THE FOX, THE BIRDS AND THE PLOUGH
a sermon preached at St.LUKE’S QUEEN’S PARK BRIGHTON on 30th June 2019 (text Luke 9. 57-62)
Oh dear. Jesus does seem to have a habit of making pronouncements that sound mysterious, difficult or challenging, doesn’t he?
· Sometimes they are ambiguous.
· Sometimes they seem harsh and offputting.
· Sometimes we suspect the particular gospel writer has a personal axe to grind and may have put his own words into our Lord’s mouth.
· And sometimes, like today, before we can ask what message Jesus has for us, we must do a bit of historical research to have any idea what He really meant.
This morning He’s obviously talking about the cost of discipleship. And at face value He seems to have been speaking rather brutally.
The first candidate volunteers brightly “I’ll follow you wherever you go”. Back comes a bucket of cold water: “Foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
Not exactly how we might treat an enthusiastic newcomer at church: “Splendid. Great to have you on board. We’ll find something interesting for you to do. You’ll soon get used to it!”
Oh no. More like “Really? Do you seriously want to identify yourself with someone who is even worse off than the animals?”
Sounds a bit sour - even self-pitying, doesn’t it?
But that’s only because, in our ignorance about the background, we’ve got hold of the wrong end of the stick.
Jesus is not talking about the natural habitat of creatures. He’s not even talking about animals at all!
In ancient Judaea, “Fox” was the insulting nickname given to the half-foreign dynasty of petty tyrants called Herod. And “birds of the air” was the Jewish catchphrase for total foreigners, Gentiles, in particular the hated Roman empire.
So in fact He is making a political statement, and a pretty dangerous one at that: The Romans, all-powerful occupying force with their spies everywhere, have feathered their nest in our native Israel, aided and abetted by their sly supporters the Herods. So, my enthusiastic young friend, I’d love to have you along but are you sure you fully appreciate that if you cast your lot with me and mine, you are joining an underground movement and you must be prepared to serve God as a marked man?
With the second stranger He meets on the road, it is Christ who takes the initiative calling him to “Follow me.”
The response is Yes but let me go and bury my father first.
Oh poor chap! we might react. His dad’s just died. Of course he should go and make the necessary arrangements.
Not a bit of it. He is told: Let the dead bury their dead. You go and proclaim the kingdom of God.
How callous, how unfeeling our Lord sounds. But once again, we’re simply not familiar enough with the middle-eastern jargon.
The phrase to bury one’s father is a traditional idiom which actually refers to the duty of a son to remain at home and care for his parents until they are laid to rest respectfully.
So this recruit’s response looks suspiciously like a delaying tactic.
If his father had actually just died, he wouldn’t have been whiling away his time on the road, bumping into Jesus. He would have been at home keeping vigil over the corpse.
Instead he prevaricates. What he really means is “Let me go and serve my father while he is alive and after he dies I shall bury him and then at last I’ll be free to give your call my undivided attention.”
Of course, that’s not unreasonable by human standards.
Many of us have struggled against a sense of vocation - I know I have, but more importantly what about S.Augustine, who famously said “O God make me holy but not just yet!”.
But, if you tell Jesus “I feel a conflicting pull of social obligations: surely you don’t expect me to violate these?” He will say that is precisely what He does expect. Proclaiming the kingdom of God is the most pressing and important duty in the world and, when you or I are called to that duty, it must take priority over everything, including traditional family conventions.
By now it probably won’t surprise you to hear that the third encounter also has a meaning which escapes us.
I’ll follow you Lord but first let me just take my leave from those at home.
Fair enough, chum. What even basic common politeness requires, perhaps.
But Jesus will have none of it.
No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is any use to the kingdom of God.
Oh dear. Well first of all, it is fascinating to learn that using the old, light Palestinian plough was very tricky. You have to guide it with your left hand alone, keeping the other hand free to drive the pair of oxen pulling the plough. And all the time you must keep your eyes fixed between the hindquarters of the oxen on the furrow. If you once look round, the furrow becomes crooked and your work is actually counter-productive for the farmer.
So this was a vivid metaphor for not backsliding in matters of faith and commitment.
But what about not even being allowed to say “Goodbye”?
Well actually that’s the whole point. The word in the text doesn’t literally mean say goodbye. It means take one’s leave from and there is a crucial difference.
The third recruit is really saying “I can’t come and join you until I have taken my leave from, i.e got permission from, those at home. Any Jew or Arab listening to this dialogue would know perfectly well that the father is almost certain to refuse to let the boy wander off on some questionable enterprise. It is a ready-made excuse. Shedding crocodile tears, the boy can loudly insist that he wants to go but his father won’t allow him.
Well. perhaps crocodile tears is a bit unfair. In the culture of that place and time, the boy would automatically accept that his father’s authority was supreme, that he must get permission before venturing out. And yet Jesus, Himself a young man barely in his thirties, is shockingly claiming an even higher authority - that of a heavenly Father.
So now we’ve taken a look behind Jesus’s words at their historical context. We’ve got a bit closer to understanding the human Jesus at work in all His power and insight. I find that very helpful. It shows His responses are not as unkind and rude as we thought.
But we still can’t get away from the fact that the cost of discipleship can be high and our Lord bends over backwards to warn his would-be followers about this.
If we are serious about being Christians, we may be called to suffer, we may lose friends, even husband or wife, and become alienated from family and loved ones.
That is because we, and they - the ones who sadly perhaps don’t understand and are estranged from us - are all summoned by Christ to turn our lives around, to turn our earthly values upside down and to see things from God’s perspective. Until we take this plunge - and I’m afraid many badge-wearing churchgoers haven’t really - it seems daunting and frankly unattractive to take up a cross.
We are not told by Luke what happened to today’s three potential converts on the road, whether in the end – after Jesus had not minced words with them - they signed up or not.
But then hang on a minute. Didn’t He also say on another occasion “Come to me all you that are heavy-laden and I will give you rest. For my burden is easy and my yoke is light”?
Is this a flat contradiction of what we have been hearing earlier?
No, not at all, actually It is simply the other side of the coin.
Yes, he warns us how much we must be prepared to lose. But then He tells us about the reward, the great blessing, for those who have plucked up courage to take the plunge.
For they find to their relief and amazement that, because they were prepared to lose their lives, they have gained them. They know for the first time that nothing, no disaster, no misfortune, no pain can in the end get to them and destroy them.
Because for the rest of their lives and beyond, those individuals are in the arms of God.