Last time we considered a section of short paragraphs, each of which in one way or another revealed some defect in the character and behavior of the disciples. We took encouragement from the fact that even the truest disciples of Jesus were then, as they have been ever since, men and women with feet of clay. The fact that our faith is weak, that we are often spiritually clueless, or that we give way too often to any number of vices, is no proof that we are not the true followers of Jesus Christ. I remember how much I was helped personally to read in Thomas Boston’s magnificent Memoir of his having to deal near the end of his life, with the fact that there were sins and one particular sin that he had never succeeded fully to put to death. Boston, the great Christian and great disciple of Jesus that he was, was a serious sinner to the end of his days. So are we all!
Now there is a change of subject and we get a remarkable statement from the Lord about what it means to follow him and what it requires.
v.57 As so often in the Gospels, an incident or a conversation gave Jesus the opportunity to deliver some very important instruction. No one’s obiter dicta, chance comments or observations, ever carried as much weight as did those of Jesus Christ. In this case, some people they met indicated their desire to become followers of Jesus. The first man to speak, according to Matthew, was a scribe or teacher of the law.
v.58 The Lord intuitively realized that the man who uttered the words had little true appreciation of what such a commitment might mean. Jesus gives him one example. The calling of a Christian can turn your life upside down and require you to live without things — creature comforts — that others take for granted.
v.60 According to Mathew this man was “another of his disciples.” At least he belonged to that circle of people who are interested in Jesus. To this man, who had in some way indicated his desire to follow Jesus, the Lord summoned him to action on the spot. “Follow me.” The man’s seemingly understandable response gave Jesus an opportunity to reply in a way that must have startled his hearers, including the disciples. In the Judaism of that day the obligation to bury one’s loved ones was sacred and to fail to perform this duty was scandalous. Jewish documents of the period even list the otherwise sacred obligations that are not as important as this one, such as the observance of circumcision, worship in the temple, killing the Passover lamb, all fundamental acts of Jewish piety but not as important as burying one’s loved ones. But according to Jesus nothing is as urgent as the demands of the kingdom of God. Jesus, in effect, said to this man, let those with no spiritual insight into the meaning of life and death and who don’t understand the way of salvation perform the duties they are fully capable of. Such people can certainlybury a dead body; but the man who knows what is happening in the world has a higher obligation. Again, don’t mistake this. We’ll get to this later. Jesus was not against the love of family and the proper giving of respect. He is making a point, not laying down a command about whether or not to bury our parents!
v.62 The last man offered his services but imposed one condition, a condition that doesn’t sound unreasonable to us. In fact, in 1 Kings 19:20 that is what Elisha did when he was called to be Elijah’s successor and in chapter 5 of Luke’s Gospel we already read that when Matthew was called to follow Jesus he had a banquet at his home and let all his friends know what he was going to do and why. But Jesus is making a point here and using the occasion to do so. He probably detected a certain reluctance on the part of this man to offer Jesus his unqualified loyalty; or Jesus may simply be instructing his disciples in the nature of true discipleship. There can be no half-heartedness, no hesitation, no willing decision to leave a foot in one’s former life and former world.
As anyone knows who reads the Gospels, the Lord was always bringing his disciples up short with the things he said. They were religious men, serious men, but he made it sound sometimes as if they were utter slackers. We already read his words earlier in chapter 9:
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
That does not sound inviting! We are yet to hear other such famous and challenging words of summons from the Savior’s lips:
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and his mother, his wife and children…and even his own life he cannot be my disciple.”
Or think of remarks he made and teaching he gave that is recorded in other Gospels but not in Luke:
“If you right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. … And if your right arm causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” [Matt. 5:29-30]
Again and again it was the extremity of the Lord’s teaching, its intensity, and its lack of qualification that surprised and confused his disciples. When he spoke about the dangers of money and how hard it is for someone with money to enter the kingdom of God he did so in a way that made his disciples wonder if anyone could be saved. When he spoke about the indefectibility of marriage vows, he did so with so little qualification and with such emphasis that his disciples wondered if, after hearing this, anyone would want to get married.
