A story is told abut a small town on the border of Canada and the United States. For years both countries had fought over the ownership of the town. Finally, the matter was brought to court and the judge decided in favor of the U.S. The town was definitely in the U.S. At the end of the trial an old fellow was heard to say as he left the courtroom, “Oh, thank goodness, I just don’t think I could have stood another one of those cold Canadian winters.”
Isn’t it strange how a shift in perspective can change so many things? An American winter sounds milder than a Canadian one. Think of how life looks different when you are 35 as compared to 21, or 65 compared to 35. The angle from which we view things determines much of what we see.
The encounter of three men during the travels of Jesus is a story of shifting perspectives. Each of the men was invited to look at life from a different angle, to see it afresh, to see the dangerous side as well as the inviting side. As such, it is an invitation for us to reconsider this serious business of following Jesus. Consider these dangers:
I. The Danger of Impulsive Decisions
Jesus and His group were trekking down the road toward Jerusalem. Jesus had “set His face” toward the holy city, determined to go there come what may.
Along the way a volunteer presented himself and said, “I’ll follow you anywhere.” That was easy enough to understand. A sense of excitement over Jesus and the disciples hung like a canopy, but the volunteer did not realize that it was more a shroud than a circus tent. Everybody wants to join the circus, but who wants to join a funeral procession?
“I’ll follow you anywhere.” Here are four small words which seem to sum up the dedication of a man’s whole life. But Jesus was too wise to take such a commitment at face value. Matthew calls this volunteer a “scribe.” As such he was one of the leading men, a stable person, a pillar of the community. Jesus’ statement was a way of asking this stable, secure, established person if he could really handle homelessness, instability, insecurity, and disestablishment. How would a man who belonged to a leading law firm handle being an itinerant follower? How could one who was so much at home with the Torah, the law, deal with the radically new way in which Jesus was reinterpreting it?
“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” “Sir, if you join this group you must realize that you will have less stability than the creatures of the air and land. Your bed will be the ground; your pillow, the garments you carry with you; your roof, the sky. Are you sure you can follow like this?”
Hopping “bandwagons” is no new pastime. It is as ancient as the scribe who encountered Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. It is based on spur-of-the-moment decisions, a desire to get into the act. But jumping to hasty conclusions can result in mental bruises. The scribe simply had not thought it through! To follow Jesus meant sharing his homelessness and rejection. Could he do that? Can we?
I often feel that we sing our hymns mechanically without realizing the import of what they express. Take the old favorite, “Footsteps of Jesus.” Hear with fresh ears what it says:
Tho they lead o’er the cold, dark mountains,
Seeking his sheep,
Or along by Siloam’s fountains
Helping the weak.
If they lead thro’ the holy temple,
Preaching the Word,
Or in homes of the poor and lowly,
Serving the Lord.
“Foxes have holes … Are you sure you want to get involved in this?”
I once had a job selling vacuum cleaners door to door. My boss gave me training on how to sell them. I was to demonstrate it, get the buyer excited about it, and get her to sign a contract for it immediately. “Take advantage of her impulsive wants,” the boss would say. This is exactly why some states now have laws giving buyers a “cooling off” period where they can think about what they’ve done and cancel a contract if they want to.
Impulsive decisions in religion cause problems, too. Revival meetings are necessary and good, but we have to be careful about pressuring people to do something they really don’t want to do. Jesus did not say anything like, “Well sing just one more verse. Won’t you come now?” Instead, he asked the volunteer if he could pay the cost of following.
Earnestness and enthusiasm are necessary ingredients in our religious faith. But enthusiasm and earnestness by themselves are not enough. They must be coupled with will and linked to action. Mark Twain once recorded in his journal: “Campbellite revival. All converted except me. All sinners again in a week.”
Jeremy Taylor used to speak of the biblical meaning of prudence which is, as he put it, “reason’s girdle and passion’s bridle.” Jesus’ call for disciples is, among other things, a call for such a girdle and a bridle.
“I’ll follow you anywhere.” It’s so easy to say, and so incredibly difficult to do! To accomplish it requires a sacrificial living, giving up the less important to gain the most important. Christ has called you and me to that. How else could you explain the word, “Take up your cross and follow me”?
Even if we jump the hurdle of impulsive decision, another problem presents itself immediately. It is borne out in the words of the man who said, “Lord, let me first go bury my father.”
II. The Danger of Reluctance
The first man volunteered. Now we see another, but a draftee. Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” This was a straight-forward invitation to join the ranks of those ready to think through the invitation and join in, come what may. To such a draft the man makes a logical reply: “Let me first go and bury my father.” Surely even Jesus could pause long enough for a funeral. He had done it before.
But there was a hitch here. Family customs of the Ancient Near East stipulated that a son had a responsibility to a Father as long as the elder man lived. When he died the younger man was responsible for arranging the burial. But in this case, no funeral procession was ready because no corpse was available. It seems likely that the Father of this man to whom Jesus spoke was still very much alive. The fellow was putting Jesus off, saying something like, “I need to stay here and attend to family responsibilities. When my Father has died and I have taken care of my family duties, then I will come with you.”
We do not have to be geniuses to understand the meaning behind that reply. This young man was reluctant to follow, to get involved, to commit himself. “Better to play it safe,” he thought, so a little excuse will do.
As a pastor, I hear these all the time as I invite people to church. “Well, I’d come but I’m so crippled with arthritis that I just can’t climb those steps.” Then I see this person everywhere in town. Or, “I’d come but I’d miss Dr. So-and-So on T.V.” Or, “I just don’t like all those hypocrites down there.” Behind these thin veils stands the one and only reason: these people are reluctant to get involved with a cause above and beyond their own tiny worlds.
