51As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; 53but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. 54When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them[c]?" 55But Jesus turned and rebuked them, 56and[d] they went to another village.
The Cost of Following Jesus
57As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go."
58Jesus replied, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head."
59He said to another man, "Follow me."
But the man replied, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father."
60Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God."
61 Still another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family."
62Jesus replied, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God."
I just recently completed watching a fascinating documentary film about LeBron James, an American professional basketball player. The movie was focused on James’ rise as a youth basketball player and a high school phenomena who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated while still a junior in high school. The film shows footage from James and his best friends playing in an 8th grade AAU game for the national championship, a game which James and his teammates lost. From that point on, James and his friends decided that they were going to focus on nothing else than winning a national championship together. Everything they did and every decision that they made was done in the light of that march towards a national championship. They made a surprising decision to go to a high school together that was outside of their neighborhood, for instance, because even though it made some other things tougher on them, they felt that it gave them the best opportunity to win the high school national championship. As the film progresses through their lives it shows how they stayed focused on that goal despite several hiccups, twists, and turns along the way. In fact, I realized that if someone came into the film late and didn’t catch the early information that they were so singularly focused on winning a national championship, many of the decisions that they made in their lives and many of the things that they did as a team just wouldn’t make a lot of sense. The national championship was their mission and their destination, one that they would finally reach at the end of James’ senior year.
In a very real sense, Jesus is setting out on his own mission. It’s one that’s far more significant than winning a national championship in basketball. Yet the analogy of James’ mission is instructive because it demonstrates a bit of the focus that is necessary to stay committed to a mission of this nature. Like the film, we must understand from here on out that Jesus is setting off on a specific mission to work his way to Jerusalem. Everything else that Luke will tell us must be interpreted and understood in the light of his march towards his own death. Jesus is not being swept along by a swirl of events that will snatch him up and carry this poor, helpless figure towards a cruel end. No, Jesus is about to turn his face towards Jerusalem and march straight into the forces of evil and darkness that have amassed themselves against God. He is not being swept along at all, he is making war on death and evil. That is his mission and it will end in Jerusalem.
During his transfiguration Jesus had communed with Elijah and Moses and they had spoken of his coming Exodus. This was his journey to assault death itself and destroy man’s cruelest enemy. He would march towards Jerusalem and, as he made clear to his disciples in the previous passage, would meet rejection and ultimately death. But he would not be conquered by that foe as it might have seemed at the moment. Luke can sit back from the perspective of hindsight and realize that Jesus wasn’t just marching towards his death. He was marching towards his assault on death, his resurrection, and his ascension to heaven. The time for his mission had come and it would end with him being taken up to heaven, an allusion to Elijah whose ministry ended in a similar manner.
So, he “resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” This passage literally reads, “He set his face to go to Jerusalem.” What a great figure of speech. To set one’s face was a figure of speech that is used several times in the Old Testament (Gen. 31:21; Jer. 21:10; 44:12). It carried the idea of being absolutely determined in your action. It was something that one said when they were undertaking an endeavor from which they would not be deterred. But there was a second connotation to this phrase as used here as well which had to do with the preaching of repentance. It is likely that Luke intended his phrase to be an allusion to Ezekiel 21:3 which says, “Son of man, set your face against Jerusalem and preach against the sanctuary. Prophesy against the land of Israel and say to her: 'This is what the LORD says: I am against you. I will draw my sword from its scabbard and cut off from you both the righteous and the wicked.” Ezekiel was sent with a message of condemnation and judgment for those that did not heed God’s word. Jesus will do the same. His kingdom message will be one of invitation and hope for those that will embrace God’s covenant family accessible through the life of the Messiah but it will be a message of judgment for the nation of Israel that would reject the Messiah as a whole. When Jesus finally arrives in Jerusalem, he will weep for a city that has rejected the long-awaited return of Israel’s God and this judgment will be upon them.
