When Jesus was asked which commandment was the most important, he didn’t choose one.
Out of the 613 commandments in the Bible, 248 do’s and 365 do not’s, Jesus chose two commandments. He said love God and love your neighbour. That placed vertical love and horizontal love on an equal level, together above all other commandments.
To put it another way, your relationship with God is not more important than your relationship with people. We sometimes act as though it is. Your relationship with people is not more important than your relationship with God. Jesus came to repair both relationships. In his life and his words, he shows the way we ought to relate to God and to people.
Let’s look at how Jesus related to people. This is important. Without doing this we are left with the examples of our own culture. Perhaps we might read some books and select the culture of Palestine in the first century as our norm. But did Jesus relate to those around him as a person of your culture might? Did he relate to people as other people of his culture did.
In the first verse of today’s reading – Luke 9:57 – we discover an interaction between Jesus and an unknown person. “As they were walking along, someone said to Jesus…”
This person is not a disciple. He appears to be someone who is asking permission to follow Jesus and become a disciple. Matthew says that this man was a scribe.
This incident shows Jesus as approachable. Anyone could come up to him and talk to him. We know how important Jesus is. In our eyes, he is more important than any king or president. Can you just walk up to a king or a president?
The Gospels include more than 40 meetings between Jesus and various individuals. In 25 cases Jesus was approached by someone. Example include a rich young ruler (Matthew 19:16-30), a demoniac (Mark 5:1-20), Jairus, a synagogue ruler (Mark 5:21-43), and a haemorrhaging woman (Mark 5:24-34). In only nine cases did Jesus start the conversation.
Almost all of his conversations took place in workplaces, many occurred in homes, and some like this one on the road. Jesus never needed a special place to talk about God. He never needed protection from people who wanted to talk to him. He was always ready to talk to anyone. He also always listened carefully to people. Jesus built connections to people.
Jesus connected with people’s thoughts and feelings. Jesus asked questions in more than half of the conversations he had.
Jesus understood that new ideas need to be connected with existing frames of reference if they are to last. He understood that time is required for ideas to simmer and for people to own them before they act on them.
Jesus knew how to take the initiative. Jesus responded to the initiatives of others. Jesus made room for interruptions by friends and others. Jesus usually met people on their own turf. Jesus was interested in establishing relationships with others.
This is not the normal way of life in our world. It’s not normal for important people in any of our cultures or societies. It was not normal in the society in which Jesus lived. Jesus was most certainly a first century Jew and we have to understand his culture to understand him. But we must not think that he always followed the rules and norms of his culture.
The social life of Jesus did not fit the norm. People were scandalized by his behaviour. Think how it must have looked to people. Jesus was in his 30s. He should have settled down by now, made a home, and become a productive, responsible person in society. Instead, he was always on the move, hanging around with nobodies who had also quit their jobs.
These vagabonds were even being supported by women!
What would your wife or mother-in-law think if you joined a man like this. Peter had left his family’s fishing business in Capernaum to follow a homeless man from Nazareth. What would your relatives and neighbours think?
In Jewish life, the family held a very important place. It was a patriarchal society like Korea where the father has a position of authority and power. In a social context like that, some of the most radical statements that Jesus made had to do with family relationships.
Turn to verse 59 of today’s reading. Jesus speaks to a second person. He tells this man to follow him, and the man agrees to become a disciple. Then he asks to be allowed to first bury his father.
Probably his father had died some time ago, and the first funeral had already been conducted. If his father had just died, the man would not be out in the street talking to Jesus. Jews waited a year after the first burial and then did a final burial of the only bones of the deceased. So this man is asking for perhaps a year’s delay before he joins Jesus. He is presumably the eldest son and he is taking seriously his family responsibility, particularly the supreme responsibility of burying his father. It is really shocking that Jesus tells him not to do this.
The man first agreed and then asked for a delay. Jesus began a dialogue with him. He established a relationship in which the man felt comfortable to negotiate with Jesus. Then Jesus pointed out that having good relationship with Jesus required the man to alter his priorities. Jesus seems to lack family values as defined by society.
Jesus told him, “Let the spiritually dead bury their own dead! Your duty is to go and preach about the Kingdom of God.”
Then a third man came and talked with Jesus.
He also agreed to follow Jesus and be his disciple. In verse 62, Jesus said to him, “Anyone who puts a hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God.”
Is there a way to make sense of these statements that seem to attack the most basic social unit of civilization, the family? Yes! There is something even more basic than the family. It is the family of God. It is the kingdom of heaven. Not even family loyalties or social duties can be allowed to stand in the way of our commitment to the kingdom of God.
At the heart of the message of Jesus is the kingdom of God. Everything else, even our own family, must take second place. At times people may have to sacrifice their family relationships to fulfil the demands of discipleship in the kingdom of God. Jesus was not particularly dismantling the social unit of the family as such. He was showing that the relationships between people belong within the kingdom of God. All prospective disciples must be able to answer when Jesus asks this question. “What is your most important allegiance? Is it the kingdom of God or is it something else? Is it your race, your tribe, your nation or your family?”
The Pharisees defined holiness as separation: be separate, come out from among them, be different, don’t associate with the wrong crowd, don’t touch questionable people, don’t associate with them.
But there is a second way to define holiness. It is the way Jesus defined it. Holiness is perfect love. Jesus lived out this definition of holiness in his daily associations. Jesus summarized the Old Testament commandments as loving God with the whole heart, mind and strength and loving one’s neighbour as oneself. But who is my neighbour?
Jesus was asked that question on one occasion, to which he replied by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. Any human being who needs my help is my neighbour. It makes no difference who it is. Anyone is potentially my neighbour, including someone like a Samaritan, a socially ostracised person, or even a morally corrupt individual. So how did Jesus live out the life of holiness? By avoiding certain types of people? No!
He lived out the life of holiness by reaching out to them with love and compassion. He identified with the outcasts. He sat with them. He accepted them without judging them. They felt that they were no longer nobodies, that God cared for them, that they were included in God’s invitation to the kingdom of God.
How are we going to define and live out the life of holiness today? Will we do it as the Pharisees? Or will we do it as Jesus did it?
Are we ready to sacrifice our ideas of what relationships are central and accept what Jesus taught? Are we ready to leave the dead to bury the dead, and walk into the new kingdom of the living with a whole hearted determination to love our fellow citizens. Don’t look back. We have to move forward together, brothers and sisters in Christ.