So we have here in this short paragraph at the end of Luke 9 a very typical set of utterances of the Lord. They must have seemed to his disciples confusing and unreasonable. Surely a godly man will not leave his father’s body unburied or burden the other members of his family with the obligation to see to an office that was his to perform. Where is the goodness in that? And surely if a man is ready to turn his life upside down, leave home and job and family to follow Jesus as he moved about the country it was only to be expected — even demanded — that he would go home and explain to his family what he was doing and why; help them to adjust to what would be a great change for them as well. Surely he would!
Does it not seem to you, as it has seemed to many, that Jesus was too demanding, that he was not sufficiently sympathetic, that he was unreasonable in what he required of his followers? Surely, he of all people would not want us to think that we should be uncaring of our dying parents or that we should forget and ignore all the friends we had before we became Christians! You know the Bible well enough to know the answer to that. No one cared more for the family than he did; no one cared more that his disciples love their parents, their wives, their children, and their friends.
So what is going on and why did Jesus speak as he did here. Well, the answer lies in the Lord’s great insight into the human heart. He could detect, knowing the heart as well as he did, and having as much insight into human character as he did, and having dealt up close and personally with sin all his life as he had — no one had as much knowledge of the way sin worked as did the sinless one — he could detect in a man’s question, his tone of voice, and his manner what was really going on in that man’s heart and his counter-questions and his replies were often designed to lead his conversation partners to a true understanding of their own true state of mind and heart.
Let me give you two well-known examples. You remember the Canaanite woman who came to Jesus to plead for the life of her daughter who was possessed by a demon. She begged Jesus for help. And at first the Lord said nothing. He didn’t even reply to this dear woman who was so desperate and had come to plead for help. He ignored her! That seems cruel to us and certainly impolite. The disciples even urged him to send the woman packing because her constant pleading was a distraction and an annoyance. Jesus then said that he had come to minister to Jews and since she wasn’t a Jew that left her out. That must have hurt and hurt deeply! When she pressed him once more he said, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” We don’t expect Jesus to refer to a racial group with an epithet, it’s not the way we expect him to speak. But her famous reply — “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” — finally got her the deliverance for her daughter that she was seeking. Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.”
Now it is perfectly obvious in the aftermath what was going on there. Jesus didn’t answer the woman, it is true, but it is not said that he hadn’t heard her. But by making her wait and by putting her off he tested her faith and taught a great lesson of faith to his disciples. He never refused her, he never intended to refuse her; he only delayed giving her what she needed because by that delay he turned her request into a moment that would live forever in the memory of the world and especially the people of God.
People who read such texts pedantically and without imagination wonder how Jesus could have treated this poor woman so harshly. G.B. Shaw actually said that “this was a time when Jesus was not a Christian.” To which the church historian and theologian, John Gerstner, replied in his gravelly voice, “Jesus was not a Christian; he makes people Christians!” And, of course, that is what he was doing and what he did on this occasion.
The other example is one we will eventually come to in our reading of the Gospel of Luke, the Lord’s encounter with the rich young ruler. This man, whom Jesus was immediately attracted to for his sincerity and earnestness, asked him straight away: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” We have waited all our lives for someone to ask us that question! We know how we would answer it. But Jesus told him to keep the commandments and, when the man said he had done that from his youth, Jesus said, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me.”
We would never answer such a question that way! We would never tell a seeker after salvation to go and do more good works. But the Lord knew his man. This man was confident of his own righteousness and needed to be disabused of that confidence before he could begin to understand the good news. He was saying to this young man what Dr. Schaeffer used to say to people who were presented with the gospel, had it explained to them but were unwilling to make a real commitment to Jesus Christ, “You’ve got to ride your tiger.” When you ride a tiger, you have to stay very, very carefully on its back. You can’t fall off. That is, you think you’re good enough for God. You’ll have to live your life that way, upon that principle of your own goodness until you discover that you can’t. You have to ride your tiger, that is, until you fall off and it eats you. The man went away sad precisely because he wasn’t really ready to follow Jesus or to inherit eternal life, if such required such an admission of his own need and helplessness. He still thought he was righteous, the deadly error of the unsaved, and the Lord required him to do something he wouldn’t do to prove to him that he was not. He thought he had kept all the commandments of God and he hadn’t even understood the first one: money was his god.
I had a conversation with a young woman next to me in the airplane on Tuesday between Denver and Louisville, Kentucky. I did my best to bring the gospel to bear — she had two step-brothers who were Christian pastors — but whenever I got at all close to the heart of the matter she changed the subject. She admitted that religion would be good for her; I replied that I wasn’t sure whether it would be or not, but that God and Christ were vastly more important than anything else in her life. Whenever I said something like that the next sentence she uttered would be about her job or her boyfriend. What she lacked was any sense of her need and without such a sense why turn your life upside down?