Jesus listened to the odd-sounding excuse: “let me first bury my father.” His reply seems on the surface to be just as odd: “let the dead bury the dead. You go proclaim the kingdom.” He shifted the perspective and pointed this out to the young man: “you are allowing your waiting for death to crowd out your living here and now. Go out and live.”
For everything there is a crucial moment — a time when a person’s whole being says, “Yes, the time is now!” To put some things off too long is to risk never doing them at all. For example, a man and woman come to love each other and plan to get married. They experience some difficulties in the relationship and postpone the wedding. After a while they reschedule it, but again have problems and postpone it. For some people this could go on and on. With each postponement comes the danger that the wedding will never come off at all.
“Strike while the iron is hot” is an old proverb fit for blacksmiths and for religious faith. There is a time for taking our time and thinking out actions and results; remember that Jesus told the first volunteer to consider what he was getting into. But there is also a time for moving ahead once the consequences are considered. To fail to do so is to court disaster.
Many years ago a young man went to work at a hardware store. He found all sorts of junk that took up space but did not sell well. This clerk asked the owner to allow him to put it all on one table and sell each item for 10 cents. He did so and had a successful sale. Later he did the same thing, and had another successful sale. The clerk approached the owner and suggested that they open up a store specializing in items that cost only a nickel or dime. The owner thought it was a bad idea and refused. The clerk went into business for himself and became very successful with his idea. His name was F.W. Woolworth. His old employer later said, “I have calculated that every word I used to turn young Woolworth down cost me a million dollars.”
This is true with religious commitments. Jesus wants his followers to consider what they are in form, but he does not want them to waste their lives over the matter without ever making up their minds. The all-consuming claim of Jesus is too important! Matters of the Kingdom of God just will not wait. Obedience is necessary when Jesus calls.
We expend great creativity in coming up with ways to get around the truth, or to obscure it. I ran across a list of real estate terms used in selling houses, along with a “translation” for us lay people.
Consider some of these:
Unobstructed view: No trees
Waiting your imaginative touch: Complete wreck
Handyman’s dream: Owner’s nightmare
Pond site: Swamp
Central to everything: A very noisy area
Easy commuting: Remote from everything
Charm all its own: Don’t lean on old porch rail
Needs finishing touches: Needs roof
We can do that kind of thing with our religious faith. There are creative ways of saying, “Let me bury my family.” The only thing that moves us beyond this is obedience. Without this simple discipline a child burns his fingers on the stove after his mother tells him it is hot. A kid in school fails a test because she did not follow instructions. A marriage falls apart because the partners are not obedient to the rules of relationships which govern a marriage. A friendship crumbles because the two friends do not honor their mutual pact of honesty.
To this reluctant man, and to our reluctance, Jesus commands, “Let the dead bury the dead.” Let those who have no spiritual insight or interest attend to these other matters, but you get out of your spiritually dead surroundings and follow me! Let those who have no sense of duty to the Kingdom meet the requirements of the Law. You join me now to overcome the power of death.
A volunteer is impulsive. A draftee is reluctant. A third man enters the picture. We don’t know if he volunteered or was called to join Jesus. All we know is his answer: “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Here is a man who brings to our attention:
III. The Danger of Indecisiveness
Once again the request seems logical. All he wanted was to say goodbye to the family. That should not take too long, should it?
The time element was not the issue. Jesus knew that the issue was this man’s double-mindedness, his inability to decide one way or the other. Indecisive people have a tough time following Christ. In fact, they have a tough time doing anything.
When I was growing up my best friend’s mother was such a person. We would ask if my friend could come to my house to play. I can still see her eyes as she would divert her eyes and whisper apologetically, “Well, I don’t know. We better wait until his Daddy gets home and ask him.” That was her stock answer to every request. I realize now there was more to it than simple indecisiveness, but her inability to decide used to drive me crazy!
We hear from the lips of this third man in the narrative those two telling words: “But first …” They indicate his indecision about what to do.
I hear those words fairly often as I speak with people. I talk to a teenager about faith and get told, “Well, OK, but let me have some fun first.” I talk to a young couple about getting involved in the church. The answer comes: “Yes, we will, but first let us get our children grown.” I speak to a middle-aged couple and hear, “Sure, we’re interested, but we have so many responsibilities now. We’ll come when we get the house paid off and the kids out of college.” I talk to an older adult and hear, “Absolutely! I’m going to start coming, but first let me get used to retirement and my new routine.” You know what happens. By the time all the conditions of the “but first” reply are met, friends and family are walking behind the box out to that unhappy place.
To all of this Jesus says, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom.” Plows in His day had only one handle and they required the farmer’s whole attention. Jesus was saying that the plowpoint was set and the team had been signaled to go. To wonder then would be to defeat the whole purpose. As with an ancient plow, your religious commitment needs single-minded, full attention. This is not the time for looking back to see what might have been. This is the time for looking squarely ahead to what is to come. Forget the excuses. Follow Christ!
When Cortez led his Conquistadors into Mexico in search of gold, he burned his ships in the harbor. He did not want his soldiers looking back over their shoulders at the way home. He left only one course — straight ahead. So it is with faith.
Three men came along. One was impulsive and did not think through his actions. Another was reluctant and held back. A third was indecisive and could not seem to make up his mind. To all of these — to all of us — Jesus stands before us and waves us onward. He changes our perspective and straightens out our thinking.
Our refusal to see life from His angle makes us similar to a woman in an ancient legend from India. The woman lived with her family in a rural area. Her husband was killed by a tiger one year. A son was bitten by a cobra the next. A daughter was trampled by an elephant the next year. Finally someone asked her why she did not move to the city. She replied, “What? Don’t you know that cities are dangerous?”
To go to Christ is dangerous. It will change us. But is that worse than staying where we are now?