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The Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C

The Cost of Discipleship 

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But, in that context, Jesus in a sense responds to their zeal by laying out some more teachings about how much discipleship is going to cost and what it’s going to look like.

So we have these three sayings on the cost of discipleship that follow. First, the guy says, “I’m going to follow you wherever you go, and Jesus points to his poverty and his itinerancy: “birds of the air have their nets, foxes have their holes, but the Messiah, the Son of man doesn’t even have anywhere to lay his head.” He’s homeless. Second, another person, Jesus calls him to follow him, and he says “well can I go and bury my dad first?” And Jesus says one of the most shocking sayings in all of the New Testament: “Let the dead bury their dead. As for you, go and proclaim the kingdom.” Now, it’s hard to overestimate the fact that the duty to bury the dead, especially to bury your parents, was one of the supreme duties in 1st Century Judaism. It was considered a commandment of the law, especially in light of the Decalogue (honor your Father and Mother). One of the supreme acts of honor to a father and mother would be to bury them. And yet here, when the person uses having to bury his father as an excuse for not following Jesus, Jesus flips it and says “Let the dead bury their dead, you go and proclaim the kingdom”. This is very similar to what Jesus will say elsewhere in the gospels, that if anyone loves father or mother, sister or brother, or daughter or son more than me, he’s not worthy of me. He’s not worthy to be my disciple.

Now who in the world, what human being would have the right to command you to love him more than you love your parents? The only person in the Old Testament who is to be loved above your parents is God himself. So see, through this shocking saying, what Jesus is doing is implicitly revealing his divine identity. And then finally, another person says “I’ll follow you Lord but can I tell my family bye?” And Jesus says, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” I’ve always thought that was one of the scariest passages in the New Testament. Because what Jesus is saying is once you set out on the path of discipleship to follow me, don’t look back. There’s no turning back to your old way of life. In the language of the Exodus, there’s no going back to Egypt. Don’t even look back at Egypt, because if you do, you’re not fit for the kingdom of God. Discipleship for the kingdom requires total adherence, total self-gift to Christ, in which everything is going to be given up in order to follow him. Nothing is put ahead of him, even family, even friends, even parents, even children. He’s first above all else.

Now again, in a 1st Century Jewish context, it’s fascinating because both of those images, putting your hand to the plow and looking back, would echo two Old Testament passages. The first one is the call of Eli’sha, the prophet, the successor to Eli’jah, whom Eli’jah calls while he’s plowing the fields. So here’s another Eli’jah- Eli’sha echo in this gospel reading for today. Jesus is like a new Eli’jah, calling his disciples to be like new Eli’sha’s (new prophetic successors), and just like Eli’sha was plowing the field and left if behind to follow Eli’jah, so now Jesus is saying to his disciples, even more, “Don’t even put your hand to the plow. If you do, you’re not fit to be my disciple.” And the other image is of course Lot’s wife in Genesis 19, who looks back not to Egypt, but looks back to the sinful city of Sodom in longing for what’s being lost when the city’s destroyed. And there’s your other parallel, it’s fascinating. They’re calling down fire from heaven on the Samaritans, that’s an echo of Sodom, the image of looking back here makes you think of Lot’s wife, also an image of Sodom and Gomorrah. So Jesus here is calling for a radical detachment from past life, from past sins, but also from good things, like parents and family and land. Which, if you think about it, parents, family, land, those are natural goods that we’re all deeply attached to. It’s very natural for a human being to be deeply attached to their family, their friends, their life and their land (their possessions). But Jesus is saying none of those things can come ahead of me. That’s the cost of discipleship...

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