41. The Priority of Following Jesus (Luke 9:57-62)

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Gospel Parallels §138

James J. Tissot, 'The Man at the Plough' (1886-94)
James J. Tissot, 'The Man at the Plough' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, 5.4 x 5.3 in., Brooklyn Museum, New York.

Up to now, Luke has focused on Jesus' teaching and healing ministry as he trains his disciples. But at 9:51, Jesus ministry shifts.

"As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem." (9:51)

He "set his face" to go to Jerusalem. For his ministry was not just to teach and reveal the Father. His ministry must culminate in saving us from our sins, and that required the conflict to intensify to the point of his death. Jerusalem was the seat of power of Judaism, and to Jerusalem he must go -- and meet what he knew would be his death.

"57  As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, 'I will follow you wherever you go.' 58  Jesus replied, 'Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.' 59  He said to another man, 'Follow me.' But the man replied, 'Lord, first let me go and bury my father.' 60  Jesus 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.' 62  Jesus replied, 'No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.'" (Luke 9:57-62, NIV)

Business people know you must qualify your prospects. Otherwise you spend all your time with people who will never sign on the bottom line. And so you ask questions to identify your most likely prospects, and place certain barriers to a sale to weed out those who won't buy anyway. This frees up your time to concentrate on those who are really interested.

When I was a student at seminary, one of the top people in the Navigators organization, Waldron Scott, spoke to one of our classes on the subject of discipling. After class, I asked him how he determined who he should spend his time with to disciple? How do you select those who are really interested? In predictable Navigators' style, he said he gave young men several verses to memorize and asked them to come back to see him when they had memorized them all. The few that did, he said, were likely to be good candidates with whom to spend one-on-one time in discipling.

In today's passage, Jesus' goal is to wave off those who would follow, but be unwilling to pay the cost of doing so. He isn't being harsh -- or is he?

The High Price of Discipleship

Christian martyr Dietrich Bonheoffer (1906-1945) wrote a brilliant but uncomfortable book, The Cost of Discipleship (1948). Bonheoffer was one of the few German clergymen to stand up against Hitler's godless rise to power -- and he paid for it with his life. But his book's title reminds us of the cost of following Jesus closely. Jesus tells his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (9:23). Jesus' response to three would-be followers provides additional insight into what denying oneself really means.

This passage is all about following. The key word is a familiar one, Greek akoloutheō, "follow, accompany, follow as disciple." One question I'd like you to ponder as we study is this: Can a person be a Christian without being a follower of Jesus?

Discipleship's Sojourn (Luke 9:57-58)

"As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, 'I will follow you wherever you go.'
Jesus replied, 'Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.'" (9:57-58)

 As Jesus walked, a whole company of people followed him, not only the Twelve. And from time to time various people would come up alongside him and engage him in conversation as they were walking. A man, moved by Jesus' words and vision, says to him, "I will follow you wherever you go."

Jesus' reply, however, isn't encouraging, but rather off-putting:

"Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." (Luke 9:58)I

In other words, he is saying, I don't have any home. If you follow me, you will have no home to call your own either. Does that mean that disciples shouldn't look forward to home ownership?

That's what it may mean for some.

Jesus has left his family home in Nazareth to carry out his mission. He can't return to Nazareth where they seek to kill him (4:29). He has stayed with friends in Capernaum for awhile. But now he has "set his face towards Jerusalem" (9:51) and cannot turn back.

Jesus is a sojourner, a non-resident alien, one who stays for a time, and then travels elsewhere. In this, he was like Abraham his forefather:

"By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God." (Hebrews 11:8-10)

An Alfred Brumley gospel song follows this theme. It's a little hokey, but says it in a memorable way:

"This world is not my home, I'm just a-passing through,
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue,
The angels beckon me from heaven's open door,
And I can't feel at home in this world any more."361

The words to a traditional bluegrass hymn go:

"I don't want to get adjusted to this world, to this world,
I've got a home that's so much better
I'm gonna go to sooner or later,
I don't want to get adjusted to this world."362

These are the songs of sojourners. We aren't to be other-worldly and detached from this life. Jesus wasn't. He lived all out in the here-and-now carrying out his Father's mission. But he was a sojourner. He had no home here to call his own. He was on a journey, and Golgotha lay squarely in his route. The road was painful, but had glory at its end.

"...Who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2).

Jesus allowed nothing to distract him from this goal. That is Jesus' path. Can you follow him on it?

He isn't offering to follow you. You are offering to follow him and put up with the hardships and self-denial that come on his path. Are you really willing -- even though it means sacrificing some comforts?

"I will follow you wherever you go," said the man.

"Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests," replied the Master, "but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head."

Are you able to follow a sojourner?

Discipleship's Immediacy (Luke 9:59-60)

"He said to another man, 'Follow me.'
But the man replied, 'Lord, first let me go and bury my father.'
Jesus said to him, 'Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.'" (9:59-60)

Now if the man's father has just died, what in the world is the man doing hanging around Jesus? He should be home making funeral arrangements! It's obvious that his father isn't dead -- yet. Not even seriously ill, or the man would be asking Jesus for healing.

What the man is saying is this: I have responsibilities to my father as long as he lives. I'm not free to follow you right now. But when my dad dies -- and he is getting on in years -- then I'll follow you right away. I just can't follow now.

Jesus' answer seems harsh. It seems to run counter to family responsibilities. It is strong:

"Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God."

Who are the "dead" who are going to conduct the funeral? Jesus is speaking figuratively here of the spiritually dead -- those who have put off following Jesus. The spiritually dead put family responsibilities before their responsibilities to Jesus. But the spiritually alive are to follow -- now!

