Luke 9:57 – 62
Pastor Chris Tweitmann
Life is about making decisions.
Some are simple and obvious. Some can be more challenging for us.
But no matter what, every day we cannot avoid making decisions – both small and big. Choices that have consequences.
And it’s not just about the decisions we anticipate having to make.
Every day comes with its own set of unexpected obstacles, surprising turn of events, and unforeseen problems.
Most of which come to us with a sense of immediacy and urgency.
The only way we can avoid becoming overwhelmed or worse, by all the choices before us – all the competing decisions we face – is by prioritizing them and acting accordingly.
A common word to wise that summarizes living this way is the phrase: “Put first things first.”
Have we ever heard this expression before?
Putting first things first means discerning and focusing on the important, not just the urgent.
Putting first things first means organizing our lives – our time, our energy – around what is most important rather than the things that are unimportant.
Put first things first. It sounds fairly easy and intuitive.
But in practice, it’s one of those phrases that’s easier said than done.
In this busy world, the tyranny of the urgent often overrides the prioritization of what is important.
For many of us the things that matter most too often end up being at the mercy of the things that matter least.
Setting the right priorities though is not just about us – our feeling more effective or efficient on a daily basis.
As it turns out, first things are very important to God.
In fact, as we return to the Gospel of Luke today, and Jesus engages in different but related conversations with three people who appear eager to follow him, Jesus is going to underscore the very idea of putting first things first.
And together we are going to discover – even the most highly organized and goal-driven among us, putting first things first isn’t just a principle for managing how we spend our days; putting first things first is the principle for following Christ with our whole lives. (TEXT)
To set the stage, we are at a turning point in Luke’s gospel.
Only a few verses back from where we started today, Jesus turned his face toward the city of Jerusalem.
“As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” – Luke 9:51
He is purposefully, willingly heading towards the place where he will be betrayed, arrested, crucified, and put to death – all in the name of love, forgiveness, and hope, – all for the sake of saving and remaking the world – for reclaiming and transforming every human life.
As Jesus continues forward and this chapter of Luke’s gospel draws to an end, we’re introduced to three unnamed people who all have one thing in common.
The key word in this passage is the word, “follow,” occurring in verses 57, 59 and 61.
What these three have in common is the opportunity to follow Jesus.
Two of the three, the first and the last encounters in this passage, appear eager to go with Jesus and initiate a request to tag along.
The other person, the man in the middle as it were, is invited by Jesus to come along with him.
Let’s briefly take a look at each of these encounters in turn.
“As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” – Luke 9:57
The first person walks right up to Jesus as he is walking along the road and proclaims, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
Here is someone who pulls no punches.
Seemingly having been in the background – once part of the crowd – having heard Jesus teach and appreciating his message and learning more and more and being impressed by the character of Jesus, this man is ready to make a decision for Christ.
In his eagerness, he cuts right to the chase.
Going right past any talk of repentance and without any conversation or consideration of the cost, the consequence of his decision, this man asserts he will go the distance with Jesus.
And at first, Jesus’ reply to this man is startling or perhaps even cryptic to us as Jesus replies:
“Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” – Luke 9:58
What kind of response is that? What does that even mean?
Jesus, much like this man, gets right to the point, albeit indirectly.
Here is someone who says he wants to follow Jesus – that wherever Jesus goes, he will go.
Jesus, then, in response, tells him exactly what that means – what is involved in following him.
Jesus shares he doesn’t know where he is going to sleep tonight.
But what Jesus is revealing is something more than a momentary inconvenience of not having a place to stay for the evening.
No, he is expressing something deeper about what following him entails.
Jesus, again, is on his way to Jerusalem.
He is headed down a path not filled with comfort and prosperity, but a road marked by suffering and condemnation.
The trajectory before Jesus is not one of gaining the approval of the masses and sweet smell of success.
No, Jesus is moving headlong into a mounting wave of rejection and ridicule that will crest with the cursed stench of death.
Therefore, before the presumed idealism of this would-be follower, Jesus is cautioning this man, “Are you sure you want to go my way?”
To this man who likely has a comfortable home and a steady and secure standard of living, Jesus is asking,
“Are you willing to prioritize me – my way of life – over all that?” “Are you willing to risk possibly losing all that to follow in my footsteps?”
Beloved, these aren’t just questions for one person.
These are the questions for all, who like this man, claim to be eager to follow Christ.
If Jesus is the One we claim him to be – our Light and Life, our Beginning and our End, our Lord and our Savior, then Jesus is asking us, Jesus is calling us to put first things first – to make following him the priority of our lives.
