Change Discipleship

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
—Luke 9: 57-62

Discipleship is always an interesting topic to explore. Many have examined and pondered what it means to “follow” another. In fact, that is what we are always told. To be a disciple means “one who follows.” While technically correct, the literal meaning of the word “disciple” provides a slightly nuanced image, an image that the author of Luke plays upon in the above discussion of discipleship within the kingdom of God.

The word “disciple” is a compound of two Latin roots. Deriving from the Latin “discipere,” the word combines the two words “dis,” meaning “apart,” and “capere,” meaning to “take hold of.” Therefore, more than meaning to follow, the word disciple more directly carries a dual meaning, “to take hold of by letting go.”

However, of what is a disciple letting go?

The short encounters on discipleship from Luke’s gospel offered above help answer that question. In those encounters, Jesus has conversations with three men. Each conversation centers around discipleship with a particular focus, in escalating degrees, on the idea of home.

With the first man, Jesus is told that he will be followed wherever that leads. Jesus responds not with a statement about where they are going but about where they will not be going, i.e., home. Jesus says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In other words, discipleship is not about following Jesus to a new home as much as it is about leaving our old homes, i.e., ways of life behind. More broadly speaking, discipleship is about letting go not just of our literal homes, but, more figuratively, discipleship is about leaving behind all that home represents. And, home represents the past, the comfortable, the predictable, the given.

With the second man, Jesus approaches him, asking him to follow. The man asked first to go bury his dead father. In what appears to be a moment of insensitivity, Jesus says to the man, “let the dead bury their dead.” If an actual conversation and taken in isolation, then Jesus’ words seem out of character, but as part of a figurative encounter and larger conversation on discipleship the words convey a greater meaning. Jesus’ words are not about ignoring a need to inter a body but about a need to let our past understanding of “home” die as we press toward the future in God’s kingdom. After all, what is more illustrative of “home” than a parent? What is more emotive than the need to tend to that idea of caring for that embodiment of the past? Yet, despite the impulse, Jesus’ call to discipleship means letting go of that past and leaving it completely, wholly behind. We cannot progress forward in the kingdom if we are continually reminiscing and regretting. The disciple’s work in the kingdom requires not just leaving “home” but the total abandoning of the past.

The third encounter draws on the literal meaning of the word disciple by alluding not just to letting go but the grasping of something new. There, Jesus engages a man who wishes to go but first asks to return home to say “good-bye.” Jesus, conjuring the image of grasping for his articulation of discipleship, tells the man that he cannot move forward properly if he looks backward. As the animal pulls the plow forward, the disciple cannot focused on “home” behind him at the bottom of the field. If he does, the plow will veer off course and not allow for the cultivation of the kind of kingdom Christ calls him to tend. So, if discipleship is leaving “home” and the letting it “die,” then discipleship is, also, tending to the present to “cultivate” the proper future.

Life as a disciple in the kingdom of God will be anything but “home” like. Christ’s kingdom will be unsettling, overturning, and progressive. The kingdom unsettles our expectations about how things are meant to be; it overturns our institutions that oppresses and alienate and exploit; it progresses toward a future of fulfillment that is more about how things will be to be than about how things were meant to be. This is the imagery of the discipleship Luke wishes render for his readers. And, in many ways, it is a disturbing picture.

After all, what’s wrong with “home?” In the gospel writer’s mind, there is nothing wrong with home, unless our concerns for “home” become something from which we cannot let go. “Home,” if it is about sacrificing the radical call of the kingdom for the comfortable climate of conformity, then we must let go of it. If “home” is about embracing tradition to the detriment of what might be achieved for the kingdom through imaginative innovation, then we must let go of it. If “home” is about looking backward more than progress forward, then it must be let go of before we carve out a grid for the kingdom that will not produce any viable outcome.

According to the writer of Luke, home and all it represents, while appealing, is not the metaphor for kingdom that the gospel writer chooses to deploy. Rather, to the contrary, the kingdom of discipleship is more about giving up home and all it represents than holding on to it. Unsettling as it might be, such a metaphor discourages complacency and demands change, of ourselves, our institutions, our imaginings, and, finally, our world.

Be a disciple of the kingdom. Change something for Christ this week.

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