LUKE 9:51-62 KEY VERSE: “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God” (v 62).
The readings today are about the call of vocation and our human response. What can we learn about vocation and response from them?
The first thing we can learn is how radical God’s call is. A vocation is not a job or a profession. It’s about our whole life’s direction. This is why Elisha “burned his bridges,” so to speak—sacrificed the oxen with which he ploughed his fields—before he followed Elijah as Elijah’s successor. It’s why Jesus is so insistent on those people who wanted to follow him or whom he asked to follow him had also to leave everything behind: security, family, possessions, livelihood. It’s why Paul insists that discipleship has nothing to do with the “flesh” (focusing on oneself) but with life in the Spirit (being fully focused God and on others).
A convert says she will follow him, “wherever you may go,” and he replies, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests.” He invites a stranger to follow him, and that one replies, “First let me go and bury my father”—and then he says, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” And another asks simply to say farewell to his loved ones. To this one, Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of heaven.”
So, a second thing we can learn about vocation is patience with and tolerance toward those who don’t follow the call. It’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t condemn the people who seem to hesitate to follow him. He just tells them what discipleship entails and leaves it at that.
But then he seems to say something like, “If you wish to follow me, you must drop everything and everyone in your life. Just give up everything and follow me.” And just where is he leading? To Jerusalem, as it says in this passage “to be taken up.” To his betrayal, crucifixion, and death. Can he really mean this? Can our Lord be ordering us to put down our livelihoods, to put aside our relationships, and to abandon our property in order to enter into pain, suffering, and death?
Well, it sort of depends on whether you see Jesus as someone to worship or someone to follow. Now, both of these have merit, both have their supporters, both are completely orthodox. But, for today, let’s consider the possibility that Jesus is asking us to follow. For, were we to worship him, we might expect him to save us from trials, to rescue us from danger, to keep us from harm.
That’s what an omnipotent God should do, that’s how the Almighty really ought to treat those he loves. And that’s exactly the problem. For this is to make Jesus into a religion, instead of a journey toward union with God.
What Jesus calls us to do is much harder work. To do the work given to us: to share love, to spread joy, to wage peace, to foster patience, to nurture kindness, to exhibit generosity, to seek faithfulness, to cultivate gentleness, and to strive for better self-control.
This is what it is to follow Jesus, rather than just worship him. To accept our baptismal calling to become dead to sin and alive unto righteousness. To seek, by word and example, to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly—following our God on the same path. This path that may lead us directly into whirlwinds or even through the valley of the shadow of death. But also the path that will lead us from sin and death to the kingdom of heaven and everlasting life. The path can and will leave a world behind us a little better, a little kinder, and little safer. The path can and will leave us stronger, more spiritually fit, and better able to cope with whatever lies ahead.
As St. Paul puts it, we are “you were called, as you know, to liberty” and this liberty comes by leaving things behind. Maybe not every possession, maybe not every relationship, maybe not everything and everyone—but certainly we are called to leave behind what Paul calls “the works of the flesh.”
To leave behind strife. To leave behind anger and quarrels. To leave behind dissensions and factions.
And to follow Jesus on the journey toward unity: with others, with the world, and union with God.
Jesus’ promise to all of us—that we will be inheritors of the kingdom of heaven: this does not promise us avoiding all difficulties in this life. But if we truly follow Jesus, we have an amazing trailblazer ahead of us.
One who never repaid anyone evil for evil. One who sought only love—with others, and with God. One who set his face on Jerusalem, knowing that what lay ahead was torture and death. And who one who renounced the devil and all his works, renounced the vain pomp and glory of this world, and turned away from all covetous desires of the same—and then on the third day conquered death. So that we might be everlastingly rewarded, and become the people of the way.
Not a mere religion of belonging and believing, of who’s in and who’s out, of what’s correct and what is not. But a lifelong journey, following Jesus along his same path. A lifelong journey of transformation of ourselves and of the world around us. A lifelong journey toward greater union with God.
The call, the vocation, will always be there. The invitation will never be revoked. God will be ready when we are. It will always be demanding, though, —even scary. But it will not go away. Elijah, Paul, Jesus all tell us that leaving is for life. Today, when Christ comes once again in Holy Communion to strengthen us for the journey, let’s renew our promise to follow him, to anchor our hopes in him. .