So, you see, the Lord’s way of speaking is often contrived to meet the requirement of the situation. In these cases in Luke 9 the Lord was talking to men whose interest in Jesus and following Jesus was superficial and he exposed that superficiality by requiring of them something that they would be unwilling to do.
This happens all the time, of course. The Lord in one way or another, by one means or another, through one instrument or another, comes near to a man or a woman and elicits some measure of interest from him or her. But then he tests that interest. Are you willing to be pure in your relationship with your girlfriend or your boyfriend? Are you ready to honor me with your money? Are you willing to join my people in worship every Lord’s Day? Sometimes it’s only: are you willing to tell others that you are my follower? And time after time, in effect they say, “Well, if it requires that I guess I’m not interested.”
You remember Bunyan’s immortal picture of this in his character Pliable in Pilgrim’s Progress. Pliable was quite ready to begin the pilgrimage with Christian. He was even enthusiastic about what lay ahead of them and the Celestial City to which they were headed as they left the City of Destruction. But they had hardly begun their journey when they fell into a swamp, the Slough of Despond, and began to sink into the muck. “Well,” said Pliable, “if we have this much trouble at the beginning, how much more can we expect?” And so he struggled out of the swamp on the side from which they had come and made his way straight homeward. His enthusiasm for Jesus lasted only until the first discovery that the way Christians walk in this world is a difficult one.
You see it is only because the Lord cares so deeply about our meeting our obligations to our parents, about our showing thoughtful consideration to our family and friends, that he speaks as he does. He intends to shock us; to rock us back on our heels. That’s why he speaks in these memorable words. He intends for us to stop and think, even be confused, even shocked. It is perfectly obvious that Jesus proceeded on the assumption that had be spoken in a more measured and less controversial way his point would have been lost.
With remarks like these the Lord is battering down our natural and persistent unwillingness to face the facts about faith, about salvation, and about following Jesus. His refusal to be polite and his willingness to offend are the demonstration that he is talking about matters of life and death. Salvation is a radical thing and so must be the Christian life. Something more to our liking, something less demanding, requiring less sacrifice on our part would leave the world and ourselves fast asleep while we all hurtled toward the judgment of God!
But there is honest encouragement and help for believers here as well. Surely we need to know and again and again to hear that following Jesus is an all or nothing affair; that there can be no half-heartedness, no half measures. But we also need to hear that the difficulties we face, the hardships involved in being a Christian are par for the course. As Jesus’ life was hard in making salvation, so ours will be hard in acquiring it!
And remember, we are not only talking about the difficulties Jesus identifies here: the sacrifices of time or money, the loss of creature comforts, the alienation of friends and family who don’t understand our fixation on Jesus. This passage follows a series of short paragraphs exposing the disciples’ moral and spiritual failures. Jesus is just as surely talking about other sacrifices people make because they are followers of Jesus. And perhaps the greatest of these is that one must live one’s life, all of one’s life, in a state of frustration and disappointment. Jesus calls us to be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect, and we are not, far, far from it. And as the followers of Jesus our failures sting much more than the failures of others and that sting is much more constant. We mourn, we weep, we can’t sleep, we punish ourselves for sins that most of the world doesn’t even regard as sins. We live with a constant sense of guilt and with the burden of moral and spiritual failure every day. It is the Christian’s peculiar burden and one has only to read the utterance of the heart of the Christian generations to know how heavy that burden is and must be.
These men to whom Jesus spoke, or so seems likely, passed on the opportunity to follow him when they found out what it would require. The Lord’s conditions were too radical, too extreme. The terrible thing is that they may never have come so close to salvation and eternal life again. Seek the Lord while he may be found, we are exhorted in the Bible, because he can’t always be found and you may never again have an interest in seeking him again. Or as Joseph Hart put it in his magnificent hymn “Come, Ye sinners, Poor and Wretched,”
“…if you tarry till you’re better, you will never come at all.”
When the summons comes, it must be answered and again and again in our lives as the followers of Jesus when the summons comes it must be answered. The disciples, the twelve, answered the summons. They continued to be very imperfect men, they continued to misunderstand the Lord, they continued to fail him. But they followed and, eventually, they willingly made all of the sacrifices the Lord spoke of here and, in fact, many more.
