The Life of Brian, a Monte Python movie from the 1970s, tells the story of a young man who just happens to have been born the same night and just a few houses down from where Jesus was born. Although Brian doesn’t want to be a messiah, he gets taken for one by the crowd, which is looking for a messiah. They’re not just looking for someone to throw out the Romans, after all, “what have the Romans ever done for us,” besides the aqueducts and the roads, they’re also looking for someone to tell them what to do. Even though Brian keeps telling the people that they have to think for themselves and that he’s “not the messiah,” something his mother confirms, telling anyone who will listen, that Brian is really a “very naughty boy,” the crowds keep coming to seek his wisdom. In the end, Brian gets the same treatment the Romans give to other would-be messiahs. He gets crucified – another contribution the Romans gave to Judea!
Yes, even though Brian just wants to be left alone so he can live a normal life – with his beloved Judith – despite trying everything he can to flee his would be followers, they won’t leave him be. In the end, he gets picked up by the Romans and then is crucified, despite his protestations that he’s not a messiah. Well, as his fellow executionees sing to him from their Roman-made crosses, you have to “Always look on the bright side of life.”
Now, if you’re not familiar with Monte Python or the Life of Brian, you probably have no idea about what I’m talking about. Still, even if you don’t know much about the Life of Brian, there’s a connection between that comedic story and our text. You see, unlike Brian, who denies his messiahship and tries to flee his would-be followers, Jesus understands all-too-well the consequences of his calling. But, despite this knowledge, he still sets his face toward Jerusalem. The question for us today is: Do we understand the consequences of our calling? And, are we willing to follow through?
1. Heading to Jerusalem
As Luke puts it, Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” With this statement, Luke begins his travelogue, which describes Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem. The text picks up soon after Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, that moment when Jesus meets with Moses and Elijah on the mountain to discuss his impending departure, his exodus, from this earth (Luke 9:28-36). According to the text, a cloud envelopes Jesus, and a voice from heaven declares: “This is my son, my chosen, listen to him.” Having heard this divine message, Jesus sets off for Jerusalem, knowing full well the consequences of that decision. At least in Luke’s telling of the story, there will be no turning back. He’s finished with his ministry in Galilee.
This reading from Luke should be read along side today’s lectionary reading from the Old Testament. In 2 Kings 2, Elijah begins the final journey of his life, in the company of Elisha, the one on whom Elijah had placed his mantle. The question that haunts this text is whether Elisha has the wherewithal to stay with Elijah to the end. What is important to understand at this point, is that the manner of Elijah’s departure is very different from that of Jesus. Elijah doesn’t have to suffer death, instead, a chariot of fire sweeps down from heaven, and then carries the prophet off into the presence of God. For Jesus, the path forward won’t be quite so glorious, because it leads to his death, along with the abandonment of him by his closest followers. Still, Jesus stays true to his calling and sets “his face toward Jerusalem,” a seemingly odd phrase that carries with it great importance. You see, to set your face toward something is both a sign of determination and a prophetic stance. He is ready to face those who will oppose his message, beginning with the Samaritans who turn him away when they discover where he’s heading. Yes, there will be no turning back.
2. Excuses, Excuses
Like Brian, not everyone shares Jesus’ determination. One person comes up to him as he was walking south, and tells Jesus: I’ll follow you, wherever you go. To which Jesus replies: unlike the foxes and the birds, the son of man has no place to lay his head. Now, we don’t know what happened with this person. He might have joined Jesus’ band, or maybe, upon further reflection, decided it would be best to stay home. There was another person, whom Jesus encountered. This time Jesus himself put out the call, and the man said – I’d like to go with you, but first I have to bury my father. While we really don’t know if this man’s father was alive or dead, we hear Jesus say, “let the dead bury the dead.” When another would-be follower tells Jesus that he’d like to come with him, but first he has to say goodbye to his family, Jesus says: once you put your hand to the plow, you can’t look back, or you’ll not be fit for the kingdom.