Malachi 3:1 spoke of God sending messengers on ahead before he returned to his Temple in Jerusalem and that is precisely what Jesus does as he sends messengers ahead of him as he begins his mission. Luke also continues the heavy Elijah allusions in this passage as he describes the outset of the mission. Jesus wanted to go through a Samaritan village but they refused. Samaritans did not like Jews, especially Jews who were on religious missions and so they refuse him entry into their town. If they are going on a mission of proclamation and judgment with one who is greater than Elijah, then surely the rejection of the Samaritans should be met with a response in the vein of Elijah’s calling down fire from heaven to destroy his opposition (2 Ki. 1:9-16). But Jesus’ mission to Jerusalem is not about condemnation but salvation. The disciples show once again that they have still not fully embraced or understood the new reality that Jesus was proclaiming.
It is probably no mistake that Luke has chosen three questions to discuss the difficulty of following Jesus. This was going to be a hard road. He was marching straight into his death and those who would follow him should not expect any sort of comfortably rewarding journey. The three-fold aspect of the call to follow Jesus likely echoes the three-fold call of Elisha to follow Elijah found in 2 Kings 2:1-6. At each turn in that passage, Elisha affirms that he is committed to stay with Elijah despite Elijah’s attempts to deter Elisha from doing just that. This call is different, though, in that, just as Jesus is greater than Elijah, so following him in discipleship is a much more difficult task than was following Elijah. It will take uncommon commitment to follow Jesus in his mission.
The first question involved a man who likely wanted to follow Jesus in a rabbi-student type situation where he would follow Jesus and learn from him. But the nature of discipleship of Jesus is much more than that. Following Jesus would be more like following an itinerant prophet who traveled from town to town with no obvious means of support. Following Jesus is not a sure endeavor. It calls one to faithfulness to God rather than a sure existence in this age. It means to turn your full attention to God’s kingdom and trust in him to provide for the necessities of life.
The second conversation is initiated by Jesus’ call to a man to follow him. The man’s request to first go and bury his father was a reasonable request in Judaism as honor for parents and burying one’s parents was absolutely expected. When Elijah called Elisha to follow him Elisha requested and was granted the right to go and say goodbye to his parents. This man’s request was not an example of him trying to weasel out of following Jesus. It was, rather, an opportunity for Jesus to teach him the true nature of following him. To follow Jesus in this mission was much more demanding than following Elijah. It meant ultimate commitment and focus. It meant putting the kingdom of God above all else. The important task of family funeral customs paled in comparison to the importance of following Jesus.
The third exchange again demonstrates that Jesus is not necessarily laying down timeless rules of what it means to follow him but he was stressing the primacy and demand of following him over discipleship to the archetypical mentor, Elijah. The demands are a bit exaggeratory but make the point of the difficulty of the mission. When Elijah called Elisha to follow him, Elisha specifically requested to return and set affairs with his family, including burning his plow. Picking up on that imagery, Luke includes Jesus’ conversation with a man who wanted to go back and do precisely what Elisha did. But in this context, Jesus views this more along the lines of looking back while plowing. The kingdom of God demands priority over everything else in life. Just as one cannot plow in a straight line while looking back, so one cannot hang onto to the old reality of life and still embrace the new reality of Jesus’ kingdom. Above all else, this is an Exodus journey and the demands of an Exodus journey are extreme. Following Jesus would be rigorous and demanding.
We can get into trouble with passages like this if we don’t carefully consider the context. Jesus was speaking of the specific task of following him on his Exodus mission. Time was short and the mission was demanding. We get into trouble if we pull his words out of context and try to apply them directly to following Jesus today. Yet, we should not think that following Jesus is any less demanding. Although we are not called to follow Jesus on his specific Exodus journey to Jerusalem we are called to follow him and the demands are no less challenging, although different. We still need to consider that following Jesus means a willingness to spurn comfort. It means putting nothing above him in priority. It means putting our hand to the plow and constantly looking forward to the new reality of the kingdom rather than being like Lot’s wife and looking back to the old way. Jesus had set his face to march straight into his own death. Being his disciple today means doing the same. Jesus is still calling us to set our face towards the age to come and take on the journey of dying to self and following him. As his disciples we must always be prepared to follow him wherever he goes. That’s what a disciple does.
Take a moment to think of Jesus’ image of putting one’s hand to the plow and looking back. In what ways are you tempted to look back since you have put your hand to the plow? What would be the effect of that? How do Jesus’ exhortations here help you to stay resolved to not look back?