(Note: I preached this sermon in May, 2007, at the University of Chicago’s Bond Chapel. I repost it for Kierkegaard’s commemoration tomorrow).
A reading from the Holy Gospel according to Luke [9:51-62]:
51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’* 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then* they went on to another village.
57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ 58And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ 59To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ 60But Jesus* said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ 61Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ 62Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
Sisters and brothers, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
If it is true that the Word of God is a sword that parts bone from joint, these verses we hear today from Luke are one of those ginsu knives that cuts through aluminum cans and even pennies. It combines elegance and sheer terror in a way only Christ of all Biblical voices could do. I would rather hear God’s catechesis to Job out of the whirlwind than hear these words:
“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” We give him great universities, jeweled tabernacles, prestigious foundations, division one athletic programs, all to plead, prove, or pledge that Christ has come under our roof, and yet the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. A life with him is no path to any comfort, ease, wealth, or even stability. The disciple would do well to think twice before offering to go wherever Jesus goes.
“Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” No obligation, no matter how sacred, may be fulfilled by the follower embarked with Christ. The follower must trust that her dearest dead will no go unburied, that the crops will not rot in the fields, that important books and great poems will not go unwritten, that justice will not go unadministered in her absence. A life with Christ is no path to virtue, excellence, renown, or even ordinary duty. The disciple would do well to reconsider what he is offering and under what conditions.
“No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” This is the most devastating of the three. He does not say that any number of backward glances from the plough may be forgiven at confession, or covered for the sake of faith in him, or allowed to pass if you try harder next time. The disciple must not only leave everything but also leave nothing behind–no part of herself that beckons backward to the hearth and the filial duty from the hard turf of the field.
If you’re at all like me, you stand under the judgment of this text. I have had a warm and inviting place to lay my head every single night since I first read this passage six years ago. I have not only buried my proverbial dead but I have tended their graves. And long after putting my hand to the plough, I have looked back–with such frequency, in fact, that I’ve found it easier to install a rearview mirror and call it “discernment,” as if I were looking forward. This is the kind of passage, in fact, that distinguishes itself by the anxiousness of its interpretations. I’ve heard it said that the second would-be disciple’s father may be in fine health, as if he’s asking for an indefinite deferral. This sounds plausible enough until you ask why on earth such a scenario would be worth writing down in the first place, if the prospective disciple is a lawyerly negotiator and Christ is a pedant. If studying the history of Christianity has taught us nothing else, it’s that most difficult texts can be cleared up with accommodating exegesis. This is how we get the very hyperbolic Christ of the preaching commentaries, always overstating things to make a point. Failing that, you can always ignore the verses in question.
But if you’re not satisfied by these options, we must push deeper into these statements that both stir and startle the soul. Dietrich Bonhoeffer offers a section in The Cost of Discipleship on this passage. He won’t settle for the typical Lutheran circumspection on these verses but goes to the heart of the matter: discipleship is not an office one chooses for oneself but that one receives at Christ’s call; discipleship is non-negotiable and may happen only on Christ’s terms, not on ours; discipleship is total. He’s right about this, I suspect, but he makes it sound as if Christ’s words to these three would-be disciples are a rebuke. I would suggest something else. This passage is neither sniveling nor scolding, but it is Christ at his most compassionate. He says these hard, almost unhearable things out of pity for his hearers. He has, after all, set his face to Jerusalem. He knows what is coming while the others do not. His disciples want him to rain down punishment on his enemies, but Christ will do no such thing. He seeks disciples, not a routed army suing for peace. His disciples can expect no comforts and no divine power. They must leave even their most sacred obligations behind, and they must do it without regret or hesitation. If someone you loved tried to do this, wouldn’t you want them to think twice?
It’s as if he were to say, “Go, seek God, have spiritual experiences, work for social justice, redeem the academic project, build a growing and spirit-filled worshiping community if that’s what you want to do, but please, please don’t follow me. It will only bring you sorrow and bitterness. Unless you are willing to go where I go, lodge where I lodge, and take my people to be yours, stay home. If you are not willing to let the world go about its business, you will do yourself and the world a disservice by leaving now. If you leave any part of yourself behind, the journey will tear you in two. Your only reward is to be with me. Anything else you could possibly seek may be had by other means.”
Jesus is not protecting the solitude of his divine majesty here but is simply describing what it means to be a disciple without a bait-and-switch. He says these things not to hurt but to keep from hurting.
Here is Kierkegaard, from Philosophical Fragments:
“Look, there he stands–the god. Where? There. Can you not see him? He is the god, and yet he has no place where he can lay his head, and he does not dare turn to any person lest that person be offended at him. He is the god, and yet he walks more circumspectly than if angels were carrying him–not to keep him from stumbling, but so that he may not tread in the dust the people who are offended at him. He is the god, and yet his eyes rest with concern upon the human race, for the individual’s tender shoot can be crushed as readily as a blade of grass. Such a life–sheer love and sheer sorrow. To want to express the unity of love and then not to be understood, to be obliged to fear for everyone’s perdition and yet in this way truly to be able to save only one single person–sheer sorrow, while his days and hours are filled with the sorrow of the learner who entrusts himself to him. Thus does the god stand upon the earth, like unto the lowliest through his omnipotent love.”
To truly love is to prefer hardship and tribulation with the beloved to ease and comfort without the beloved. This, Kierkegaard suggests, is why the god became human, to share our fate with us as one of us. The disciple, or the learner as Kierkegaard calls him, wishes only to return that love, to share the human hardships and tribulations of this exemplary man, the god. Some of us–no one knows how many, for they are invisible–have felt the hand of this god on our heads and the call of this god in our ears. And if you have heard that call, wherever or whenever you heard it, everything else in life is just an education in answering it. Those of us leaving these hallowed halls are, I pray, grateful and much wiser for the experience. Elizabeth Musselman, leader of my first-year colloquium, put the quote from ‘Philosophical Fragments’ on her Facebook page. John Flack, who is on Facebook, showed it to me. So I read Philosophical Fragments. And now I’ve quoted it to you. We owe this place, and each other, more than most of us will ever know. That notwithstanding, some leaving Swift Hall land exactly where they were when they entered: on the path, however poorly, following Christ wherever he shows himself. The west side of Chicago, the eastern coast of Africa, it’s all the same to Christ. It’s the same plough and the same field the world over–only the hand, your hand, changes. It is impossible, and the only thing worth doing. It is unbearable to hear, but it is the world’s truest joy.