51When 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 toward 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.
57As 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 plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
In 1962, President John F Kennedy signed a proclamation establishing a national youth fitness week. This meant that each year, every single student had to work toward receiving the Presidential fitness award. The test was grueling and included sit ups, pull ups, running and walking. It measured muscular strength, cardio-respiratory endurance, speed, agility, and flexibility – all the factors needed to maintain a healthy level of physical fitness. According to the presidential proclamation, these would “assure the continuing strength and well-being of our people.”
I admit, I rather enjoyed the challenge. In fact, I have one of those presidential awards in my keepsake box. Receiving it was a great accomplishment for me – something to be proud of. I must confess though – each year when I lied on the floor while my partner held my feet and counted my sit ups, I had no idea that it was for the benefit of the country….. if I had, I may have never have allowed this body to get into the shape it is in today…………….
Physical fitness takes a lot of work, exercising muscles in the body that we never knew we had, eating right, and following a healthy diet. Unfortunately, I have come to like relaxation and eating too much. And even though I know the risks of my behavior, I lack the discipline and focus I need for physical fitness.
But physical fitness is only one aspect of a person’s well-being. Although the Presidential fitness award focused only on the physical aspect of wholeness for the sake of our country, he also mentioned spiritual fitness in his proclamation. Like physical fitness, it takes discipline, practice, and exercise to build the kind of spiritual discipline that makes an impact on our world.
I think Jesus would have agreed that the well being of creation is dependent on the physical, mental, and spiritual wholeness of humankind. It just so happens that restoring wholeness was at the heart of his ministry on earth and continues to be the heart of Christian ministry today.
Until now, the Gospel of Luke portrays Jesus as the one who will bring about restoration to Israel, saving them from oppression. His ministry is marked by compassion and love as he casts out demons, heals people, and makes them whole again. He associates with the outcasts, eats with sinners, and proclaims the good news of God’s love for ALL people – even those who fall short of righteousness according to the law.
But in today’s Gospel, Jesus’ remarks to his followers are so harsh that one writer chose the title “Jesus the Jerk” for his essay about this text. First, Jesus rebukes his disciples for sticking up for him against a group of unbelieving Samaritans. Then he scorns the perfectly reasonable requests of prospective followers: one who wanted to take care of his father who is on his deathbed and the other who wishes to tell his family members goodbye before leaving them to follow Jesus.
Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
That really hurts! Jesus’ words can feel like a condemnation, especially since most of us can relate to this request since we spend a lot of time looking in the rear view mirror of our lives.
I don’t know about you, but I like to think of Jesus as always being full of grace, understanding, and extraordinary compassion for his disciples But the Jesus in this text is confusing. His response seems to call our fitness for the kingdom of God into question. The way he reacts to James, John, and his would be followers seems cranky and I can’t help wondering why.
Sometimes, seeing a text from a different perspective helps to answer these kinds of questions. So let’s take a moment and look at this story from Jesus’ point of view rather than our own.
Although we often focus on the perfect, godly side of Jesus – we also believe that he was fully human and what he is about to experience will test every ounce of his being. Biblical scholars tell us that our Gospel lesson today is a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem. He has just told his disciples that he is going there to be lifted up – not in glory, but in humiliation. There he will suffer – physically and spiritually – even to the point of wondering why God has forsaken him.
Everything that he does from here on has a sense of urgency. His task is monumental. He doesn’t have a lot of time to teach his disciples about faith – to instill in them a new vision of God’s Kingdom and how his journey toward Jerusalem will change every facet of their lives. This is serious business, and so far he hasn’t made much headway.
The people who should know better don’t. Despite following Jesus from the very beginning of his ministry, James and John have just failed discipleship 101, forgetting about several of Jesus’ key lessons, like the one telling them to shake the dust off their feet, and the other about God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness.
Those who have received the benefit of his love are now rejecting him. Jesus spent much of his time in Luke’s Gospel with the Samaritans. He had spent a lot his time moving from village to village, attempting to break down the barriers that separated them from his own people and building trust. Despite his work there, one town will not receive him when they realize that he is headed back to Jerusalem, the city that embodies the roots of Samaritan enmity with Israel.
