“Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.’”
Lately, I have been working through a book written by a mid-nineteenth century Danish philosopher and Christian.
The book is called Attack Upon Christendom by Soren Kierkegaard, and it, I believe, was his final work before he died at the young age of 42.
Maybe you have heard a bit about Mr. Kierkegaard. To be sure, he was quite the character. Engaged to his sweetheart earlier on in life, he cut off the relationship because he did not feel that by marrying he could be faithful to himself or his philosophy…
So the book. It is largely – so far at least as I’m still reading it – a collection of articles that he got published in a popular Danish political magazine, the Fatherland.
In it, he attacks the state church in Denmark, claiming that this church knew nothing about the cross, agony, suffering, crucifying the flesh, suffering for doctrine, or the poverty that Christ required…
There was no striving to really be Christian, Kierkegaard said! “Official Christianity” was not Christianity at all, he accused, but rather its opposite!
The passion of God’s Kingdom, Kiekegaard insisted, is to NOT be of this world.
The Danish church, with its “royal commission” showed the exact opposite.
The clergy were unwilling to be salt in the world and to be sacrificed like their Lord. In fact, all 1,000 Christian officials were actually against Christianity!
Why? Because they were those who had presided over the death of the Christian church as everyone simply just assumed that they were Christian. These clergy were spiritually asleep even as they fully enjoyed the salaries and privileges associated with being state officials…
…content to “make a living” by in effect wearing the skin of what I can only assume Kierkegaard believed to have been the formerly faithful… or relatively faithful church…
Mockingly, he said that if one could convert Kings to Christianity, monetary advantage (“pecuniary advantage”), material power, and delicate refinement – silk, velvet, long robes – could be theirs!
So these men, he claimed, were hardly “witnesses to the truth,” but rather were a part of an institution that had basically had its heart and soul carved out of it…
Kierkegaard’s relentless accusations leave us with the impression that there were very few true Christians in Denmark…
He, of course… in spite of all of his own doubts… considered himself to be one of these… a “Knight of Faith”!
Which, of course, made it all the more shocking and scandalous when he went so far to say that true Christians should no longer attend the worship services of this state church…
Whatever you finally think of ideas from a man like Soren Kierkegaard he certainly gives us a lot to think about!
I could not help but think, in fact, about some of his hard words when I read the last part of our Gospel reading for this morning, particularly as Jesus responds to two men who say they want to follow Him, and after He asks another to do the same….
I read a comment on the words “Lord, I will follow you” in a non-Lutheran book, The [Eastern] Orthodox Study Bible.
It said, matter of factly, this:
“There is a cost to discipleship. Jesus talks of three such costs:
- Provision for personal security does not mix with true discipleship. The disciple will be no more secure than the Teacher. If the Teacher has nowhere to lay His head (v. 58), neither will the disciple.
- Discipleship demands singular commitment to the Kingdom of God. A disciple must be willing to let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead (v. 60).
- Discipleship does not look back to reconsider, or operate by delayed response. It means taking hold of the commission given by Christ and moving forward” (OSB, 163).”
Given Jesus’ responses, this sounds right, doesn’t it?
Where are we with all of this? Where are we with all of this?
Well, before we get to that, let me say some things Soren Kierkegaard might not like, exploring a bit more each one of these points… trying to put all of Jesus’s jolting words into a wider frame and context…
First of all, we have to admit that in our text for today… because of our incomplete knowledge… there are likely some wider cultural nuances that we do not fully understand here.
So for instance, while I am convinced that some of what Soren Kierkegaard said was unhelpful and even very wrong I need to admit that I know little about just what the Danish church of his day was really like (I mean, I can’t help but think it probably did have really good biblical words in its liturgy and hymns)….
And so, just like we probably don’t have a real handle on what things were like in Kierkegaard’s day, we don’t know as much as we could or even should about Jesus’s day as well.
Let’s look at point number 1 from this study Bible: “Provision for personal security does not mix with true discipleship… If the Teacher has nowhere to lay His head (v. 58), neither will the disciple.”
This study Bible note could be taken to mean that a person should have absolutely no concern for personal security.