Some of you remember Jack Armes, a PCA missionary who spent 40 years doing pioneer missionary work in the interior of Kenya. When he arrived there were no Christians, when he left a generation later, there were thousands of Christians. I remember him telling me that as he was about to leave for Africa as a young man, the age and infirmity of his parents, whom he loved deeply, was a real concern. Travel and communication back then was not what it is today. There were no telephones where they were going; mail was slow; travel was expensive, slow and complicated. I believe they got to Kenya for the first time on a ship. But, he said, he realized that to turn back from the summons, in effect, at least so far as he knew to leave others to bury his father, would have been not only disloyalty to Jesus, it would have been dangerous for his own soul. He didn’t want to be among those who came close, but never proved themselves among the genuine followers of Jesus Christ.
Some of you young people, perhaps some of you older ones are saying to yourselves, “Yes, I accept that I must be a Christian and live a Christian life, and make those sacrifices. I accept that and I’m going to do that. Just not yet.” I must go and bury my father first, or tell my family, or do something else! Have some fun or make some money. You are like Augustine who once early on said to the Lord, “Give me chastity, but do not give it yet.” No, take caution from this text of ours this morning. Did the scribe or the other men who expressed an interest ever really close with Christ and follow him? I fear they did not.
Two things to remember as you consider the radical summons we have addressed to us here: all or nothing, now or never!
First, the reason for such extremity, such lack of qualification in the Lord’s remarks to us about what it requires to be a Christian is because the stakes are so high and the implications are so immense. You remember Winston Churchill’s famous address to the British Parliament, his first after replacing Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister in May of 1940.
I would say to the House as I said to those who have joined this government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.
Those remarks were not depressing to the British people. They didn’t sag their shoulders as they heard them. They were inspired by them, encouraged by them, strengthened by them, nerved by them. Why? Because they already knew they were at war against a very powerful enemy. It wasn’t a war they had asked for, but it was the war they had got and Churchill helped them to face what was to be the terrible cost of that war. He told them the truth they knew they needed to hear.
And so it is with us. If we’ve been Christians any length of time we already know how demanding the Christian life can be; what it takes out of us; what it requires of us. To be loyal to Jesus Christ is to practice that loyalty in thought, word, and deed every waking hour of every day. To be loyal to Jesus is to mourn every failure to do just that. To be loyal to Jesus is to face every new circumstance as an obligation to be Jesus’ man or Jesus’ woman. But, demanding as it may be, there is no option. Reality is what it is. We can refuse to follow Jesus, but we can’t escape the consequences of that refusal. We can demand that the universe relax its rules, that God waive his requirements, lesson our obligations, but our demanding won’t make it so. We are in a war. We can win or lose, but we can’t win without loyal service and genuine sacrifice. We expect our captain, we need our captain to tell us that he is calling us to blood, toil, tears and sweat. We know it will take no less!
But the second thing to remember is that the Lord never asks of us what he does without promising us his reward. No one has ever out-given Jesus Christ. And no matter what you sacrifice for his sake, you will gain many times as much in return. If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Lord give his good gifts to those who seek him.
This is the paradox of our text and of the many others like it in the Gospels. If these men had not delayed, if they had not temporized, if they had not hesitated, if they had not qualified their discipleship, they would have had the double honor to be able to say that they had left their homes to follow Jesus and that they had never been homeless as a result. Remember, this same Jesus told these same disciples, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things — food, clothing, and shelter — will be added to you.” They would have left family and friends to follow Jesus, and left them at once, but their families and friends would have been better for their having done so. They would have left others to bury their father but not only would he have been properly buried, the sacred offices of a dutiful son would have been more perfectly performed. He who loses his life for Jesus’ sake will save it. Jesus said that too!
Okay, the godly life, the life of following Jesus is proving very difficult, trying, and wearying. The Lord said it would be. Reality is being confirmed for you. It must be a grueling life we live in some ways — despite all the joy in Christ, in salvation, and in the goodness of his love — what with the world we are living in and the kingdom of darkness warring against us every hour of every day.
There is something wonderfully inspiring, helpful, and encouraging when you realize that things are turning out precisely as the Lord Jesus said they would! All the more when you know you’re going to win!