A Matter of Priorities

John I. Carney
Jun 30 · 12 min read

First UMC Shelbyville
June 30, 2019

Luke 9:51–62 (CEB)
As the time approached when Jesus was to be taken up into heaven, he determined to go to Jerusalem. He sent messengers on ahead of him. Along the way, they entered a Samaritan village to prepare for his arrival, but the Samaritan villagers refused to welcome him because he was determined to go to Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to consume them?” But Jesus turned and spoke sternly to them, and they went on to another village.

As Jesus and his disciples traveled along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Human One has no place to lay his head.”

Then Jesus said to someone else, “Follow me.”
He replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of God’s kingdom.”

Someone else said to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say good-bye to those in my house.”
Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”

Today’s Gospel passage is from late in Jesus’ ministry, as he’s getting ready to make his way to Jerusalem, where he will be welcomed by the common people but then put to death by the religious authorities. He sends some of the disciples on ahead of him to make arrangements, maybe to arrange for a place to spend the night, but in the Samaritan villages, the advance team was not well-received.

You see, the disciples who had been sent on ahead happened to mention that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. And that was the whole sticking point between the Jews and the Samaritans. The Judaeans believed that the true temple, the place to worship God, was in Jerusalem. The Samaritans were an offshoot of the Jews, but they believed that Mount Gerizim was the chosen site for God’s temple. So they weren’t inclined to be hospitable to pilgrims passing through Samaritan territory on the way to Jerusalem.

James and John take note of this, and they ask Jesus if he wants them to try to call down fire to destroy the inhospitable Samaritans. All the Bible tells us is that Jesus spoke sternly to them; we can imagine what he said. “Haven’t you been listening?” he might have asked them. “Haven’t you paid attention to anything I’ve said?”

Jesus was bringing a gospel of redemption, of forgiveness, reconciliation. He was offering, not to destroy his enemies, but to make them friends. And that was an attractive and powerful message. The disciples, though, still thought of Jesus as a potential political leader, a revolutionary who was going to free them from Roman occupation, and just maybe bring down fire on those heathen Samaritans. Jesus was, of course, a revolutionary — but it was a completely different sort of revolution. Jesus would change the world, not by killing the enemies of the Jews, but by allowing himself to be killed. He brought a message, not of hatred and bitterness, but of love and forgiveness.

But that does not mean that the kingdom offered by Jesus was all sunshine and butterflies. In the next few verses, someone comes to Jesus offering to follow him. Jesus points out that he has no home, no place to lay his head — and that meant anyone who followed Jesus would be homeless as well.
Then Jesus sees someone else, and this time it’s Jesus who extends the invitation, saying “Follow me.”

The man’s response is, “First let me go and bury my father.”

There are several different ways to interpret this. I think most of us just naturally assume that the man’s father had either just died or was deathly ill, and that may well have been the case. The commentator William Barclay, though, says that the expression might simply have meant, “I’ll follow you after my parents had died,” even if the man’s parents were in good health and their death was some time in the future. Barclay tells the story of a brilliant young man from some Arab country who was offered a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge, and who said “I will take it after I have buried my father,” even though the young man’s father was in his 40s and in good health.

If you take the story this way, it becomes a parable about missed opportunities. The man who wanted to wait and follow Jesus after his father had died did not know that Jesus, in his earthly incarnation, would soon be put to death, and then rise again, and then ascend into heaven. There would soon be no “following Jesus” in this earthly, physical sense, because Jesus was no longer a physical presence wandering around Judaea.

We never know when an opportunity will be taken away from us. I remember when my Aunt Willie Mae died. She and Uncle Melvin lived in what was then a rural area about two miles off the Almaville Road exit near Smyrna on I-24. Aunt Mae was quite a bit older than my father, and I’ve heard Dad describe her as being more than a sister, almost a second mother to him.

When she died, I thought about the times that I’d been driving back from Nashville, and thought about stopping by to see her and Uncle Melvin, but for some reason I kept on driving. Those missed opportunities weighed heavily on me.

But for the moment, let’s go back to the way most of us read the passage — the man’s father is dead, or nearly dead, and he wants to take care of the arrangements before setting out on a long journey. That sounds, in practical human terms, like a completely reasonable request.

Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of God’s kingdom.” That sounds harsh, uncompassionate. Jesus, though, was teaching a lesson about priorities.

In the book of Genesis, there is the famous story of Abraham being told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham’s heart is broken, but he makes preparations, and then at the last minute, just as he is about to plunge the knife into his son’s heart, God stops him and provides another sacrifice. That whole story is deeply troubling to some people, and it calls to mind stories from our own day and time of dangerous, evil cult leaders who did cruel things to their families or followers because they claimed that God had instructed or allowed them to do so. But maybe it’s helpful to think of the story of Abraham and Isaac more as a parable.

God is never going to call on you or me to kill a family member as proof of our devotion. If you ever hear God telling you to do something like that, you need to seek professional help. That is not the voice of God. This story of Abraham, though, is in the Bible for a reason, and it’s the same reason that Jesus told the man to let the dead bury the dead.

We, as humans, are sinful. We tend to go astray. We tend to get our priorities mixed up. Jesus is making the point that your faith, that following Jesus, must be the number one priority in your life. It’s not “family first,” or “country first,” or “personal fulfillment first,” it’s “God first.” And if we put God first, all of those other priorities will fall into place.

For Father’s Day, I bought Dad the book “Afraid To Trust,” which is the testimony of Peter Demos, the CEO of the Demos’ restaurant chain and its related businesses, and the namesake of the former Peter D’s restaurant. Dad loves Demos’, and it was one of his favorite places to go with Mom back when she was alive. My friend and former co-worker Jason Reynolds wrote a review of the book and interviewed Peter Demos, and as soon as I read Jason’s article I knew the book would make a great gift for my father.

I haven’t read the book yet — I want to — but Dad was telling me that Peter Demos had a conversion experience before his wife did, and for a while, that caused some tension in their marriage. Finally, one of the wife’s friends told her that the problem was that she was jealous of Jesus, because Jesus now occupied such an important place in her husband’s life.

I look in the mirror and I wonder if anyone would ever think I was that sold out to Jesus. Is Jesus really the top priority in my life? And if Jesus is the top priority in my life, shouldn’t my life look different than it sometimes does? Am I really spending my time in the service of God’s kingdom, or am I concerned with aspects of life that are, or ought to be, dead?

In the next story, someone else offers to follow Jesus, but first they want to say goodbye to the people in their household. Jesus’ response, once again, is blunt: “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”

If you’re going to plow a straight line, you have to be looking at what you’re doing, not turned around looking at what’s behind you.

Jesus, in these last two exchanges, sounds somewhat harsh and demanding. But he’s making a point about priorities. If your relationship to God is just a bullet point, somewhere between your relationship to your family and your relationship to your favorite college football team, you don’t really have a relationship to God. You aren’t really following Jesus unless Jesus is your first priority, the thing that shapes and affects all of your other priorities.

Let’s be clear. Seldom, if ever, is God going to tell you to abandon your family. Scripture makes it clear just how important your family is and how much you should honor those relationships and obligations. But you have to see them as part of your relationship to God, in the context of your relationship to God.

Jesus could see that the people in today’s Gospel passage weren’t really committed to following him. They didn’t really understand the cost. And he tried to teach them that lesson, by turning commitment into a choice. Are you going to follow me, or are you going to go back and take care of your family business? If Jesus had known that their priorities were in order, I have no doubt that he would have allowed them, maybe even told them, to go take care of family business, knowing that it wouldn’t ultimately get in the way of their service to the kingdom.

If you remember anything about last week’s Bible passage, out of 1 Kings, it ended with God telling the prophet Elijah to anoint Elisha as his successor. Whoever put together the lectionary passages continued that story this week, knowing that it would be an interesting parallel to our Gospel story.

1 Kings 19:15–16, 19–21 (CEB)
The Lord said to him, “Go back through the desert to Damascus and anoint Hazael as king of Aram. Also anoint Jehu, Nimshi’s son, as king of Israel; and anoint Elisha from Abel-meholah, Shaphat’s son, to succeed you as prophet.

So Elijah departed from there and found Elisha, Shaphat’s son. He was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen before him. Elisha was with the twelfth yoke. Elijah met up with him and threw his coat on him. Elisha immediately left the oxen and ran after Elijah. “Let me kiss my father and my mother,” Elisha said, “then I will follow you.”

