The demands Jesus makes on those who wish to follow him on the road to Jerusalem, may well strike us as extreme!
You must be prepared not to even have a roof over your head (for the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head).
You are not allowed to perform the important family and religious duty of burying your own father (let the dead bury the dead).
And the common decency of saying goodbye to those at home is denied (no one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God).
According to Luke, Jesus has just started his journey to Jerusalem and this was clearly not a casual sight seeing tour! Luke describes it with great weight: Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem.
Whenever Jesus’ journey is described (by Matthew, Mark or Luke) there is an overwhelming sense of purpose about it. All three synoptic gospels place the beginning of his journey to Jerusalem early on in their story. Once Jesus has embarked on this journey, Luke reminds us time and again that he’s making his way to Jerusalem (13.22, 17.11, 19.28) even though the route that Luke describes is utterly absurd and his sense of geography quite hopeless!
Luke though is trying to be faithful not to the outer story of Jesus – whether he went to this village or that – but to the inner story.
And dominating that inner story was the fact that early on in his ministry Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.
Matthew, Mark and Luke know of only one journey that Jesus makes to Jerusalem, John’s Gospel tells of a number of occasions. John may well be truer to the outer circumstances of Jesus’ life that Jesus went there a number of times but Matthew, Mark and Luke may well be more faithful to the inner story of Jesus’ intentions – Jesus knew very early of his direction of travel, and it was in only one direction – towards Jerusalem.
But why did he go there at all?
From the first sermon that he preached in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus had a rough ride!
‘The synagogue was filled with rage’ Luke wrote. ‘They got up,
drove him out of the town, and led Jesus to the brow of the hill
on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off
Did Jesus get that reception just because it was his hometown?
But with this mood of hostility towards him in the villages and countryside, why go to Jerusalem where things would surely only be worse, where positions would be more entrenched, where powerful forces and factions operated of which Jesus could easily fall foul, and where the anonymity of city life meant that things could be done under cover of darkness and got away with?
So why go?
Jesus takes the road to Jerusalem, not because he wants to but because he has to. This necessity to go to Jerusalem cannot be fitted into human categories – there is no good reason to go! There is only the inner pressure that Jesus senses – that he has to go!
At the transfiguration, Luke describes Moses and Elijah as talking to Jesus, and what are they talking about? Luke writes:
‘They…were speaking of Jesus’ departure which he was about
to accomplish at Jerusalem.’ (9.31)
It is in obedience to divine pressure that Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem, knowing full well what Jerusalem meant for him.
No wonder that on this journey, Jesus cries out:
‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones
those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather
your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her
wings, and you were not willing.’ (13.34)
No wonder that when Jesus finally comes near the city he does nothing but weep over it. His journey to Jerusalem was not at all a casual journey; at one point Jesus says starkly:
‘I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to
be killed away from Jerusalem.’ (13.33)
What Jesus takes with him on this journey is extraordinarily little!
No animal is mentioned until the arrival in Jerusalem when a donkey is borrowed for the purpose.
There is no evidence that Jesus ever carried a sword, though it may be that some of his disciples did.
So what did Jesus take with him when he set his face to go to Jerusalem?
The most obvious thing that he took was his small group of disciples. For comfort and support? Perhaps! For protection from the forces now lined up against him? Unlikely! Or for protection from the inner forces of loneliness and doubt? More possible! Their company obviously mattered to him, though their understanding can have been of little comfort.
We heard how a Samaritan village refused to let them stay because of deep, ancient rivalries between Jews and Samaritans meaning that any pilgrim on their way to Jerusalem was not welcome in Samaria! So James and John suggest commanding fire to come down from heaven to consume them! Jesus turns and rebukes them instead!
Perhaps we can now put into context the demands Jesus places on those who wish to follow him.
Someone wants to join him on this journey to Jerusalem:
‘I will follow you wherever you go’ they say.
Do they know where Jesus is going?!
‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air nests;
but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’
Jesus does want others to accompany him on the way but because of the urgency of this journey that he’s on, there simply isn’t time to go and bury the dead or even say farewell. The divine pressure is on to take this road and the response can only be one of single-minded obedience.
‘No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back,
is fit for the Kingdom of God.’
I want to end with a few thoughts about ploughing. Few of us will have ever ploughed, and ploughing in Palestine in Biblical times was of course very different to our ploughing today. It required great skill and immense concentration. You held the plough in your left hand, keeping it upright, regulating its depth by pressing down or lifting it up, and watching out for rocks and stones. That’s what your left hand was doing.
In your right hand you held a long pointed stick with an iron spike at the end, which you used to control and direct the oxen, which pulled the plough!
And all the time you are trying to plough a straight furrow with these two moving objects in your hands: in your left a plough and in your right a stick.
The concentration required was immense. You were focussed, single-minded, attentive, your eyes fixed on an object up ahead in order not to deviate from the furrow you were trying to plough.
That was Jesus’ state of mind on the road to Jerusalem.
And if you wanted to follow him it had to be yours too.
So perhaps to that list of the fruit of the Spirit that Saint Paul gave us, we need to add: focussed, single-minded, attentive!