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In the midst of rejection, it becomes crucial to understand the nature of discipleship. The three sayings of these verses stress what discipleship requires. The presence of the kingdom means not instant power and position but rejection by the world. It requires a focused commitment to be a disciple.
The key to this section is the verb follow, which appears in verses 57, 59 and 61. The three examples parallel the threefold call of Elisha by Elijah, except in Luke three different persons are called (2 Kings 2:1-6; L. T. Johnson 1991:162). The three cases are all different. In one case Jesus makes the call (v. 59). In another a disciple offers to follow wherever Jesus goes with no excuses (v. 57). In the third case the disciple has a priority that stands before his desire to follow Jesus (v. 61). The first and third scenes are the only two records of someone offering to follow Jesus. Whatever the approach to discipleship is, the requirement is the same: following Jesus is a priority.
The first volunteer's offer is open-ended; he will go anywhere Jesus goes. Matthew 8:18-19 makes it clear that he is approaching Jesus as a student would approach a rabbi, since Jesus is addressed as "Teacher." Students in Judaism lived with their teachers to learn Torah and see a model of a righteous life. But there is more to discipleship with Jesus than being a student. Jesus' response makes it clear that discipleship is a demanding affair. To follow Jesus is more like following an Old Testament prophet than like studying with a rabbi (Hengel 1981). Jesus, calling himself the Son of Man, says that he has no home. Even foxes and birds have more of a home than Jesus does. Discipleship requires resolve because it means rejection. The premise behind the remark is that disciples will have to follow the same path as the Son of Man. Discipleship requires trusting God in the midst of rejection.
The second scene involves a man who wishes to bury his father before he comes to follow Jesus. Though the request seems reasonable, the potential disciple's premise is that family comes before Jesus. In Judaism, burying family members is a priority (Sirach 38:16; Tobit 4:3-4; 12:12). The request also parallels Elisha's request to Elijah (1 Kings 19:19-21). Jesus, however, represents the arrival of a new, more demanding era. So even carrying out such a burial is insignificant in the face of discipleship. The task must be left for others: "Let the dead bury their own dead."
Jesus' response seems so harsh that some have argued the man's wish is to wait until his father has died and can be buried—something that could take years. But nothing in Jesus' request or the reply suggests such a delay. Jesus' command is heavily rhetorical, since the dead cannot bury anyone. It means either that the spiritually dead should be left to perform this task or that such concern is inconsequential in the face of the call to discipleship. As important as taking care of a family member's death is, it is a lower priority. Either way, Jesus makes it clear the request should not be honored. Even the "best excuse" possible should not get in the way of discipleship.
Instead, the call is to go and proclaim the kingdom of God. This is the responsibility of all disciples. All must be prepared to share the message of God's goodness in Christ. The remark raises questions about the nature of the kingdom. What does such preaching emphasize? The best examples of it, in light of the additional revelation of the cross, are the speeches in Acts. Central to these speeches is the authority of Jesus Christ as Messiah and Lord. He is the mediator of divine blessing and the returning Judge of the living and the dead (Acts 2, 3, 10). Jesus' exercise of authority and rule comes in conjunction with Old Testament promise (Lk 24:43-47).
Though some might wish to distinguish between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven, making the two sets of kingdom texts teach about distinct programs in the plan of God, there is no reason to do so, since parallel texts between the Gospels alternate the terminology in the same saying (for example, Mt 4:17 and Mk 1:15; Mt 13:31-32 and Lk 13:18-19). Apparently "the kingdom of heaven," Matthew's term, and "the kingdom of God" can be exchanged in the same passage and treated as synonyms. The passage in Mark is really significant because there the kingdom of God message is also called "the gospel."
Matthew's and Luke's parable of the mustard seed are important to this discussion because in each case the kingdom is said to come gradually. For those who have argued that the kingdom of God is exclusively future, this is a problem, for when that kingdom comes it will not start out small and then become great as the parable indicates. That future kingdom will be great from the start, set up at Christ's return.
The language about the kingdom's arrival is also crucial, since it shows that what the New Testament means by this term is not the ever-present kingdom of God that is his by right as Creator and that is affirmed as present even in the Old Testament (Ps 145:10-13). Rather, this kingdom is the promised redeeming kingdom of God, where he restores his rule and delivers people from a fallen creation. Such a redeeming kingdom, whose authority and blessing reaches into all nations, is what Old Testament saints anticipated as far back as God's promise to Abraham to bless the world through the patriarch's seed (Gen 12:1-3), even though they believed that in one sense God ruled over all nations already.
If we are to make a distinction in kingdom terminology, we could do so between the concepts of the always-existing kingdom of God and the promised kingdom of God as seen in the Old Testament. But when the New Testament uses kingdom terminology (especially with either nearness, preaching or arrival terminology), it speaks of the kingdom of promise and the program associated with it, a kingdom that did not exist in the Old Testament and was anticipated to come by the saints of old.
Jesus' rulership ultimately involves both material and spiritual elements, as the hymn of Zechariah shows (Lk 1:67-79; Bock 1993). Both elements are always present, whether one is considering Jesus' first coming, his rule from heaven or his rule upon his return. Kingship involves a ruler, a reign and a realm. The presence of God's reign means that regal prerogatives are exercised, so that promised blessings like the Spirit are mediated to those who join themselves to the Messiah (3:15-18; Acts 2:16-41). To reign is to exercise authority over salvation, not just total authority over the total creation as Christ will do at the end. The authority can be present in a variety of ways; some of it can be exercised now and the rest of it at a later time. To save and form a people is one exercise of authority, while to judge is another.
Obviously God exercises his rule through Jesus. The realm of Jesus' current authority is primarily the new community that he is forming (Eph 1:15-23), but ultimately Jesus has claims on all humanity (Col 1:15-20). When he returns he will complete the rest of the promise as described in the Old Testament (Acts 3:18-22). The main prerogatives Jesus exercises now involve the privileges of citizenship in the new community, marked by the distribution of the Spirit (Acts 10:42-43; Eph 4:7-16; Col 1:12-14). In fact, the Spirit's presence itself is the sign of victory and authority, as Acts 2:30-36 and Ephesians 4:7-16 make clear. Future prerogatives include the right to judge humanity (Acts 10:34-43; 17:31).
It is because Jesus is central to God's ruling activity that discipleship in following him is such a priority. To preach the kingdom is to preach the benefits that God has made available because Jesus the Messiah has come.
The third scene involves a request to tell the family goodby. Again, the request parallels Elisha's response to Elijah's call (1 Kings 19:19-20). Jesus' response provides yet another contrast to Old Testament example. The premise again is concern for family. Nevertheless, Jesus interprets the request as a desire to hang on to the old life. This too is emphatically rejected, with a warning that turning back from the task is showing oneself unworthy of discipleship. The disciple's hand is to stay at the plow. The remark makes great sense in a Palestinian setting, since the land there is rocky. The person who looked back while plowing would not furrow a straight row for crops. Jesus' point is that discipleship takes focus.
Only Luke quotes this symbolism of the plow, a detail that stresses the disciple's commitment. Disciples cannot back off from the task. Discipleship is not a second job, a moonlighting task, an ice-cream social or a hobby. It is the product of God's calling and should be pursued with appropriate seriousness.