Text Study for Luke 9:51-62 (Part One)

It’s full on yard and garden season on the Flying Pigs Farm (our name for the urban farm in our backyard). I have cucumbers headed toward the canning jars and tomatoes destined for salads, salsa, and pasta sauce. I canned the small crop of beets we raised, and we’re about ready for the second crop of radishes. Onions are cruising along (delicious), and the okra and squash have started to take off. Perhaps I can get in a few comments along the way, since the afternoons this week and next are too warm for much yard work.

“But Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts the hand upon the plow and looks toward what lies behind is suitable for the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62, my translation). It’s best to start at the end of the text. If we can understand the punchline, we may be able to grasp the text and the chapter. Verse 62 isn’t merely the conclusion of the lectionary reading. It is the summation and charge of this whole chapter. Chapter nine is focused on the nature and cost of discipleship, of following the way of Jesus to the cross in Jerusalem and beyond.

Photo by Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz on Pexels.com

The NRSV gives us this rendering: “‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’” That’s a quite serviceable translation. However, I fear that many listeners will misunderstand the meaning of “fit” in the sentence. The Greek word is not about moral fitness, about worth or desert. This isn’t about “qualifying” for heaven. But I fear that’s precisely what many listeners have been formed to hear. So, it may be worth addressing this in a message.

The sentence is really about having what it takes to be on the front lines of the mission. Our text comes between the sending of the Twelve and the Seventy. So, Jesus is coaching up his followers for the work that is ahead of them. This sort of discipleship may be like Nebraska (at least according to the Nebraska Tourism board) — honestly, it’s not for everyone. Frankly, I think that’s a moronic approach to promoting tourism. But it’s a realistic caution when we’re talking front-line discipleship.

Honestly, perhaps it’s not for everyone. Is it for me?

If the punchline is a word of caution to the over-eager and the under-prepared, that makes the preceding verses a little easier to process. On their face, verses fifty-seven through sixty-one sound cruel. But, perhaps these verses are words of caution to people who haven’t thought through the cost of front-line following. These verses may be the way that Jesus (or at least the Lukan author) lets these eager beavers down easy. They haven’t considered what their devotion might cost them. Perhaps they are not quite up to the challenge (at least not yet).

The words in these verses are not, therefore, judgments against those who are not fit. They are, rather, words of caution for those who haven’t quite thought this thing through. I will follow you anywhere, one says. That’s fine if you can stand to sleep out in the open, Jesus says. But if not, you might want to have a re-think on that one. Yes, honoring our parents is a commandment to be obeyed. But following Jesus on the front-lines might require abandoning that obligation. Are you up for that? Family connections are important, but the mission may require loosening those connections. If that’s too much, then perhaps you ought to reconsider your role in the mission.

I think there’s a good chance that Luke 9 has a chiastic structure. If that’s the case, then we can get some interpretive help by looking at the first paragraph of the chapter. Notice the instructions Jesus gives as he sends the twelve on their first independent missions. No staff, no bread, no bag, no money — don’t even take a change of clothes! Stay where you’re welcomed. Leave where you’re not. Stay focused on the mission of proclaiming the good news and curing diseases. That’s what the leading edge of the Kin(g)dom looks like to the Lukan author and community.

After the Twelve do the proof of concept work, Jesus follows up in the Lukan account with the mission of the seventy (or seventy-two) in chapter 10. The author makes an explicit connection to Jesus’ punchline in 9:62. “After these things,” the author declares. Notice the instructions to the seventy in Luke 10:2-11. Again, these are the frontline followers. They are sent like lambs among wolves. No purse, no bag, no sandals — and no frivolous conversations along the way. Bring peace. Stay in the same house. Eat what you get. Heal, proclaim, and test the welcome. This is serious business.

What does this mean for us as listeners and readers? I wonder what our text meant to the first Lukan listeners and readers. Perhaps this is a recruitment pep talk to bring new workers into the mission and to make sure they are well-prepared for the challenges ahead. That would fit with the overall missionary emphasis of Luke-Acts.

It could be, on the other hand, that by the third generation of the church, folks are getting a bit soft or a bit lackadaisical about the mission. “Of course I follow Jesus,” they might say. “It’s not really that big a deal, after all. Be civil. Be kind. Be loving. Stay out of trouble, and love your neighbor. It’s not as complicated or costly as some people want to make it out to be.” I think the Lukan author is dealing with a community that just wants to stay out of trouble after the trauma of the Jewish War and its aftermath. And I think the Lukan author is more than a little impatient with Christians who want following Jesus to be easy, cheap, and an attractive lifestyle option.

Yes, I’m being more than a bit anachronistic here. But I think that’s the way I tend to think about following Jesus these days. It’s not that hard. I may get a little pushback here and there. But really, I’m still in the mainstream of culture. It doesn’t cost me much of anything to call myself a Christian, and I’m happy with that situation. But with that perspective, I’m pretty sure that I’m not a suitable servant on the frontlines of the mission of Jesus.

I’m not sure what that means for me or for a message this Sunday (I’m doing some supply preaching). I don’t hear the good news in this conversation yet (and maybe there won’t be much…). But, at least I think I have a bit more clarity about what’s in the text. The question is, what’s in me?

What do you think?