The first observation for this Sunday’s Gospel is that it provides a kind of remedy for the sappy portraits of Jesus that seem to predominate today. Such portraits present Jesus as the quintessential “nice guy” whose main task was to affirm people, befriend the poor and generally be “nice.” It is a true fact that he did affirm, he befriended the poor and did have some nice things to say. But it is also true that Jesus is firm and uncompromising in setting forth conditions for discipleship. In today’s Gospel Jesus is clear in his own resolve and demands the same from those will follow him. There are to be no excuses and no postponements. He wants a decision. He is clear as to what that decision must be and he is not willing to wait for an answer tomorrow. This is no sappy or syrupy Jesus. He is serious and sets forth sober principles that he expects to be followed.
In today’s Gospel we can find five disciplines of discipleship which are both taught and exemplified by Jesus.
1. Purposefulness – The Gospel opens today with this line: When the days for Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem. (Luke 9:51) Jesus was resolute. He was heading to Jerusalem to suffer, die and rise. He had this for his purpose and would not be deterred from this goal. He was determined to undertake the great battle and the great mission entrusted to him. Everything he did was to be oriented to this goal. We too are summoned to be purposeful, to be determined and to have our life centered around the one goal of knowing God in order to love Him, serve Him, be saved by Him and spend eternity with Him. Everything we do must somehow be linked to this one thing. Other Scriptures speak of the necessity of being resolutely purposeful and of having our life centered on the one thing necessary: This one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13) No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. (Mat 6:24) A double minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8)
2. Perseverance – As the text of today’s gospel continues a certain Samaritan town rejects and will not receive Jesus or the missionary group accompanying him. When the disciples James and John saw this they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they journeyed to another village (Lk 9:54-56) Now the fact is that if we witness to Jesus Christ authentically we are going to experience some hatred and rejection. Jesus is not deterred by this rejection but simply moves on to the next town. He also rebukes James and John for being so thin-skinned and revengeful about it. We cannot allow our little egos to get in the way of witnessing to Christ. Neither can we allow vengeful anger to sidetrack us into hate and away from love. We must persevere in proclaiming the Gospel message in season or out of season, whether we are accepted or rejected. Some will reject us. Instead of stopping out of hurt or discouragement we are counseled to shake the dust from our feet and move on to the next town, or soul (cf Matt 10:14). By the way, Jesus perhaps had this incidence in mind when he (humorously?) gave James and John the nickname “Sons of Thunder.” (Mk 3:17) So perseverance in spite of hatred and persecution is the second discipline of discipleship taught and demanded by the Lord.
3. Poverty – As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” (Lk 9:57-58) Now this man apparently thought Jesus was headed somewhere high, perhaps to a palace. He probably figured on a worldly Messiah who was set to conquer and take charge and he wanted a place close to this new King in the palace. But Jesus rebukes the notion that following him will lead to this. In fact, it will lead to the cross. To follow Jesus will require that we learn to be poor to this world. Wealth, power, popularity and prestige entangle us with this world and keep us from our appointed task of proclaiming Christ crucified and finding our way home to heaven. We need to embrace a kind of poverty where we learn to simplify, pull free from worldly entanglements and travel light. We need not be destitute but neither should we be enamored of this world’s wealth. And frankly following Christ often means directly that we will experience financial impacts. The world know how to reward it’s own. But most often this reward comes at the cost of compromising the gospel. Living as a Christian often means we will live in a way that limits financial and other rewards. We won’t make easy compromises with sin or evil for profit or access. We won’t just take any job or be ruthless in the workplace. We won’t deal with unscrupulous people. We won’t lie on our resume, cheat on our taxes or take unethical short cuts. We will observe the Sabbath, be generous to the poor, pay a just wage and provide necessary benefits. We will pay the tithe. So pulling free of easy compromises and entanglements with the world and being “poor” to its riches is the third discipline of discipleship.
4. Promptness – And to another he said, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God (Luke 9:59-60). We tend to think that the man’s Father has just died and thus cringe at the Lord’s “cruel” remark. But the text does not in fact say the man’s father has just died. Hence, a more likely understanding of this text which also respects the Lord’s response is that the man is really saying something like: “I want to follow you, but my father is getting up in years and I will surely have to care for him. Perhaps when I am free of family obligations I will follow you.” The fact is that we can have a thousand excuses to avoid making God our priority. We endlessly postpone whole hearted discipleship by saying “Perhaps when I retire I’ll be better about getting to Church and praying…..Perhaps when I get the raise I’ll be more generous to the poor.” And so we delay our conversion. Then finally retirement does come and we have other excuses such as, “Well I’m not as young as I used to be and it’s harder to get out and go to Mass or get more involved.” And the fact is that it has always been tomorrow that “I’ll do better.” Jesus is unimpressed with all the excuses and the promises about how things will be better “later.” He says, “Now.” The fourth discipline of discipleship is promptness. We must promptly obey God.
5. Permanence – And another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” To him Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Lk 9:61-62) This excuse sounds similar but Jesus different response points to another discipline of discipleship, that of permanence. Jesus teaches quite plainly that we are to set our hand to the Gospel plow and stop looking back to the world. The Letter to the Ephesians states well our call: Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph 4:22-24). The second Letter of Peter says Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your call and election permanent (2 Pet 1:10). The Lord has called us from things like: Harmful habits, ruinous relationships, soul-killing sinfulness, and perilous pleasures. We are, by his grace to leave these things behind and not look back. Proverbs, 26:11 says, As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his foolishness. Clearly then we must cling to Christ. Going back and forth from the world to Christ is unacceptable. And old spiritual says, “Some go to Church for to sing and shout, before six months they’s all turned out.” The fifth discipline of discipleship is permanence.
This song says, Jesus says, “Here I stand, won’t you please let me in?” and you said “I will but tomorrow.” Tomorrow? Who promised you tomorrow. Better choose the Lord today, for tomorrow very well might be too late.