Well, people like the commentator Ken Bailey, who has taught the Bible in the contemporary Middle East where he also lived for many years, talks about how in this text, “foxes” may refer to Herod’s family and “birds” to the Gentiles, particularly the Romans, whose symbol was the eagle.
In this interpretation, Jesus is asking the first would-be follower if he really wants to join the ranks of those who are without worldly power (Wendt, Parables of Jesus).
Whether this is the case or not, I think what the study Bible means to say, more specifically, is that concern for personal security should not be at the top of the disciple’s list – but rather “restless devotion” to the Kingdom of God (Fraanzman, CSSC. 23).
In other words, personal security is not their primary concern nor a priority, even if it must be addressed.
Here, we might think about the Apostle Paul’s statement that “we brought nothing into the world, so we cannot carry anything out of it.” He goes on to talk not only about how if he and other preachers of the Gospel have food and covering they will be content with that (I Tim. 6:8), but also, in the book of Philippians, he goes so far to say:
“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
Regarding the point about the dead burying their own dead meaning letting the spiritually dead bury the physically dead…this one is certainly a zinger!
Again, Ken Bailey offers his cultural commentary based on his knowledge of today’s Middle East. He says the man here Jesus asks to follow Him was most likely wanting to abide by Middle Eastern standards of filial piety – meaning that he was going to wait to follow Jesus until after his father died…
An argument here is that if his father was dying or already dead after all, wouldn’t he be at home right now, taking care of family affairs? So, in other words, he was not dead yet, and the delay might be many, many years…
Once again, in any case the main point Jesus seems to be making is that those burying the dead need to understand that the Kingdom of God is even more important than honoring those who have fallen in the fallen world.
With the coming of Christ, something new and better, something absolutely death-destroying is coming and all of us should want to be a part of this!
Should we ultimately be concerned to bury the dead or, rather, raise the dead? (Jon McNeill, Hard Sayings of the Bible, 464).
Or as the Lutheran theologian Martin Fraanzman put it “with Him is life, the only life in a world of the dead…”
Finally, the point about delayed response not being an option is certainly true, even if we might wince or worse at Jesus’ insistence that a man saying he wants to follow him not say goodbye to his loved ones….
So what about this man? Bailey, again, says that it is possible that he might mean that he needs to first get permission from his family, particularly his father…
Evidently, even today in the Middle East, an engineer of 40 years of age will travel from his large city to his village birthplace to get his father’s permission – basically as a formality but still as a sign of respect – before undertaking foreign travel, or before some other job change or business venture…. (Wendt, Parables of Jesus)
Whatever the case may be, it is of course likely that in going back to say good-bye to one’s family one might find one’s self tempted to not follow Jesus after all…
And as the Lutheran Study Bible puts it, dealing with the plow imagery…
“It took one’s full attention to hold and press down on a plow with one hand as it cut though the earth. The plowman’s other hand held a goad for the animal pulling the plow”.
So here, I suppose, the hope would be that every family member would see and understand that not only some of us but all of us must take Jesus’ mission seriously, realizing that nothing is more important than the Kingdom of God and His Gospel.
That is, the good news of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension
…the only thing that brings everlasting hope to the world!
Now, I think that kind of information is helpful….
Even as I imagine that someone like Soren Kierkegaard might say that, perhaps a bit like the 19th century Danish church, it seems to domesticate Jesus a bit…
En route to creating a complacent church…
Well, and if he would be inclined to say this, I think I’d have to disagree overall… and double down.
Saying a bit more about necessary context in light of the whole of the Scriptures…
For example, even if Jesus does command His disciples to “count the cost” of downplaying personal security – and to embrace practices that downplay our worldly attachments – we must nevertheless be wise…
The book of Proverbs, after all, has much to say about issues surrounding property and money. It even tells us that a good man leaves an inheritance not only for his children, but his children’s children – as Soren Kierkegaard’s father did for him and perhaps beyond!
And the Apostle Paul also does not contradict Jesus when he speaks about how ministers are worthy of their wages, how believers who do not take care of their own family are worse than pagans or, also, when he says to the Thessalonian congregation to be – gasp! – “respectable”…:
“…we urge you, brothers and sisters, to [love one another] more and more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody….”
