51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53 but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 When 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?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 Then 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.” 58 And 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.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the reign of God.” 61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the dominion of God.”
“Purity of heart,” according to existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, “is to will one thing.” I find that idea at once exceptionally attractive…and also, somehow, entirely naïve. One thing? What could it possibly mean to want one thing out of life, to have the same goal and desire in each and every moment? I think I willed multiple things before getting out of bed this morning, and I expect that each one of us here has had days, probably recently, when your attention was required in several places all at the same time. There are demands at work and home and in the community. You want to give your time and energy here at church and perhaps your child’s school or to other volunteer opportunities. You wish to support movements for justice, to show up at meetings and marches, to write letters and meet with government representatives. You invest in relationships, strengthening bonds with family members and friends, while also building new friendships. You are genuinely needed in many places. Willing only one thing seems not only impossible but even unchristian.
And yet, ironically, it’s a message that Jesus seems to convey in the Gospel today. Discipleship, he says, requires singleness of mind and a commitment free of distractions. With his face set squarely on Jerusalem, he says to any who wish to follow, “Don’t look back, let the dead bury the dead, leave everything else behind if you plan to be with me.” His words sound harsh. Where is the compassion we’d expect from Jesus when someone earnestly wished to follow but just asked for a little time to grieve his father’s death, or even to simply say goodbye to family members?
Now I’m tempted to try to soften these hard words of Jesus. We know from looking at church history that God has done extraordinary things through people who owned houses and loved their families and attended funerals. I only need to look around the room to confirm that’s true. So maybe Jesus was just having a bad day, and we don’t need to take this passage so seriously. I can also say that some of what Jesus said really can only apply to the particular historical context in which he lived. This funeral comment, for instance, most likely had more to do with cultural expectations and lengthy, complicated religious requirements associated with death than it did with personal grief. These were statements uniquely relevant to a very different kind of funeral practice that we are familiar with. Plus, it was an especially urgent time in history that demanded risky action. Jesus was headed to Jerusalem to intentionally confront the political and religious authorities. This was a big moment, but obviously you cannot live your whole life with that kind of urgency.
That’s all true. And yet, I’m reminded that my unwillingness to acknowledge the urgency that this historical moment requires may be a result of my relative comfort and privilege. It can be easy for me to look at the problems of our world today—poverty, racism, discrimination—and believe them to be normal or unchangeable and therefore put off getting involved in solutions. Ethicist Sharon Welch says,
“It is easier to give up on long-term social change when one is comfortable in the present—when it is possible to have challenging work, excellent health care and housing, and access to the fine arts. When the good life is present or within reach, it is tempting to despair of its ever being in reach for others and resort to merely enjoying it for oneself and one’s family… Becoming so easily discouraged is the privilege of those accustomed to too much power, accustomed to having needs met without negotiation and work, accustomed to having a political and economic system that responds to their needs” (Sharon Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, 15).
The call to follow Jesus that we read about in the Gospel, then, may echo the sense of urgent need for change felt daily by many in our community and throughout the world for a variety of reasons. In times of real struggle, certainly every moment matters. This is why immigrants and their allies keep working for immigration reform in the U.S. in the face of one setback after another. It’s why I hear many people of color saying we can’t wait until some later time to talk about institutionalized racism in our country and its effects on just about every sphere of life. It’s why friends in the LGBTQ community remind me that while we do celebrate marriage and other rights gained in the past, we can’t take our eyes off of the real goal of equality and dignity for every person. The call to follow Christ and to proclaim the good news of God’s love is as urgent now as ever.
And it’s probably true that most of us are just as good at coming up with sincere excuses about our own lack of urgency. Take family, for instance. While family responsibilities may be part of our holy vocation, could there be times when we make an idol of our families, narrowing our vision too much to the point of excluding other families from our concern? Or might we derive our sense of identity from family more than from being a beloved child of God? If so, then our priorities need adjusting. Are there other cultural expectations that get in our way of following Jesus, such as keeping up appearances, accumulating possessions, and maintaining a busy schedule to the point of ignoring our soul’s need for Sabbath? Are we guilty from time to time of dwelling in the past, either past successes or failures, in a way that prevents us from being present to what God is doing now? Do we ever feel that we’re just not ready, that we haven’t practiced enough our skills for being the kind of Christ follower we want to be but sure, we’re going to be better in the future sometime. If any of this is true, then today Christ says to you and to me, “Step back and consider what your commitment to follow looks like in this moment and this moment and in every moment of your life because God needs you in each one.” Following Jesus is not just one priority among many but a guide for everything else.
In a world where multi-tasking seems to have risen to the level of virtue, it makes sense that we would assume we can follow the call of Christ right alongside various other calls of the world. But just as our brains can’t really focus on two things at once, you can’t be of two minds when choosing to follow Jesus.
So yes, I long for a life where I will only one thing, to follow the way of Christ in each moment, both ordinary and extraordinary. It is such a gracious invitation to place all other concerns in a secondary position and to let go of the myriad other worries that occupy my attention. I will confess, though, that I’m still on a journey toward getting there.
But in the end, this is not a passage about double-minded disciples like me. Not really. Most of all, this Gospel story is about the single-minded love of God revealed for us in Jesus Christ, a love that remained consistent and forgiving even to the point of the cross, a love that still seeks in every moment freedom and life for the world which God has made. It’s a love that tells us: You are enough. You are loved and needed and ready for discipleship just as you are right now. You don’t need to answer to anyone else first. You don’t need to prove yourself. Bring your talents and weaknesses, faith and doubt, worries and commitments and come and follow the way of Christ. God’s love accompanies us at every step, in every moment. Before all else, may we learn to set our minds on this love of God.