Some people are still flocking to him. They want to be a part this new movement or to witness the miracles. Many follow him based on their belief that he will be the Messiah who will overthrow the Roman government and make them the great nation they once were. But, despite their enthusiasm, they have other priorities that keep them from understanding the urgency of Jesus’ mission. One wishes to complete the expected mourning period for his father – which by the way is one year long. The other wants to go back to say good-bye. Jesus makes it clear. Life with him means giving up everything else, including security, family, traditions, duty, and old values.
Clearly, none of them really get it, and Jesus has very little time to teach them. Is there any wonder that his words to them are blunt and stinging? He knows that the only way to accomplish this plan is to stay focused. He must move ahead with urgency to spread the radical message of God’s Kingdom. It is a message that will turn everyone’s understanding of faith and righteousness upside down.
To those who could not fully commit, Jesus said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Perhaps these harsh words to would-be followers are just as much for himself. When he, like us, is tempted by distractions, these words will give him the strength and focus he needs to endure what is ahead. Otherwise, there will be NO resurrection, NO new life, NO gift of the Holy Spirit for everyone, and NO final restoration for all people. If HE looks back now, even he will not be fit for the kingdom of God.
Because of his steadfast journey, we have been the gift of new life, and made inheritors of God’s Kingdom. We have also received the gift of the Spirit to help us live into the promise of this new life. It is a gift that comes with only one responsibility. It cannot be kept for oneself and it must be shared. Paul states it best saying, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”
This kind of self-giving love does not come easily. But it begins with a life of gratitude for what we have – physically, spiritually, and eternally.
In the last three weeks, we have been challenged to think about our financial support of the ministry here at Our Savior’s. Giving is an important part of our faith life, one of several marks of discipleship. Just as exercise helps to make us physically fit, giving helps to make us spiritually fit to do God’s kingdom work.
Jesus said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
These words haunted me this week as I stared at my blank commitment card. Working toward a tithe has been extremely difficult for me and probably for most of you too. Our physical needs are important. It is natural that we worry about them. There is always the threat of lost income due to things beyond our control: lay-offs or retirement, the loss of buying power due to inflation and a slow economy, health issues, unreliable vehicles, or homes that need major repairs. Unfortunately, they can be a distraction that gets in the way of spiritual growth built on experiencing God’s abundance.
There are also more subtle and insidious threats to our spiritual fitness. They include the mistaken belief that we are the masters of our own destination; that God helps those who help themselves; and that most of the time, people are the cause of their own suffering.
Even those who work hard to reach the goal of tithing can fall into a trap. The achievement of reaching a tithe can become more important than spiritual growth through giving. It can produce false pride that serves to judge others for their inability to move to the same place.
If we look at all of these attitudes about giving through the lens of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection, we will find that we, like the people in our text today, just don’t get it. Unlike the President’s test that recognizes achievement based on the number of physical exercises a person can do, the amount we give does not measure our spiritual fitness. Instead, intentionally thinking about our giving helps us to grow spiritual; it is a lifelong endeavor.
Although we might be tempted to give up on the practices that help to support spiritual fitness, Jesus doesn’t give up on us. He understands our struggles and his words today beckon us to keep our focus on God. His words encourage us to filter every decision we make as stewards of God’s gifts through the lens of the Gospel, the Word that literally turns our world upside down and releases us from bondage to ourselves.
We are lucky enough to know the rest of the story. God loves us so much that he entered into the world to walk WITH us. He experienced the joy, pain, and even the struggle to be faithful so that we might experience freedom from the yoke of self-indulgence in order to serve and love one another by offering God’s wholeness to a hurting and broken world.
Today, we offer our commitments not just to the ministry of this church, but to our generous and loving God who has provided enough for the whole world. Our commitment isn’t easy, and it requires discipline… but in the end, when we offer every part of ourselves back to God – body, mind, spirit, and gifts of time and talents, we will discover that we receive far more than we have given.