Luke 9:57-60 (NASB) As they were going on the road, someone said to Him, “I will follow You wherever You go.” And Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” And He said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” But He said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.”
Have you ever pondered the difference in Jesus’ response to these two people? Does the tenor of the second one give you pause?
The Gospel, like all realistic eyewitness accounts, is full of scenes for which we have no backstory at all. When we encounter one, it is natural to try to fill in the missing information. But any time we do that we must remember we are speculating. Does this mean all speculation is arbitrary? Actually, no. There are some rules that we all accept as being reasonable when speculating.
First, we all expect the actions witnessed, or words heard, to be consistent with the previous actions and words from that person. We do not expect a person, that we happen to know, to all of a sudden change his character, his customary behavior, radically or arbitrarily. Yes, a radical change could have happened in that person; but, not having witnessed that either, we have even less justification for that assumption. To assume that as the explanation, would be to add speculation on speculation. So, we assume the person is self-consistent.
Second, we have to assume that the words said were meant as they were said by that person. In a court of Law, you cannot put your words into a witness’ mouth. Nor can you force someone to incriminate themselves. We cannot force a negative or derogatory interpretation on a statement that could just as well be taken as positive or innocuous.
Both of these are versions of the principle of “giving the benefit of the doubt”. The first one is a robust version because it is based on previous evidence; it is hard to go wrong if we follow it. The second one is also good but it suffers from our subjectivity: It hinges on something being defined as positive or negative.
Maybe I think something is negative simply because I wouldn’t like it said to me. Yet, in the big picture of the wisdom of God, it could be that that is exactly what I needed to hear.
The difference probably lies in God’s plan
The first person…
… in Luke 9:57, told Jesus he would follow Him anywhere. Anywhere is a big word. It implies, “I will go with you no matter how hard the road gets. Believe me, I can handle it.” Jesus replies to Him by essentially saying: “You have seen how I live… Count the cost.” In other words, “Are you ready to make that commitment?”
Based on the fact that the Gospels tell us Jesus knew the hearts of men, knew their background, knew what they were thinking, knew their motivations, it seems safe to assume that He didn’t think this person was ready to make the commitment. Maybe, it was seeing him in the future that motivated this line in the parable of the Sower:
Matthew 13:20-21 But he that is sown on the rocky places—this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, but has no root in himself, but is for a time only; and when tribulation or persecution happens on account of the Word, he is immediately offended.
If I, without counting the cost, choose to follow Jesus, and then, true to His word, I face persecution precisely because I am following Him, then there is a very high probability that I am going to be disappointed, that I am going to be angry, that I am going to say ‘this isn’t fair… Jesus, why don’t you fix this?’ And when Jesus shrugs his shoulders and tells me, ‘What were you expecting?’ I’ll probably hit the ceiling and never have anything to do with him again.
That’s the way we are.
So, wasn’t that man supposed to follow Jesus? Am I saying it wasn’t in God’s plan for him to be a believer? What if, at that reply, he turned around and walked away from Jesus, grumbling, and then was killed in a freak accident? Did he miss on going to Heaven because Jesus discouraged him?
(You see how we can get carried away with speculation upon speculation…)
I think (and here I am, admittedly, speculating) that in keeping with the character of God, with the fact that God is Just, and that He knows all of us, that what was happening here was that God wasn’t yet done working on this man’s heart. Remember, Jesus said:
John 6:44-45 No one can come to me except the Father who has sent me draw him, and I will raise him up in the last day. It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God. Every one that has heard from the Father [himself], and has learned [of him], comes to me…
I am pretty sure that God knows how well we have been listening.
So, I wouldn’t be worrying too much about that man dying in a freak accident yet. God is in control of His Plan.
The second person…
… in Luke 9:59-60, is a different story. That calling was not initiated by him, it was initiated by Jesus. Jesus was the one that told him: “Follow me.”
Arguing the same way – from the character of God – we can conclude that when Jesus made that call, He must have known that that person was capable of saying, ‘Yes.’ Not only that, in God’s Plan there must have been a whole path already ideally prepared for this person to follow, suited to his talents and spiritual gifts. Maybe a unique path, that few others could have tackled.
And yet, the man said: ‘I’m not ready. I still have responsibilities back home. When my Dad passes away, then I’ll have done my duty and then I’ll have time…’
And Jesus’ reply sounds harsh: “Let the dead bury their own dead.”
Is that harsh? What about this:
Luke 14:25-26 And great crowds went with him; and, turning round, he said to them, If any man come to me, and shall not hate his own father and mother, and wife, and children, and brothers, and sisters, yea, and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple…
Harsh? Maybe… or maybe I just don’t like it said to me… But you see, it is all about counting the cost:
Luke 14:27 and whoever does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
Luke 14:28-30 For which of you, desirous of building a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, if he have what [is needed] to complete it; in order that, having laid the foundation of it, and not being able to finish it, all who see it do not begin to mock at him, saying, This man began to build and was not able to finish?
Luke 14:31-32 Or what king, going on his way to engage in war with another king, does not, sitting down first, take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him coming against him with twenty thousand? and if not, while he is yet far off, having sent an embassy, he asks for terms of peace.
Luke 14:33 Thus then every one of you who forsakes not all that is his own cannot be my disciple.
Choosing to follow Jesus is an ‘Either/Or’ proposition. Once I know that this is the right path, that this is what I must do with my life here on Earth, because I do want the eternal life He offers me, then there is no turning back. No one, not even my mother and father, not my wife, not my children, should have the power to steer me away.
Why make it sound so harsh?
You might want to say, “Wait, wait, maybe I wasn’t ready, maybe I wasn’t mature enough, maybe I didn’t really know that this is what I wanted.” But isn’t that the same as saying, “Maybe when I made that decision, I thought Jesus was telling me the Truth, but now I don’t know; I am not sure…”
If I find myself wavering like that, I’d better do some deep soul searching because Jesus did say…
John 6:44-45 No one can come to me except the Father who has sent me draw him … And they shall be all taught of God. Every one that has heard from the Father [himself], and has learned [of him], comes to me…
I have to decide: Did I or didn’t I hear God’s voice? Did He or didn’t He open my eyes and reveal the Truth already? Because if I did hear His voice, there is no going back; there is no way to unhear it. I have stepped into the Either/Or decision. And, as an adult member of the human race that He created, it is my responsibility to choose one or the other.
And that means I must understand that turning away from Him, at this point, is a willful decision to reject the Maker of the Universe, the One who gave me life. To me, that would be a scary place to be.
This is why, in that passage in Luke, there is a third man…
Luke 9:61-62 And another also said, I will follow thee, Lord, but first allow me to bid adieu to those at my house. But Jesus said to him, No one having laid his hand on [the] plough and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God.
How scary is this?
Maybe we should ask Simon Peter… Because he knew Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God – and that, through revelation from the Father (for so Jesus tells us) – and yet, on that fateful night in the courtyard of the High Priest, when Jesus was on trial, Peter denied even knowing Jesus…
And it hurt: Luke 22:62 And Peter, going forth without, wept bitterly.
At that point, is there any hope of restoration? Maybe we should ask Simon Peter. His answer would be, Yes. Why? Because he experienced it. But more than that, because he knew Jesus promised:
John 6:37 All that the Father gives me shall come to me, and him that comes to me I will not at all cast out.