The old prophet had been told that among the final tasks of his career as a prophet of the Lord God was to find and train his replacement. He was to look for a man named Elisha son of Shaphat and anoint him prophet in his place. When he found the young man, he didn’t anoint him right away. He passed by him and threw his mantle over him; it was like a test to see if this young fellow was the right man for the job. Sure enough, he came running after the old prophet, leaving his oxen in the middle of the field. “Let me kiss my father and my mother,” he said, “and then I will follow you.”
That’s a reasonable request, wouldn’t you agree? Kiss your mom and dad good-bye before you leave for who knows where, not knowing how long it might take?
The old prophet, though, didn’t say, “Go ahead, no rush. I’ll be under that tree over there, waiting for you.”
No, he said, “Go, return. But understand what I have done to you.”
The young man returned to the field, killed the oxen, cut up the plow for firewood, and prepared a feast for the people. Then he set out and followed Elijah.
You have to wonder if he actually did kiss his mom and dad good-bye, and if killing and cooking the oxen was part of having a farewell picnic with the family. Or did he in fact not go back home? Did he cut up his plowing equipment and the animals solely to bring his former life to an end in order to be free to follow this urgent call? The story leaves room for us to decide for ourselves if it was OK for this prophet of the Lord to say good-bye to the family or not.
The other reading we heard this morning doesn’t leave that kind of room; it is disturbing in its clarity. Someone said to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” And Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” This call demands immediate and undivided attention.
Imagine you had to draw up a list of sacred duties that anyone, regardless of religious affiliation, had to observe – wouldn’t burying one’s parents be at or near the top of that list? We honor those who gave us life, and burying their bodies is one last honor we can bestow upon them. And yet, when Jesus said to someone, “Follow me,” and the person responded, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father,” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
I’m not sure I want to proclaim a kingdom that doesn’t allow me to honor my father and mother, thus honoring the commandment to honor them, and the Giver of that commandment. This saying is so appalling I want to find a way to make it mean something different, and I suspect some of you are hoping that I find a way to dismiss these statements as out of character with the Jesus we know or think we know.
I sat with this verse for a long time, and at some point Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, came to mind. In the struggle for the throne of Thebes, her brothers killed one another on the battlefield. Creon, her uncle and the interim king, decreed that the body of one brother, Eteocles, considered the defender of the city, be buried with every honor, but that the body of the other, Polynices the traitor be left mutilated in the field, as a feast for the dogs and the birds. Whoever honored the body of Polynices would be stoned to death. Nevertheless, Antigone defied the king’s decree. She went outside the city gates under the cover of night and sprinkled a handful of dust on her brother’s body, three times, enough to fulfill the sacred duty. The king, she said, can only make laws about the city he rules, but not about the dead. In a way she said, I must obey the gods rather than any human authority, and she died for her obedience.
I first learned about Antigone as a teenager in highschool, and I remember how much I admired her courage.
I believe Jesus is talking about courage. He had set his face to go to Jerusalem. He had experienced rejection in Nazareth, but that didn’t stop him. He experienced rejection in Samaria, but he didn’t let that stop him either, or make him turn from his way to angry violence. He had set his face to go to Jerusalem, and he knew where he was going.
He knew that his single-minded obedience to God’s will wouldn’t be well-received there. He knew that his proclamation of God’s reign would lead to ultimate rejection. He was on a way that made any other commitments secondary; this path, his path made even the most sacred duties relative. Jesus himself had put his hand to the plow and he wasn’t going to look back.
And his disciples? They were stumbling along. They were arguing with each other as to which one of them was the greatest.
They were unable to cast out a demon that tormented a man’s only child, but when they saw someone else casting out demons in Jesus’ name, they tried to stop him, because – I’m quoting – “he does not follow with us.” Like they were following?
When the Samaritan village didn’t show them proper hospitality, the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” It didn’t occur to them that this kind of violence was not part of Jesus’ program. It didn’t occur to them that Jesus was on the way of the cross and that they were following him. And so, as they were going along the way, Jesus talked about the implications of that way.
“I have nowhere to lay my head, because I am rejected everywhere I go. Will you follow me? Proclaiming the kingdom of God is my life, and there is nothing, not even the most sacred duty you can imagine, that will keep me from going up to Jerusalem. Will you follow me? Home is not a place I can go back to, I have nowhere to lay my head. Home is where God is calling me; home is where God’s faithfulness, the world’s brokenness and my obedience meet. I will stay on this path for the sake of my brothers and sisters and for the sake of God’s reign on earth – will you follow with me?”
I don’t believe that Jesus was making appalling demands, but he spoke with great clarity about the path he was on. He knew that he would not die surrounded by his followers, but alone, rejected, forsaken by his friends. He also knew that he didn’t need to identify a group of followers over whom he could throw his mantle before being taken up, so they would continue his work. He didn’t need to pass on the mantle because he was the one to complete the work: he died on the cross, bearing the full weight of the world’s sin and bringing to an end the world of sin.
And God raised him from the dead, marking the first day of the new creation, making all things new and affirming the way of Jesus, the way of the cross as the way of life.
So now the Risen One continues to call us to follow him. He calls us to live as witnesses to the resurrection, as those who know that the work of our redemption has been accomplished. We are free to love without fear, because sin and death have been overcome once and for all. We are free to study and live our way into Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness, about the right use of wealth, about service and prayer and mercy, about who is neighbor and who is kin, about who deserves our obedience and who does not.
When the Nazis came to power in Germany in the 1930s, the churches failed almost completely at recognizing the threat they presented; the churches neither openly rejected nor secretly resisted the Nazi reign of lies and terror. There were only very few who had the courage to obey God rather than the Führer’s perverted authority. The majority were silent, hoping for the nightmare to just go away, and trying to focus all their attention on their families or their work. The few Christians who did resist were the ones who heard the call of the Risen One to follow him and who responded with single-minded obedience.
As a teenager I admired Antigone for her courage to do what she knew to be right. I know I admired her because I wanted to be as faithful to Jesus’ call as she was to the laws of the gods of Greece. Today I wonder if we can be attentive to Jesus’ call not just as individuals but as communities, if we can practice that particular attentiveness together and find faithful responses together, or if we are so atomized and distracted that there will only be a handful who pay attention and follow the way of Jesus.
All I can say for now is that we must not dismiss too quickly the difficult sayings we deem out of character with the Jesus we think we know. The day may come for all of us when the call to follow the way of the kingdom will be so urgent that all other commitments we have made will have to become secondary. May God grant us grace to become open to the call of Christ and to understand what he has done to us.