For starters, I’ll do some summarizing: Jesus’ answers, both here and in the next verses, show a distinct and intentional conflict with culture. In a culture that highly valued hospitality, his answer here is a serious indictment: no one but the most objectionable character would ever be refused hospitality. People’s closing their doors to him so that he has no place to sleep is an indication of the most severe rejection. Also, burial was most important in that culture. In Jesus’ statement refusing to let him go back to bury his father shows that, even at its core, not to say just in some peripheral practices, Christianity and the culture were at odds. So, that’s what’s going on here. As he has set his face toward Jerusalem, we’re going to see increasing conflict with the cultural leaders of his day. This teaching sets it up, because what he teaches is essentially in conflict with his culture, as well as with ours. We should not only not be surprised by this, but find in it nuggets to help us through life also.
Three men enter the scene: the pattern of three, as we use in our jokes (3 guys walk into a bar…), as illustrations, and to symbolize totality (as I just did with my three-part analysis).
The first man says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus answers: ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’ A couple of things come to my mind: first, Jesus has FINALLY found someone eager to follow him. It’s a precipitous decision of potential sacrifice or potential reward. We say the same thing in marriage, and sometimes that doesn’t work out so well. But we say it when we think the sacrifice, the reward, or the relationship will be worth it. You’d think Jesus would be ecstatic and say, “Well, climb on board, partner!” Except that we’ve seen the people around Jesus before. Given that it’s a common road, generic guy, it’s most likely also a thoughtless statement. Everybody claims they’ll follow him. So we have to take note of Jesus’ response for clues.
Remember Jesus is headed for Jerusalem. It enters into everything he says or does. He warns the guy that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and he is incapable of knowing. Jesus is on the way to the cross, and no one can choose such a life for himself. (The guy isn’t really going to understand this, but we do.) The gulf between a voluntary offer to follow and genuine discipleship is clear. Back to my summary at the beginning: Jesus’ answers, both here and in the next verses, show a distinct and intentional conflict with culture. In a culture that highly valued hospitality, his answer here is a serious indictment: no one but the most objectionable character would ever be refused hospitality. People’s closing their doors to him so that he has no place to sleep is an indication of the most severe rejection. Jesus is speaking of a life of rejection, of wandering as a foreigner. He’s speaking of his road to the cross.
“[Jesus] said to another man, ‘Follow me.’ But the man replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ ” Here we go—another casual disciple like whom there are always too many—those who know how to give plausible reasons for not being active.
One possibility is that the guy’s dad is actually still alive (“I’m not dead yet!”) The burial of one’s father was a sacred duty (Gn. 25.9), but, as in the case of Tobit 4:3, this person’s father probably was still alive. What the man apparently meant was that he could not leave his father while still alive to follow Jesus around over the country.
The other reasonable possibility is that the guy’s been dead for close to a year. Family members would not be outside talking with rabbis during the mourning period (the week immediately following death). The initial burial took place shortly after a person’s decease, and would have already occurred by the time this man would be speaking with Jesus. But a year after the first burial, after the flesh had rotted off the bones, the son would return to rebury the bones in a special box (ossuary) in a slot in the tomb wall. Thus the son here could be asking for as much as a year’s delay.
So it seems that what we have here is a clear sense of lip service and insincerity. Jesus calls the guy to follow, and he gives an excuse. Jesus comes back at him: ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ To me it almost sounds as if he is using the first “dead” in a spiritual sense—as if he’s saying “Let those without a godly, spiritual commission be involved in the mundane parts of life. You have a significant commission, so be busy with that.” Again, though, as I said at the beginning, Jesus’ answer shows a distinct and intentional conflict with culture. Burial was most important in that culture. In Jesus’ statement refusing to let him go back to bury his father shows that, even at its core, not to say just in some peripheral practices, Christianity and the culture were at odds.
Third guy: ‘I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family.’ Another cultural norm—who wouldn’t say good-bye to their own family? He wants to follow Christ on his own terms. “I’ll come when I’m ready, make my own decisions, and do it my way.” Interesting, though: when he creates his own terms, he turns back and doesn’t follow at all! Typical.
“Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.’ ” To me it sounds like Lot’s wife, who turned back. Also Jesus’ other teachings: “Let your yes be yes.;” “Before a king goes to war he needs to evaluate…” The plow guy who isn’t attentive to his work, but is looking all around, won’t plow a straight furrow. Plainly put, a relationship with Jesus requires total, superior, and exclusive devotion.
So what is Jesus saying? The way of Jesus is the way of the cross: self-sacrifice, rejection, and suffering. It’s radically counter-cultural, eschewing the values and ways of society to follow Jesus in a completely different mindset and lifestyle. It takes total commitment to a significant commission, and he sets all the terms of the contract. It’s not up to us to dictate the particulars. It’s our place just to choose whether to sign or not. And if we sign, he wants us to know what we’re signing up for: a demanding life with no guarantees of ease, health or wealth, but also a life of significance described with words like “abundance” and “joy”.