And the Apostle Paul also does not denigrate the Apostle Peter – who was married, appeared to have had a thriving fishing business, and owned his own home in Capernaum (see Matthew 8:14-16) – when he says in I Corinthians 7 that he wishes all men were like him… that is,
not tied down to the affairs of this world[!]…
not needing to have their attention divided between family on the one hand and the Kingdom of God on the other[!]…
And let’s also keep in mind that even if, somehow, someway, Jesus Christ did not have anywhere to lay his head we learn from the book of Luke that His ministry was in part supported by wealthy women (see Luke 8:1-3) and also that His disciple John at least had a home that he could take Jesus’ mother into following his Lord’s death on the cross (also see Acts 12, where we see the early disciples retained property).
So… have I domesticated Jesus here?
Set up a situation where radical challenge can’t be heard and complacency must reign?
Should I be warned that I have tried to remove all the offense of the passages like from our Gospel reading?
If so, I really think I’d appreciate the warning… the concern… but then would also offer my own warning that we can’t be like Martin Luther’s proverbial drunk man who falls off of one side of a horse only to get back on and fall off the other….
A man like Kierkegaard wanted to be a devout Lutheran, Christian, and he strove to lead a higher and better life – but I sometimes get the impression he forgot some fundamentals as well…
I can’t help but wonder what he might have thought of the 16th c. reformer Martin Luther’s words in His Large Catechism regarding the:
“…cursed presumption of those desperate saints who dare to invent a higher and better life and estate than the Ten Commandments teach, pretending (as we have said) that this is an ordinary life for the common man, but that theirs is for saints and perfect ones. And the miserable blind people do not see that no man can get so far as to keep one of the Ten Commandments as it should be kept, but both the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer must come to our aid (as we shall hear), by which that [power and strength to keep the commandments] is sought and prayed for and received continually.”
Again, Jesus’ words in our Gospel reading are arresting.
It is true that we must not attempt to shave off the edges of Jesus’ words…
At the same time we must also not overstate what He, in fact, finally wants us to conclude, to learn….
So, with all of this said, do these not remain, do they not continue to be… very difficult passages?!
They do – and we might even feel offended…
Still, again, all of us must take Jesus’ mission seriously, realizing that nothing is more important than the Kingdom of God and His Gospel.
For did He not come, after all, to reverse the curse?
To bring the new heavens and earth?
To destroy the devil’s work on the cross?
Is this not why He sets His face like flint towards Jerusalem in our reading?
And does He not now – by His Holy Spirit – involve all of us in His work?
What battle does not need fully committed soldiers?
And the call that Christ makes is certainly of even greater importance than Elijah’s calling of Elisha we heard about in the Old Testament reading this morning!
Do we not see how the heightened need is emphasized in Jesus’ arresting words today?!
And especially now – in these last days when God has poured out His Spirit on His church after Christ’s death and resurrection – the times are becoming increasingly perilous for we who believe!
The Apostle Paul’s words in I Corinthians 7 about our living in the last days have always been timely and relevant – even if we haven’t perceived this – but it is now, for those with eyes to see, becoming increasingly obvious.
I mentioned this earlier… Again, in this chapter, he talks about faithful servants who are not encumbered… weighed down… by the “affairs of this world” and who can give “undivided devotion to the Lord…” to His work.
For this reason, he urges those who can do so – who are not consumed by a passionate “burning” or desire – to abstain from marriage to give time to this battle.
Even if those with the gift of celibacy end up being relatively few, one can fully understand this need Paul speaks to!
Jesus does, in fact, call all to follow Him and to carry their cross.
To not be those who give in to complacency!
To not be those who would attempt to domesticate the Lion of Judah!
To realize that if the world hated the Teacher, and caused Him to suffer, it will do the same to His disciples!
The thing is, He knew where each one of these people He responded to were at personally…
He knew what they were thinking…
What claimed their hearts and attention…
He knows where each of us is at as well!…
And He does not call each and every one of us the same way…
God’s word in each instant to Nicodemus, to the rich young ruler, to the Pharisees He ate with (Luke 14), to each of the disciples, and to the Philippian jailer through the Apostle Paul all take different forms.
