfamiliar, uncomfortable territory. Still, stopping at this village would provide much needed rest and refreshment.
But the Samaritans did not receive Jesus – because he was on his way to Jerusalem, the Capital City of the Jews. The refusal, in the culture of the time, is an insult – and John and James wanted to call down fire from heaven to punish the villagers. Jesus and those following him had to keep walking towards the next village without any certainty of shelter, rest, food or even welcome.
When Jesus responded to the first man, it was in the context of what had just happened. These were dangerous roads, and they had nowhere to lay their heads. Jesus was pointing out that following Him had serious and daily consequences. An impulsive declaration, even from a man who had travelled some way with Jesus, was not the same as a real and determined commitment to follow Jesus through all the difficulties that lay ahead. When they reached Jerusalem, the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus would truly put his followers to the test!
People are attracted to faith in Christ for various reasons: admiration for the life and teachings of Jesus, the prospect of blessings and prosperity, perhaps a bit of Divine Protection in case of emergency – even, these days, for respectability. But what Jesus highlights is that following and being a disciple is costly, not easy.
A friend of mine in Sri Lanka hired a driver for her car. During the interview he was very confident about his skill, and on the test drive all seemed well. A few days later, careering down the street with the car swerving madly to avoid traffic, she began to have misgivings. The man was clearly out of his depth in the demands of crowded city traffic that did not follow any rules. It later transpired that he had driven only on country roads – and that was ten years before. He was well-intentioned, but completely unprepared.
When we become “Christians” or “Disciples of Christ” we sign up to the demands of the Kingdom of God – summarised by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. We are subjects of a Heavenly King – much like the Israelites in the Old Testament passage we heard – bound to follow the King’s commands.
The second man in the story is confronted by Jesus suddenly turning to him and saying “Follow me”. The man – also one of those following Jesus on the road – is quick to respond. “First let me go and bury my father” he says to Jesus. Not an unreasonable request, we might think. But Jesus’ reply appears harsh: “let the dead bury the dead… you go and proclaim the kingdom of God”. Did Jesus not care about the man’s loss of his father, or the need for funeral rites?
Some interpretations suggest that when the man said “Let me go and bury my father” he really meant “let me come and follow you after I fulfil my obligations – when my father dies someday”. In other words he was saying “I will follow you sometime in the future”. Miss Marple would ask an interesting question: If his father were really dead, why was he not at home mourning? Maybe Jesus knew this was just an excuse.
There is a true story of an employee who kept asking his boss for leave to attend the funeral of various members of his family. After a point, his boss asked him whether his family had been struck by a personal plague that was killing them off at regular intervals!
Jesus was making a point here: the Kingdom of God requires an extraordinary commitment and faithfulness, putting Christ and His Kingdom above everything else. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you”.
The third man, like the first man, also declared that he wanted to follow Jesus. And like the second man he too has a “But” in his declaration. “But first”…he says. “But first let me… say goodbye to those at my house”.
We all succumb to the “But” syndrome. “I can do this for God… but… first let me sort out this one thing”. Jesus’ response was swift and startling – if you put your hand to the plough and look back, you are not fit for the Kingdom of God.
The responses Jesus makes to all these men might seem uncompromising and extremely harsh – unrealistic, even. Yet Jesus is making an important point: the call to discipleship – to follow Christ and be a part of His Kingdom – is not to be taken lightly. Jesus understood that the crowd were intrigued, even drawn to Him. But they really sought excitement, miracles, healing, and – for some – freedom from the Romans. Most of them weren’t really seeking Him or His Kingdom. So Jesus’ call to follow Him always included the reality of what it would mean.
We are often quite like the crowd that followed Jesus. Like the crowd, we can be reluctant when faced with the cost of discipleship. A friend of mine once told me that she didn’t want to believe in Christ, because the demands were too high. She had, in fact, counted the cost!
Jesus’ call to discipleship is the same now as it was then:
Firstly we have to count the cost.
And secondly we should not procrastinate, saying “But first let me…”
When Christ called His disciples to “take up their cross daily” and follow Him, He was calling them to be prepared to share in His suffering. Today when we say “we have our crosses to bear” we usually mean an inconvenience or minor difficulty. Yet, when His early followers heard Jesus’ call to “take up their cross”, they understood it very differently. Crucifixion was a normal form of execution in the Roman Empire – after rebellions, the crosses of captured rebels lined the roads. This was not a casual call stoically to bear the everyday difficulties of life. It was a call to face possible death. Many Apostles and early Christians did die – brutal deaths. Tradition has it that St Peter was crucified upside down, and many of the other Apostles were also martyred – beheaded, crucified, flayed alive, speared. St Paul gives a gruesome list of how many of the early Christians died.
So where does this leave us today? We experience Christ’s love and forgiveness, His blessing and provision, and we gather faithfully to worship Him. As we follow Christ today, the cost may not be torture and execution. But there will be a cost.
We need to ask ourselves what does Christ’s call to “deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him” mean in today’s context, in 21st century Northern Ireland?
To whom or what have we given ourselves? Is it to Christ or is it to the world around us? What are the most important things in our lives? The culture of the world is far from the principles of Christ’s Kingdom. It promotes the cult of self. We live in a world that worships financial success and easy fame – a celebrity culture that places greater value on appearance than on character. Careers matter more than relationships, and personal success counts more than the wellbeing of communities. To the world, progress matters more than service, and building better houses more than building better lives. Consumerist lifestyles emphasise our wants above the basic needs of the workers who produce our goods.
Are we as God’s people living out the costly life of discipleship in our world today?
The three would-be “followers” of Christ in Luke 9 remain unnamed. Perhaps they are not known by name because they did not make the journey from onlookers to Disciples, from interested spectators to members of the Kingdom of God. We know the names of many who came to Christ and continued as His disciples: Nicodemus, Joseph of Aramathea, Mary Magdalene and many others. Perhaps they were named because they were known and identified as followers committed to Christ.
Will we be like these three unnamed men in the crowd, who wandered on the fringes, looking for something, but unwilling to commit to Christ? Or are we among those who give our lives to Christ, and as we are transformed, put our hands to the plough, and never look back?