(A) Introduction.

The final verses of a rather melancholy chapter of errors deals with three candidates for discipleship who in one way or another fail to measure up.

(B) The unprepared candidate. As the went walking along the road, a man said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go." Jesus replied, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests. But the Son of Man has no-where to lay his head. v57and58.

(1) A willing volunteer.

There are three things to be said in favour of this man:

    (a) He was willing. As a schoolteacher I loved a volunteer. Sadly there were never very many when it came to tidying or clearing up! It is nice to have happy volunteers in the church - people who will cut the graveyard grass, do a flower arrangement, cut the hedges, clear the gutters, wash up and distribute leaflets around the village.

    (b) He was enthusiastic. The man seems keen to follow Jesus wherever he leads. It is very refreshing when folk set too enthusiastically. This happened when David collected material for the temple and Nehemiah's work gangs rebuilt the wall of Jerusalem. So we built the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart. Neh4v6. I can remember as a very young teacher in a boy's grammar school asking the pupils to bring in Heinz can labels to raise money for charity. The response was phenomenal!

    (c) He made a statement of intent: "I Will follow you wherever you go." v57. This is sound practice. The marriage service is a statement of intent and so, too, is baptism. Lots of people attend church who have never really made a clear statement of intent and so never get started on the narrow way that leads to life. (See the story entitled: Statements of intent.)

(2) Counting the cost.

Jesus pointed out to the enthusiastic and, perhaps, impulsive would be disciple what he stood to lose by following him. We should note:

    (a) Jesus didn't always follow the same procedure and nor, for that matter, did Paul or the other apostles. Jesus did not tell the dying thief to count the cost. Paul did not counsel caution to the Philippian jailer. Neither the dying thief nor the jailer had much to lose and they cried out for salvation in desperation. Many have followed in these men's footsteps - commitment to Jesus has been a despairing last resort. Others were called, like Matthew and Zacchaeus , who had reached a point where they were prepared to suffer considerable loss to change their lives round. They needed no warning about counting the cost.

    (b) There are scriptures that suggest we should not have a bargaining attitude to Christian discipleship. In the, 'Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard,' some labourers entered into a contract with the owner concerning their pay and got exactly what they negotiated. However, others - hired near the end of the day - made no agreement but trusted the vineyard owner to pay them what he could. They were rewarded for their trust.

    (c) Jesus warned his hearers on another occasion of what they stood to lose by not making preparations for the next life. In the, 'Parable of the Rich Fool,' a successful farmer whose future seemed secured by a bumper harvest was informed by God: "You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?" Lk12v20.

(3) The reasons for Jesus' cautionary words.

There are at least four reasons why Jesus in this instance spoke as he did:

    (a) The willing volunteer had a lot to lose. He was a scribe - or well-to-do lawyer. See Mt8v19. If the lawyer followed Jesus his reputation would suffer and he might well lose clients. His income would no longer be able to support a very agreeable lifestyle.

    (b) It seems likely from what Jesus said that the lawyer thought he could follow Jesus without loss. He is not the only one!! There are many who assume Christian discipleship will not impact negatively on their lifestyle. Christianity is like belonging to a rather nice club where, for a fee, everything is done for you. It is a rather pleasant adjunct to real life.

    Jesus' message is: "If you follow me you might very well suffer real loss." He does not promise earthly success or prosperity. Think of what the apostle Paul lost. He was one of the very greatest of Christ's servants but ended up in prison with next to nothing. He wrote to the Philippians: But whatever was to my profit I now consider a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him. Phil3v7and8.

    (c) It is only fair to acquaint folk with conditions of service. There are written conditions of service for a teacher, doctor and policeman. It is actually as well to read the conditions before embarking on a career as a teacher or policeman. A young man I play cricket with joined the Marines this week. He didn't do so before learning what life in the Marines entailed. So the prosperous lawyer is warned that a follower of Jesus could end up in very real poverty. Jesus asked the enthusiastic volunteer, "Are you prepared for a life like mine?" Some of us have been called to share Jesus' unmarried status - a very real loss!

    (d) It actually helps to fulfil a commitment if you know, from the start, what it is going to involve. If you intend running the London marathon it is as well to anticipate the pain it will entail. This will assist the coping process. I know a lady who recently had an operation for liver cancer. She wasn't made aware of the complications that sometimes occur after successful surgery. Consequently when she had severe pain because of a build up of fluid around the liver and later the lungs she came close to despair. This could have been avoided if she had been told what to expect.

