As they were going along the road, someone said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go." 58And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." 59To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." 60And Jesus said to him, "Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." 61Yet another said, "I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home." 62Jesus said to him, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." -Luke 9.57-62 (ESV)
The parallel Scripture is found in Matthew 8.18-22. This section talks about a total commitment to Jesus Christ. Both Matthew and Luke record this event. Luke highlights the term “follow” in his account. He also demonstrated the centrality of Christ in the heart and life of a believer.
In this passage, we see three interactions with Jesus. First, an unnamed person says, "I will follow you wherever you go." It reminds me of Luke 22.33 where Peter says, "Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death." A rash statement. The speaker, like Peter later on, makes a commitment without counting the cost. Jesus points out that commitment is not an easy thing; it has a price. Jesus makes the man aware that there is hardship in following Him. I do not believe this man went with Jesus. There is nothing to indicate that he did, and the tone suggests that Jesus did not count the man as one of His twelve or even a follower at all.
Many today are willing to say they are a Christian, or wear a 'Christian t-shirt', or even put a 'Christian bumper sticker' on their car. However, they will not stand for Jesus in their lives. They will not witness about Christ to others, they will consistently compromise with the worldliness they encounter (coarse joking at work, flirting with someone other than their spouse, gossiping, etc.) and they will not stand for Biblical morality in their personal lives. That means they may be single and promiscuous, or demonstrate road rage, or use profanity consistently without a second thought- just to touch a few areas.
I think this is well illustrated by the story of a man driving behind a car with a "Honk if you love Jesus!" bumper sticker on the car. The man, being a Christian, honked. Just a mere second later a hand came out of the driver's window with a 'one finger salute' (extended middle finger).
Jesus called us to commitment, not comfort. The fact that we can, thus far, be comfortable in our Christianity is a fading Western phenomenon. Many parts of the world see Christians murdered, tortured and shunned for their faith in Christ. At this time we have no such problem in most cases. However, we better not get comfortable even with that. Times may change and Christianity may become less comfortable one day.
The unnamed man in this Scripture make a verbal commitment that he probably has not thought through. He has apparently not counted the cost. That is most likely the reason for Jesus' response.
When we follow Jesus, we are taking on something we are totally unable to handle. It is beyond our frail abilities. It is a task requiring more than we may realize. We can only follow Christ if He is empowering us. It is Christ who keeps us standing, as Jude 1.24-25 says so clearly, "Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen." (ESV)
The second person Jesus interacts with is the one He personally calls. I believe that we do not decide on Christ, rather, He chooses us. It is the Father who draws us into salvation. It is by His grace that we are saved. The punishment we so unmercifully deserve Jesus so mercifully received on our behalf when we receive Him. Jesus, here, calls this man and says to him, "Follow me." The man has his noble task to perform and let's Jesus know about it. He must bury his father, as is the duty of the eldest son in the family at that time.
Despite the noble convictions the man is planning on fulfilling, Jesus makes one point very clear. He must be the first priority. Jesus puts it into perspective for the man. He echos His teaching in Matthew 6.33, to "seek first the Kingdom of God." God will take care of the rest.
Another point of interest is that Jesus makes what some may see as a callous statement. He says to follow Him and to "Let the dead bury their own dead." I believe this is a play on words. The dead can refer to the spiritual state of the man's relatives. Since their devotion is not to Christ, they are spiritually dead. Let them take up the noble task of burying the man's father. This man has a clear call on his life to follow and proclaim Christ. There is no higher calling.
He, like those of us who have received Christ, was called to proclaim the Gospel. Our call is found in Matthew 28.18-20, "Jesus came and said to them, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.'" (ESV)
If we are called by Christ, we are called into a life of service to our Lord and King. If we are called into such service, we are to follow Him even through suffering or death. If an earthly leader has an army under his command, they are his servants. If he orders them into battle they go and risk suffering or even death in battle for the sake of the king. We, Christians, are called in the same manner as "soldiers of Christ Jesus," (2 Timothy 2.3-4) no matter the cost, we are to obey and follow Him.
Finally, there is one last man who interacts with Jesus in this passage. This man tells Jesus that he will follow him once he bids his family farewell. This is a reflection of Elisha's call to follow Elijah. Elisha asked to go home and say goodbye and complete some things. He was allowed to do so:
So he departed from there and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen in front of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and cast his cloak upon him. 20 And he left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” And he said to him, “Go back again, for what have I done to you?” 21 And he returned from following him and took the yoke of oxen and sacrificed them and boiled their flesh with the yokes of the oxen and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he arose and went after Elijah and assisted him. (1 Kings 19.19-21 ESV)
The people in Israel at this time were taught the Scriptures very thoroughly. The man pledging to follow Jesus in this instance is most likely overstepping his bounds, being presumptuous, in likening himself to Christ. Jesus did not give this man such a privilege. Jesus responded to him that, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."
As Jesus said in the second case, He is to be first priority. If we say we want to follow Christ, but want to do something else first, we fail. We are unworthy. We are like a farmer who is plowing his field and looks back. His rows are no longer straight. He is messing up the task. Likewise, if we look back, we are not worthy of the task.
Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, "Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3.13-14 ESV) If we do anything but press on we are showing ourselves to be unworthy. And we cannot press on without the empowerment of the Holy Spirit in our lives. If God is not indwelling us, we are not His followers and we are powerless to live for Christ.
Two men called on Jesus. They were not accepted, Jesus countered their pledges of commitment with a word of correction. One man was called by Jesus. When he was in error, Jesus corrected him and commissioned him. Two did not count the cost. One had the cost plainly explained to him. By Jesus' interaction with that man, I believe he counted the cost and followed Christ as Jesus said he was called to do.
Have you counted the cost of being committed to Christ? Are you taking this commitment seriously? Examine your heart. This is not something to take lightly. The consequences are eternal.
Pete Garbacki is a minister with Time for Truth Ministries and Mission.Brasil. Follow him on Twitter @mission_brasil or FaceBook at http://www.facebook.com/pete.garbacki.