Hard Sayings

We hear no pleasant spiritual promises from Jesus today! Instead we have hard sayings, in which he calls us to follow him in difficult and unconditional ways.

A man tells him he will follow him anywhere, and Jesus tells him how hard it will be. He will be homeless. "Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the son of man has no place to lay his head."

Jesus invites another to follow him and this person asks if he may first bury his father. Jesus says "No, let the dead bury their own dead, you go proclaim the kingdom of God." This man is to give up his connections and duty to his ancestors and family.

Another says he will follow but first he wants to say goodbye to his family, and Jesus tell him not to do so. "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." Jesus asks this man to give up his whole previous life in order to follow him.

So it is with today's story about Elijah's call of Elisha to be his successor as prophet. Elisha does not go and kiss his mother and father goodbye, he abandons them. Furthermore, he slays the oxen with which he is plowing, and sacrifices them. He has to abandon his family and past, and his means of economic subsistence in order to follow God as God's new prophet.

The focus here is on following God and Jesus, and entering the kingdom of God which Jesus is proclaiming and opening up to them, and us. In so speaking, Jesus lays down a challenge to us, the challenge of true discipleship, of following Jesus, putting him before all else, and if anything gets in the way, renouncing it rather than Jesus and the Kingdom. We are to learn to live off the land, the scorched earth of the devil's kingdom, by living as if it were already God's kingdom, and so transforming it into God's kingdom.

We are to know where our true life, and true security are to be found. For it is our security systems that are challenged by Jesus' hard sayings. They threaten the safety nets we set up for ourselves in case God fails us and we are left on our own, left to fend for ourselves in a world without God. Jesus is calling us to live always as if there were a God and that God were totally in charge of the world and all obeyed God. We are to find our identity and security in living in that kingdom, and all the aspects of our own lives in which we could find security are to be used in the light and knowledge of that kingdom.

Where is our ultimate security? In our economic base, our profession, our means of making a living? What would all that be worth without God? Would it be truly satisfying, or an empty shell without God and God's love revealed to us in Jesus? If one day we had to choose, could we choose God and trust that dependence on God ensures survival? Could we feel secure in total dependence on God, or would we have to be independent and autonomous in order to feel secure? Would we have believe that we could make it without God if we had to.

Jesus lays down the same challenge in relation to our relations with our past, with our families, and forebears, with our race and class and kin. It is very easy to find a whole identity and reason for existence in these. We all have ethnic identities. And whose grandfather was a politician of note in some place or other. Could you belong to the DAR? Did your ancestors come over on the Mayflower? But the question Jesus sets before us today is how attached we are to these. Could we leave them for Jesus? Could we find new relations, a new family of brothers and sisters, new ways of relating and new identities in this new kingdom?

This message is stark. It is stark in the mouth of Jesus because the situation of his first followers was stark. They did in fact have to leave economic security, family, identity and even their religion in order to follow Jesus. It doesn't seem so stark for us. But in ways that are not stark but subtle, all these factors can take precedence in our lives over the following of Jesus and the doing of righteousness to the poor and the outcast. All of these things can become idols that we worship instead of the true God we see in Jesus, that Jesus who says to us today, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."