Elijah replied, “Go! I’m not holding you back!” Elisha turned back from following Elijah, took the pair of oxen, and slaughtered them. Then with equipment from the oxen, Elisha boiled the meat, gave it to the people, and they ate it. Then he got up, followed Elijah, and served him.

Elijah knew that Elisha had his priorities in order. And so when Elisha asked to say goodbye to his parents, Elijah’s response was “Go! I’m not holding you back!”

Elisha has his priorities in order. He wants to say goodbye, but there’s no risk of it distracting him from the mission of following, and succeeding, Elijah. It’s not a missed opportunity. In fact, Elisha uses this moment to make a clean break with his old occupation. He takes the oxen that he had been plowing with, slaughters them, and throws himself a big farewell banquet before catching up to Elijah and following him.

I stopped by the church on Monday, and Donna Brock and I were talking about this passage, and Donna’s comment was, “the poor oxen!”

Mangal Das, farm helper, plowing with mission farm oxen. (Mennonite Board of Missions Photographs, 1898–1967)

But Elisha’s gesture represented something. It represented the fact that he would not only be following Elijah, he would be counting on God. Elisha had destroyed his visible means of support and was now counting on God.
God may not be calling anyone here to quit their jobs. Then again, you never know what the Almighty has in store for us.

God does call on us to trust God, not ourselves, for sustenance. Jesus pointed out to the first follower who approached him that he, Jesus, was without a physical home, without resources, without a nest egg. God calls on us to be homeless in spirit — not to attach ourselves too closely to this world and its trappings. God calls on us to realize that, no matter what our address, no matter what our mortgage, no matter how many bedrooms or square feet we have, we are, in one sense, homeless. This world is not our home. We are part of God’s kingdom, relying on God to sustain us and guide us, following God. That knowledge should guide our priorities.

I ran across a great blog post by Tyler Greene, a pastor in Missouri, in which he talks about priorities, and about whether we’re making church a priority in our lives. I want to read a couple of paragraphs:

“Most of us don’t mind some level of participation. We have no qualms about signing up to serve for an hour on Sundays, or joining a small group. In such cases, the problem isn’t one of whether we’re participating in the mission of the church; it is one of how we’re participating. As advantageous, over-scheduled Americans, our participation is often subject to our convenience. Far too seldom is it something for which we readily adjust our schedules or re-envision how we live.

“Instead, we settle for being involved enough to feel like we’ve done our due diligence before God, but without any disruption of our everyday lives. Or, to put it more plainly, we’ve resorted to negotiating our participation in the church’s mission when we should be completely surrendering it. God isn’t after the win-win; He’s after our full devotion.”

This blogger is talking specifically about participation in church, but the same principle can be widened out to include our participation in God’s kingdom. Too often, we negotiate our participation in God’s kingdom. We want to be ethical some of the time or most of the time instead of all of the time. We want to love other people most of the time or some of the time instead of all of the time. We want to do the right thing when we happen to think about it, or when someone is around to see us doing it, or when it happens to give us a warm and fuzzy feeling. But making God our first priority means doing the right thing whether anyone is watching or not, whether we feel like it or not, whether there’s a cost to us or not.

We tell Jesus that we want to follow him, but before we can even start we’re distracted by other obligations.

“Just let me take care of this first, Lord, and then I’ll be able to follow you.”
John Wesley believed that a believer should achieve a state where God is the natural first priority in that believer’s life. He called that state “Christian perfection.” It doesn’t mean you never sin, but it means that your life is turned completely over to following God. That term makes me uncomfortable every time I look in the mirror, because I really don’t know that I’ve ever even come close to it.

Truly following Jesus means making God’s kingdom our first priority, number one on the checklist. If we are completely sold out to God, eventually, the other aspects of our lives are going to fall into some sort of order. It may not be what we imagined, but it will be something good.

When Jesus calls us, our response should be immediate. We can’t plow the fields in God’s kingdom if we’re looking over our shoulder.

John I. Carney

Written by

Small-town journalist; United Methodist layspeaker; lover of old movies and new comedy. http://lakeneuron.com