And so the way He gets us to where He wants us to be…
…the way He helps us to see what He wants us to see
…and to help us strive for what He wants us to strive…
Again, these are, these remain, very difficult passages…
We, with Kierkegaard, know that the church has often become corrupted by worldliness…
And I trust we see the problems in our own individual hearts as well!
How does this happen?
How do we not only not grow, but diminish?
I think “What kind of disciple am I? What kind of disciple could I be, is He calling me to be?” are the questions Jesus means us to be asking in our text today….
How would the Lord get us to not only understand why He says what He does but also live as He desires?
Two things come to mind:
First, before anything else, God chooses us by grace, through faith – inviting us to His wedding feast! He desires we believe His words of sheer grace to us like a simple child would….
Second, He means for us to grow in faith and mature, to increasingly become the kinds of persons for whom hard words like His do not frighten us or make us sad, but rather energize us and fill us with exhilaration, making our daily vocations not a hum-drum thing that we must get through… but helping us to imagine the possibilities about just how we, in our various stations, might help His Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven….
So, I think, finally, in the end, this is rather simple.
It involves us meeting Jesus, His looking us in the eye, His speaking both hard and faith-creating words to us, and we saying “Amen”….
What do I mean?
Well, again, let’s go back to Luther, as he explains the Christian catechism. By “catechism” I mean not so much what he wrote, but what things like the 10 commandments and Creed say – and what these clear words reveal and give us…
Luther begins by extolling the 10 commandments, pointing out how they, when taken seriously, will convince us of our need for God and His grace.
The 10 commandments show us our disease! Deep down we are idolaters, blasphemers, rebels, thieves, adulterers, murderers, liars, and coveters!
We are not spared pain here! These commandments show us what we really look like in the mirror!
Indeed, they always, to one extent or another, reveal our need for Jesus, who we then hear about in the Creed… (SOS! – shows our sins – so God can show us our Savior… SOS, again!)
Luther explains this in his Large Catechism:
“Thus far we have heard the first part of Christian doctrine, [the Ten Commandments,] in which we have seen all that God wishes us to do or to leave undone. Now, there properly follows the Creed, which sets forth to us everything that we must expect and receive from God, and, to state it quite briefly, teaches us to know Him fully. And this is intended to help us do that which according to the Ten Commandments we ought to do. For… they are set so high that all human ability is far too feeble and weak to [attain to or] keep them. Therefore it is as necessary to learn [the Creed] as the [Ten Commandments] in order that we may know how to attain thereto, whence and whereby to obtain such power. For if we could by our own powers keep the Ten Commandments as they are to be kept, we would need nothing further, neither the Creed nor the Lord’s Prayer.”
In the end, I think that a man like Soren Kierkegaard was very right and also that he was very wrong…
In advising Christians to stay away from the only church they knew, he was making a terrible mistake! – ultimately advising people to stay away from God’s gifts!
The Old Testament prophets certainly showed us that God’s servants in His institutions could become corrupt, but at the same time, it was in the worship services – the divine service – where God provided the sacrifices for His people…
And for us, it is where the fruits of the Lamb of God’s sacrifice for us are given – even if by imperfect or even corrupt ministers!
Even when things go very wrong with the church’s clergy, we still have God’s promises that He serves us in His Word and the gifts like confession and absolution, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper that He instituted for our encouragement and comfort.
How does God’s Kingdom come among us?
As Luther said, in his explanation of the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism:
“Thy Kingdom Come.”
“What does this mean? The kingdom of God certainly comes by itself without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also.
How does God’s kingdom come? God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.”
And this kingdom always comes anew in the gracious words of God we hear in this place, in the readings, in the prayers, in the hymns, in the sermon, in the benediction, in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper!
The Bible says that an earthly inheritance is important, but this is the ultimate, the eternal, inheritance!
God forbid you neglect these things!
Don’t let your children and grandchildren neglect these things!
There is a true spiritual war going on! A war that would utterly corrupt your soul and pull you away from the only Life in a Sea of Death.
But corruption within the church itself will also never negate the real gifts God gives to His people!
And so, may the Holy Spirit give us all those gifts deep in our souls!
May these things be true of us, and for us and to us – each and every one of us! – more and more and more so, until our Lord returns.