But the thing is, do we recognize, do we understand, who we are following?
We are following the God in Christ who became poor so that we might become rich.
We are following the God in Christ who lay aside the glory of the home of heaven to tabernacle, to make his home with us in all our brokenness and insecurity.
We are following the God in Christ who was rejected far more than he was praised – who was betrayed and abandoned by those who were called to be friends.
We are following the God in Christ who became a curse so that we might experience blessing, who embraced a wrongful death so that we could taste and see everlasting life.
Beloved, if the way Jesus saves us is not through playing it safe or secure but rather through sacrifice and service – giving his heart to be broken, offering his life and facing death for the sake of others, then how can we possibly envision following him means anything less for us?
Like this man, we profess we will follow Jesus – going wherever he goes.
But Jesus calls us to reckon how we are living – how we are willing to live for Christ – over and against what we say as Christians.
And the plain but hard truth is, if our priority is elevating our comfort and convenience above all else, then despite what we say, we aren’t willing to put Jesus first in our lives.
For putting Jesus first means actually going wherever he goes, regardless of the inconvenience or sacrifice.
Putting Jesus first means entering into the pain and grief of those around us – being first willing to bear their suffering with them and as prompted by the Spirit, doing what we are called to do, to ease their pain.
Putting Jesus first means being willing to sacrifice by having less in order that others can have more – those who are without, those who are struggling to gain basic necessities – food, water, clothing, a roof over their heads, health care, and so forth.
Putting Jesus first means serving – caring for and helping others – even when such service isn’t returned in kind or isn’t received with appreciation – a thank you.
Putting Jesus first means forgiving those who have wronged us, those who have hurt us, those who have even mortally wounded us, recognizing Christ forgave, forgives us as we openly reject and rebel against him and even as we know not what we do.
The next person Jesus encounters along the way is someone with whom he initiates as Jesus extends an invitation to follow him.
“He [Jesus] said to another man, “Follow me.” – Luke 9:59
This second man is immediately receptive to Jesus’ offer. He too desires to follow Christ.
However, he has one caveat – as he replies,
“But he replied, Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”’ – Luke 9:59
By all accounts this seems like a reasonable request.
But once again, Jesus’ response appears cryptic and this time, seemingly at bit harsh, as he says,
“Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” – Luke 9:60
We might think to ourselves, what can possibly be wrong with wanting to prepare a funeral for one’s father?
Since one of God’s Top Ten rules for life going all the way back to Moses is explicitly about honoring one’s parents, there must be more going on here than meets the eye.
Clearly, Jesus is addressing something deeper than literally skipping one’s parents’ funeral in order to follow him.
So then, what gives?
As we hear this second man’s reply, we assume his father has already died. But let’s think about this.
If this man’s father had already died, this man would not be here but would be at home mourning with the rest of his family.
The Jewish custom of the time would have required this – especially of a son.
What then is more likely is this man’s father was very old and therefore, closer to dying than continuing to live.
It could be only days. It might be months or perhaps even years.
Either way, this man is declining Jesus’ invitation to follow him until after this present phase of his life – caring for his father – has ended with his father’s inevitable passing.
Jesus’ reply to this man also benefits from a second, more careful reading.
When Jesus answers, “Let the dead bury their own dead,” he cannot be referring to someone who is physically deceased burying someone who has died.
Jesus isn’t giving credence to a belief in the existence of zombies – of the undead rising from their graves.
No, when Jesus speaks of the dead digging a grave for someone who is deceased, he is talking about those who are spiritually dead.
The spiritual dead are those who, even though they are physically breathing and have a pulse, are living according to the wrong priorities.
The spiritual dead are those who are prioritizing the things that don’t last, that in the scope of eternity don’t amount to anything – things as Jesus describes elsewhere, that rot and moths destroy, things that others can break in and steal.
Jesus, then, is being insensitive about this man’s father – his father’s eventual passing – or the idea of having a funeral for his father when he dies.
No, the potentially spiritual dead person Jesus is addressing in this man.
Why is Jesus cautioning this man as if he were spiritually dead?
Because this man is making excuses – delaying responding to Jesus’ invitation to follow him – putting others things first in his life before Christ.
This man is, in essence, telling Jesus, “Yes, I believe in you Lord and I want to follow you but I can’t make that commitment right now. I need to wait until after my Dad dies and then I’ll make you my priority.”