Later, Jesus tells his disciples,

"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters -- yes, even his own life--he cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26)

Jesus is saying in the strongest possible terms that following him must come before every responsibility we have -- even those which we hold sacred (see 1 Timothy 5:8).

For most of us, our call to follow Jesus does not mean we have to physically leave our loved ones. But we may need to leave them behind spiritually in order to follow Jesus. You can't say: When my husband gets saved and decides to follow Jesus, then I'll be the most faithful disciple you can find anywhere. I just don't want to get ahead of him spiritually. It doesn't work that way. You aren't to choose when you are to follow. Today is the day. Following Jesus is a now thing. It is immediate. No excuse you can offer is adequate to put on hold his compelling summons.

"Let the dead bury their own dead," Jesus says, "but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God" (9:60). In this case, Jesus is about to send seventy of his followers to go from village to village to carry the message of the Kingdom (10:1-24). Jesus needs this man ready and committed to be in a certain place at a certain time, even though Jesus hasn't announced the mission yet. But the man can't be counted on. His other commitments keep him from doing Jesus' immediate and glorious will for his life.

The message to you and me is just as strong:

"Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God."

Discipleship's Single-mindedness (Luke 9:61)

"Still another said, 'I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-bye to my family.'" (9:61)

If the first two people had met hard responses, the third seems harder yet. All the man wanted to do was go home and say good-bye. That's all. What's so wrong with that?

In light of the immediate mission ahead -- the sending out of the Seventy to the villages of Judea (where he was now heading) -- for the man to go home will mean that he will miss out, though his request seems reasonable enough.

It's like a man who has been drafted into the military in wartime. He says, "I'll report for duty in just a week, but first I need to go home and say good-bye to my girlfriend, my buddies, my mom and dad, my sisters and brothers, and have a final going away party, since I may be away a long time. Is he ready for the army? No way! He is looking to his own needs and desires, not the needs of the service.

Just last week I heard someone in her twenties say, "When I'm young I want to be free to enjoy myself. Later on, then maybe I'll settle down." This is common. I believe in Jesus, but I'm not ready to get too serious about it right now. When I get older I will. What an insult to Jesus!

Crooked Furrows (Luke 9:62)

"No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God." (9:62)

My father-in-law plowed Illinois farmland with a team of horses. But whether your plow is pulled by a mule or by a diesel tractor there is one no-no: You never try to plow while looking over your shoulder. If you do, your rows are crooked and your field is difficult to work. If you try to plow while looking back, you're not fit to be in the field. You'd be fired in a hurry by the farmer. Rather, plowmen fix their eyes on a point at the far end of the field and move steadily toward it, not veering to the right side or to the left.

To "put your hand to the plow," means to begin the task of plowing. The Greek verb tenses underline the point. Literally, "No man, having put (Aorist tense, past complete action) his hand to the plough, and looking back (Present tense, continuous action), is fit for the kingdom of God" (9:62, KJV). Jesus isn't saying you can't glance back. But he is saying you can't continue to look back once you've begun to plow. If you do, you're not "fit," Greek euthetos, "fit, suitable, usable, convenient for something."363

What a Demanding Leader!

You may be reading these words and thinking, What kind of demanding leader is this? What right does he have to command such sacrifice and instant obedience?

My dear friend, Jesus is the King of the Jews who laid down his life for yours. Jesus is the Creator of the universe, the Head of the Church, Very God of Very God, King of kings and Lord of Lords. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last. He holds the keys of Death and Hades. He is the Conqueror and Overcomer. He is the Lamb of God and the Risen from the Dead. He is the Bright and Morning Star. His name is higher than any other.

But he also humbles himself to come looking for you. To speak to you. To encourage your faith. And to pay you the highest compliment you will ever be paid, to call you to follow him. In the Book of Revelation, we read of Jesus,

"Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with me." (Revelation 3:16)

Do hear him calling you? Is he knocking? Do you hear it?

What are you possibly doing that could be more important right now than going immediately to the door and opening it to him?


Lord Jesus, forgive me when I've put my own priorities in front of yours. I've treated you more like a servant or an equal than my King and Lord and Sovereign. Forgive me. Have mercy upon me. Please help me to answer when you call, making no excuses. And though my track record of doing that is pretty spotty, I ask for your help and strength to be a disciple you can count on. In your powerful Name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verse

"No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God." (Luke 9:62)


Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions that follow -- your choice.

  1. What does it mean to live your life as a sojourner? Why is a sojourner mentality required for disciples? (9:58)
  2. Why is Jesus so hard on the man who needed to bury his father before following? (9:59-60)
  3. What does Jesus mean when he says that the dead should bury the dead? What's the point? (9:60)
  4. What's wrong with the man wanting to say good-bye to his family first? (9:61)
  5. What characteristic is absolutely essential for plowmen? What trait is absolutely necessary for disciples? (9:62)
  6. Is Jesus speaking in hyperbole (using exaggerated speech and examples) here? If so, what is the value of hyperbole for a teacher? If Jesus is using hyperbole, does that mean we don't have to take his words seriously?
Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.


Abbreviations and References

[361] "This World Is Not My Home," by Albert E. Brumley, was made popular by Jim Reeves. Author unknown.

[362] "I Don't Want to Get Adjusted," words in The Weavers' Song Book (Harper & Brothers, 1960), p. 68-70. No author known.

[363] Euthetos, BAGD 320.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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