Jesus message is clear. Christians must anticipate making sacrifices and enduring losses. It is courting disaster to start the journey that leads to life without being aware of the cost involved. Some, of course, are only too well aware of it. Very many have counted the cost and remain on the broad and easy road that leads to destruction. (My stories: A bad stopping and He couldn't do it are of some relevance.)

(C) The entangled candidate. He said to another man, "Follow me." But the man 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 proclaim the Kingdom of God." v59and60.

There are three things to note:

(1) A man with potential.

Jesus called this man - as he called his other disciples - so he must have shown potential. He was like the rich young man who came to Jesus, fell on his knees and asked: "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Mark records: Jesus looked at him and loved him. Mk10v21. But that young man refused to follow Jesus because he was entangled by his riches.

In the past I taught a goodly number in Sunday school who I thought would make wonderful Christians - far better than me! They understood the Scriptures and had a high regard for Jesus but they would not make a commitment and eventually drifted away from the church. What a terrible loss!

(2) The excuse. "Lord let me go bury my father."

    What this doesn't mean. I think it very, very unlikely that the young man is referring to the burial of his father's corpse. He would hardly have been with Jesus if his father had just died! Burials were conducted very quickly after death in Palestine - as they still are. So if his father was dead the man would be at home making the funeral arrangements.

    Jesus remark: "Let the dead bury their dead" would have been pretty inappropriate and insensitive if the man had just lost his father.

    It seems improbable that anyone would make attending a funeral for a few hours an excuse for not following Jesus. A person could make a commitment to Jesus and still go for a short time to a family funeral. After all, Jesus took time out to attend a wedding and numerous parties. A funeral was something the Jews considered to be of great importance. It even took precedence over observing the Passover. Nor should it be forgotten that God, himself, arranged for his son to have a decent burial. (See exposition on John19v31to42.)

    What it does mean. The man made what he considered a valid excuse for putting off following Jesus. He reckoned that no decision was possible until he had put the family affairs in order. The man couldn't do this until after the death of his father. It is also possible that he did not want to upset his father in his old age by making what some would say was a rash decision. So this candidate for discipleship put duty to his father, family and family business before the demands of Jesus.

    It is very easy to put worldly responsibilities before the interests of Jesus and his Kingdom. This was the problem of those Jesus likened to seed that fell among thorns. (See exposition on the Parable of the Sower.) Many church goers who might have become fruitful Christians remain relatively barren because of commitments to family, business, clients, a cause or even their country. We may well have a duty to work, family, a political cause or even a club but those duties should never come before our commitment to Jesus.

(3) Jesus' reaction.

He says:

    (a) "Let the dead bury their own dead." This is a very strange remark! I think Jesus was saying: "Leave the spiritually dead to their worldly priorities." There are plenty of non-Christians who are going to put family, business, work and leisure interests first. Leave them to it - you are not to be like them.

    (b) "But go and proclaim the Kingdom of God. A disciple of Jesus' first priority is to promote God's Kingdom. He or she must pursue with single-minded resolve the interests of Christ the King. We have to put obedience to Jesus before even our own life. The Saviour said: "If anyone comes after me and does not hate .... even his own life - he cannot be my disciple." Lk14v21.

    How dare Jesus say such a thing? Consider:

      (I) How great he is. The life of the chief security officer to President Obama is not his own. Night and day he must be ready to protect the President of the USA from danger. But Jesus is immeasurably greater than the American President. Paul wrote: For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him and through him to reconcile to himself all things whether things on earth or things in heaven by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. Col1v19to20.

      (II) The enormous benefits Jesus brings to others. Paul deals with the remarkable change in status a believer has in Christ: Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation - if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. Col1v21and23.

      (III) His patronage. Jesus the King has so much in his gift. The Queen of England honours those that serve her. How much more will Jesus honour his good and faithful servants. They will receive a crown that will last forever. 1Cor9v25.

(D) The diffident candidate. Still another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family. Jesus replied, "No-one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the Kingdom of God."

(1) Why did this volunteer want to say goodbye to his family?

He may have wanted to go home for reassurance that:

    (a) He had made the right decision. He wanted to know whether his family shared his opinion of Jesus and approved of him.

    (b) His decision to follow Jesus was right for him. Was he doing the right thing by himself? It was one thing to admire Jesus but was it prudent to follow him before it was clear what the outcome of his ministry was going to be.

A decision to follow Jesus is not one to consult others about. It must be made alone. Saving faith - that initial submission to Jesus - is a deeply personal matter. It is like proposing marriage. If you have to ask a friend for reassurance it is highly unlikely you should be doing it!