And what Jesus is warning this man in response is,
“You can’t afford to wait to put me first in your life. You’re concerned about when your father is going to die physically and taking care of the eventual funeral arrangements but you’re missing the point – that if you put anything before me – your need to be saved and transformed by following me – then you’re already dead – dead in a manner that is worse, that more far-reaching consequence than being physically deceased.”
Beloved, Jesus here is not teaching us arbitrarily to cut off our family ties.
Jesus is not setting down a standard for all time teaching us to neglect our sacred duty to those who have died.
Jesus is clarifying what putting him first means. It means not waiting, not delaying in following him.
This is so crucial of a directive for would-be disciples that Jesus emphasizes not once but twice.
For a third person approaches Jesus and much like the others pledges to follow him.
“Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord…” – Luke 9:61
But this guy, like the second man, has a proviso.
Just one small condition before putting one foot in front of the other in heading towards Christ:
“…but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.” – Luke 9:61
On the surface, this again appears to be a reasonable request.
But perhaps by now, we can recognize what Jesus perceives as Jesus responds,
“Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” – Luke 9:62
We miss the point here if we think Jesus is merely rebuking someone going back to see one’s family before they depart.
It’s not that following Jesus leaves no room for family. It’s not that following Jesus leaves no space for goodbyes.
To see what Jesus sees, notice the common language between these two men: “Lord, FIRST let me do this.”
In both cases, it is not that there’s anything wrong with what these two men want to do.
The issue is allowing other concerns or priorities to lead us to hesitate, to delay in following Christ.
We all have our reasons, our excuses, our justifications for not putting Christ first in our lives RIGHT NOW.
Right now, we’re too busy studying and seeking to graduate and get that degree.
Right now, we’re too busy looking for a job.
Right now, we’re too busy at work – trying to keep up, finishing that project, aiming for that promotion..
Right now, we’re too busy looking for that special someone with whom we can spend the rest of our lives.
Right now, we’re too busy preparing to get married and begin our lives together.
Right now, we’re too busy hoping to start a family.
Right now, we’re too busy raising our kids.
Right now, we’re too busy getting ready for our retirement.
Right now, we’re too busy caring for a loved one.
Right now, we’re too busy adjusting to getting older and the health concerns we have.
Right now, we’re too busy receiving medical treatments for that diagnosis we didn’t expect.
Right now, we’re too busy arranging our estate and making sure our affairs are in order.
And then, one day, we’re not busy – because our heart has stopped and we are no longer breathing.
Procrastination can be one of the greatest obstacles in following Jesus.
We hear Christ’s call. We believe in Jesus.
We sit in the pew and we sing, we pray, we commune at the table in Christ’s name, but functionally, practically, Jesus is someone we visit, someone to whom we give a few hours on a Sunday and maybe at the start or the end of our day.
But beyond that narrow space, Jesus isn’t setting our priorities.
Jesus isn’t someone we are looking for – let alone recognizing as we go about our business instead of his, as we live our lives instead of his life – the full, abundant life he offers to us.
Beloved, we’re all busy.
We all have what we perceive as more pressing obligations.
We all have our reasons, our excuses, our justifications – circumstances we insist have to come before putting Christ first in our lives RIGHT NOW.
But it doesn’t take much for the delay of an hour to become something we’ll get to tomorrow – or later in the week.
How easily all our best intentions for tomorrow soon carry over into next year.
And before we know it, how quickly a lifetime has passed and instead of having thrived and matured in Christ, we find ourselves on death’s door begging him to remember our name.
The thing is, what we fail to realize is until we put Jesus first, until we make abiding in Christ our ultimate priority, we are functionally dead even though we appear to be alive.
We’re spiritually deceased before we ever physically expire.
To put this another way, discipleship is not an event; it’s a process.
Following Jesus isn’t one thing we ought to do among many other important things in our lives.
Following Jesus is to be priority – the primary orientation through which we engage and accomplish all the other important things in our lives.
Let us look one more time at the cautionary word Jesus offers to the third would-be follower:
“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” – Luke 9:62
It’s common sense really. To put in more modern terms, what will happen if we are looking behind ourselves for a prolonged moment while we are driving?
We are not going to drive straight. We will swerve into the other lane. We will likely get into an accident.
We can tease this idea out even more as we reflect on the image Jesus crafts here from the agricultural life of his day.
What will happen if a farmer looks behind himself while he is plowing a field?
Instead of plowing a straight line, you’ll end with a crooked one.
Well, what’s so wrong with that, you might ask.
When plowing a field, if you get the first furrow straight, the whole field will end up straight and square.