I don’t know about you, but the message I hear in this text is it’s “all or nothing.” When it comes to following Jesus, you’re either in or you’re not. There’s no middle ground. This is a very demanding message, and I wonder, are we ready to leave behind family, friends, jobs, future plans, holidays, and fun, for the sake of the kingdom?
I want to dwell for a moment on that last word – fun. I know that some of you think I’m a “serious chap.” But, despite my otherwise sober demeanor, I too like to have fun, and I wonder about my ability to find a balance between my calling and my desire to have fun.
This question of having fun came up in an episode of Lost in Space, that we were watching the other night. If you don’t remember that 1960s TV show, you’re probably not missing anything, but in this episode, Will Robinson gets himself caught up in a galactic plan of conquest, after he kisses a sleeping princess – all because the Robot, who knew the story of Sleeping Beauty, told him to kiss her. Later, when he’s told that he is destined to be the consort of the princess, which means he’ll have to marry her, Will responds in disbelief, after all, he says (I’m paraphrasing from memory):
“I’m just a kid. I don’t want to get married. I want to have fun. We all know that once you get married, the fun is over!"
So, am I ready to follow Jesus? Or, would I rather just have fun? Am I willing to put my hand to the plow and not look back?
3. No Looking Back
As we ponder this question, it’s helpful to listen for the allusions in this passage to the Elijah and Elisha stories. For example, when James and John ask Jesus if it would be okay to call down fire and brimstone on the Samaritan village that refused them entrance, they were appealing to the example of Elijah who called down fire from heaven to consume his enemies (2 Kings 1:1-16). Fortunately for the Samaritans, Jesus rejects this advice and continued on to the next village. Then there’s the statement that closes our text, the one where Jesus says: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” This statement points back to the calling of Elisha, for when Elijah first meets Elisha, the successor to his prophetic ministry, he is plowing a field. When Elijah invites him to join him, Elisha asks permission to first kiss his parents and say good bye, a request that Elijah grants. So, after Elisha returns home with his oxen, slaughters them, boils the flesh, and passes out the meat to his neighbors so that they might eat, he joins up with Elijah (1 Kings 19:19ff). In this case, it appears that Elijah is the easier task master. He seems more patient than Jesus, but perhaps Jesus understands that his time is short. He can’t wait for would-be disciples to bury their parents or even say goodbye. There’s a sense of urgency in this passage that reminds us that while there’s room for fun in life, the kingdom of God isn’t a game.
What then should we make of this text? How should we respond to its description of living under the reign of God? Is it a call to live an ascetic life, one of poverty, chastity, and obedience? How does such a calling fit with the fact that the modern church is a voluntary organization? No one has to join and no one has to do anything they don’t want to do. Yes, there are certain expectations placed on Pat and me, but that’s because we get paid for our service. So, what does it mean for members of a voluntary organization like this church to follow Jesus?
Besides all of that, don’t we live under grace? Isn’t our worthiness to be in the kingdom dependent on God’s largesse, not on our efforts? At first glance, it would appear that Jesus is suggesting that we have to earn our place in the kingdom. After all, he says, no one who puts their hand to the plow and then looks back is “fit for the kingdom.” If we take this word “fit” to mean worthiness, then it would appear that Jesus is suggesting that we must earn our place in the kingdom.
But, if we take this word to mean “suitable” or “capable,” then the meaning is different. In this case, Jesus is saying is to us that if you’re always looking over your shoulder, wondering what life would be like if we weren’t following Jesus, then it’s likely you’ll get off track. Or to be truer to the analogy, if you’re always looking over your shoulder, then it’s likely that the rows that you’re plowing will be crooked. Yes, to look back while plowing is a bit like driving while texting!
As we hear this text, the questions are many: Do we have a sense of the urgency of the work of Jesus? Do we understand that being church isn’t a game to be played? Can we answer the question with any certainty, why it’s important to be a Christian? That is, what difference does it make that I’m a follower of the one who set us face toward Jerusalem, and didn’t look back?
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
June 27, 2010
5th Sunday after Pentecost