(2) Why did Jesus disapprove of the diffident candidate?

There are three main reasons. The ploughman who keeps looking back is easily:

(a) Distracted.

There are all sorts of reasons why a ploughman might look back - at the black-headed gulls in the furrow, distant storm clouds or a passing fox. Constant inattention to the job in hand will seriously affect the quality of the ploughman's work.

Every schoolteacher knows that easily distracted pupils never achieve very much. I am afraid to say that I taught many students who loved interruptions, preferred gossip to work and found looking out of the window at the distant scene far more interesting than their text book. Such students rarely became competent Geographers.

Christians who are readily distracted will quickly turn out of the narrow way that leads to life. In John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress there was much that might have distracted Christian and Faithful in Vanity Fair. Therefore at this fair are all such merchandise sold, as houses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures; and delight of all sorts, as harlots, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not.

And, moreover, at this fair there are at all times to be seen jugglings, cheats, games, plays, fools, apes, knaves, and rogues, and that of every kind.

Christians should be like my brother Paul when he was taught to ride a bike. The method was simple. Old Arka put him on a bike and gave it a tremendous push. My brother did not look to left or right. He certainly did not look behind. His attention was fixed - glassy eyed - on the road ahead and he kept pedalling for dear life.

Or, Christians should be like the Olympic long distance runner: Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. Heb12v1and2.

Or, Christians should be like Christian and Faithful in Vanity Fair: But that which did not a little amuse the merchandisers was, that these pilgrims set very light by all their wares. They cared not so much as to look upon them; and if they called upon them to buy, they would put their fingers in their ears and cry, "Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity." Ps119v37.

(b) Satisfied.

A ploughman may keep looking back to admire the straight furrows he has made. He definitely starts well but by frequently looking back with pride gets careless and spoils his work.

There was always a tendency for some of my pupils to be very satisfied at making a good beginning, for example, on their Geography projects. This made a few so complacent that their accomplished start was unmatched by a praiseworthy ending. Some of my cricketing friends are a bit like that. I can remember KB talking to LP about going to Sunday school as a boy. KB said, "Children should still go to Sunday School. It didn't do me any harm." LP then burst into song, "When the roll is called up yonder ....... I'll be there." But a dose of religion as a child is not enough - certainly not enough to ensure that when the roll is called up yonder you'll be there. If you are on pills to control blood pressure it is no use just taking them for a week!

When I retired from teaching I was pleased to have lasted the course. I was thankful to God that I completed 37 years at the chalk face without getting the sack, breaking down or becoming disillusioned and giving up. Jesus said: "But he who stands firm to the end will be saved." Mt24v13. The only way to complete the race set before us is to follow the advice of Paul: I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. ...... But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead ... . Phil3v12and13.

(c) Discouraged.

A ploughman who keeps looking back may do so in order to check his progress. This is good in moderation but if taken to extremes, ends in disaster. It is fatal to any activity to keep wondering how you are doing. When you act, teach, paint, preach or play cricket it is vital to concentrate on what you are doing and not how you are doing. I never think while preaching a sermon, "How am I doing? How are the congregation reacting? Are they taking it in?" No, I am too busy concentrating on what I am going to say next otherwise my sermon would degenerate into an incoherent, unintelligible rant.

The diffident disciple who wanted to go home for reassurance lacked:

    (I) Maturity. He was like those of my pupils who kept coming out with their books to ask: "How am I doing, Mr Reed?" I realise that sometimes the best of us needs some encouragement but we mustn't rely upon it. If I depended upon lots of praise I would have given up on this website years ago!

    (II) Faith. If God calls us to a work we can rely on him for help to complete it. In this respect Moses lacked faith at the burning bush. It was with the greatest reluctance that he set out to meet his brother Aaron who was on his way to visit him from Egypt.

    (III) Humility. People who frequently ask: "How am I doing?" tend to be self-regarding. The ploughman needs to appreciate that it is the ploughing that is important and not his ego. At the end of the day the ploughing will speak for itself.

    For the Christian it is the service of Jesus that is of supreme significance not the ego of the servant. If a Christian needs numerous pats on the back for what little he does - he is not fit for the Kingdom of God.

The apostle Paul wrote: I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus. Phil3v14. An athlete is not over concerned about his style, the impression he is making; he may hardly hear the cheers of the crowd; the true athlete is obsessed with finishing the race, breasting the tape; it is the prize that counts.