But if you get the first furrow crooked, then every pass you make after that is liable to be off – crooked.
First, this will result in more time and work at the end of the job, trying to square what was crooked – because a crooked field minimizes and perhaps even jeopardizes the yield of your crop.
To plow a field in a straight line, you have to stay focused on a point across the field – something that is ahead of you – something that you follow.
If our lives are like an unplowed field, we only can walk in a straight line – planting and reaping maximum and viable fruitfulness, if our focal point is Jesus.
Unless following Jesus is what informs the rest of the decisions and choices we make, we will minimize and perhaps even forsake the potential we have been graciously given thanks to the Cross, the Resurrection, and Pentecost.
Unless following Christ is what comes first – where we begin and end, where we remain continually focused, the field of our lives is going to be crooked – weaving all over the place – and ultimately resulting in nothing more than a wasted opportunity rather than the harvest for the Kingdom we have been called to bring for the glory of God.
In fact, Jesus even goes so far to say, if we are looking back we are not fit for the Kingdom of God.
“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” – Luke 9:62
Truth be told, the English translation of this phrase – “fit for the Kingdom of God” is not as precise as it should be.
It can leave us wondering if the Gospel is something of a bait and switch. While we are saved, while our entry into the Kingdom of God, is by grace alone and nothing we do; we only remain in the Kingdom of God and under the auspices of Christ’s salvation if we earn our keep, if we do our fair share.
Make no mistake. It’s all grace – the whole way.
We aren’t invited by grace but only get to remain – only prove our fitness for the Kingdom through good works.
A better translation of what Jesus says here is “those who are looking back are not useful for the Kingdom of God.”
It’s not that we can lose the grace of God. It’s ours for the taking and the giving in Jesus Christ.
The point is we can’t lose what we don’t have.
For while we are saved by grace of Jesus – by nothing we do, earn, merit, or achieve on our own – if we aren’t living out of that grace, we won’t experience the catalytic, healing, transformative presence of the Word and Spirit of Christ in our lives.
If regularly abiding in and learning from Jesus, joyously reflecting his character, and seeking to share his presence and his power at work in us by serving others,
If worshiping and following Jesus isn’t our priority above all else, then it’s not that we get kicked out of the Kingdom of God.
The truth is we are not living under the reign of God.
We are too busy building and living in our own kingdoms – kingdoms that won’t go distance; kingdoms destined to fall as easily as they once rose.
Interesting observation about this story.
We don’t know what happened next for these three people – whether they walked away sad like the rich, young ruler Jesus once encountered or whether they responded by putting first things first – by putting Jesus first in their lives and following him.
Luke doesn’t focus on their response because that’s not the point. The point is how do we respond?
Desires dictate our priorities, priorities shape our choices, and choices determine our actions.
We can say we believe in Jesus. We can tell others we worship Christ.
We can say whatever we want about what the most important things in your life are, but we all demonstrate what the most important things really are by what we prioritize – by who we prioritize.
Let us honestly look at our priorities.
Let us recognize and confess all our “but first”s that are coming before making Christ first in our lives – before following Jesus in everything we say and do.
Elsewhere in scripture, Jesus makes a promise to us.
“But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” – Matthew 6:33
When Jesus invites us to follow him, as Jesus extends to us the call to live in the Kingdom of God, it is for our benefit and blessing – not his.
Christ, through his life, death, resurrection, and ongoing presence through the Spirit, isn’t offering us something he needs – something that will make him a more secure God, a more complete and fulfilled deity.
No, what God in Christ is offering is what we need – for our benefit – so that we can experience a full, abundant and everlasting life so that we can participate in and be blessed by the redemption and restoration of all creation.
What Jesus extends to us in calling us to follow him is more than a ticket to the afterlife, more than having someone to call in case of emergencies.
What Jesus extends to us in calling us to follow him is the renewal of our minds and the cleansing of our hearts.
It is the opening of our eyes – of all our senses – so that we can taste, see, and share the goodness of God.
It is the wisdom and discernment so that we recognize what is just and true, what makes for peace, and what brings and fosters hope.
It is the power to not only ourselves to be forgiven and healed but also our empowerment to become agents of reconciliation and resurrection to others.
What Jesus extends to us in calling us to follow him is a relationship that can reshape our lives – our life as individuals and our life together for the better – for the best.
To live that life, to experience that relationship, to exist in the Kingdom of God, we must put first things first.
Following Jesus has to be the first priority through which everything else is measured and entered into.
And this is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.