In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus seems to rebuff three people who express a generous desire to follow him. “Foxes have dens and the birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” And, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Finally, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” It is difficult to believe that this is the same Jesus who cured lepers, consoled public sinners such as prostitutes and tax collectors, and proclaimed the arrival of the kingdom of God. What is going on in this Gospel episode?
It is helpful as we consider this passage to start with the first commandment, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2-3). In each case the person who is rebuffed must give up something to follow Jesus. The first must give up the comforts of a home; the second must abandon the requirement of burying one’s parent; the third must set his eye on the goal and never look back. If we are in the least bit reflective about our own lives as we follow Jesus and proclaim the kingdom of God, it seems that we face an impossible task. The first commandment gives us a way out of the dilemma. Jesus says any follower must put him and the Father at the center of his/her life.
Jesus’ exaggerated way of speaking does not require us to live out his words in some kind of literal lock step. Jesus himself came from a comfortable caring home. If we accept the tradition that Joseph died early in Jesus’ life, then he certainly buried his father and consequently cared for his mother. After his baptism and temptations, he set his mind on the goal of bringing salvation to the world. Exaggeration only serves to make a point. To follow him means to live out the mandate of the first commandment as best we can.
Can we give up comfort or family in order to proclaim the Gospel by the way we lead our lives? Do we lead lives centered on God and care of our neighbor? Do we allow the unimportant to obscure or obliterate the most central aspects of our lives? In simple words are we faithful to the lives God has given to us? A priest friend of mine celebrated his 50th jubilee as a Jesuit. As a very young Jesuit, I asked him how one lives the Jesuit life for 50 years. He said, “Well, Jack, you get up in the morning and do what has to be done each day and pretty soon 50 years have passed.” He knew God was at the center of his life and he lived out this knowledge by doing what was asked of him each day.
Jesuit Fr. Jack Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.