When the American TV game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? debuted well over 20 years ago, host Regis Philbin gained increased popularity for always asking contestants, “Is that your final answer?” Lots of money was riding on every multiple choice trivia question posed to the contestants, and Regis wanted to make sure they were convinced of their answers. I think today’s Gospel puts that same question to us: Is that your final answer? In other words, Are you sure? Are you really serious about wanting to follow the Way of Jesus?
In today’s Gospel we’re told that Jesus was wanting to go to Jerusalem. He was a polarizing figure—if you were an ordinary person of little means, you’d be attracted to Jesus; but if you were part of the religious elites, you’d find Jesus threatening. No doubt Jesus was unsure about how people would react along the way as he made the trek to Jerusalem. So he sent out his followers ahead of him to get a sense of the social temperature. While that’s happening, as he’s walking along the road, three unnamed men approach him indicating their intention to join the ranks of his followers. We get indications that all three may not have done their due diligence in thinking through what it means to follow Jesus. And so to each one, Jesus responds with some arresting words. Is that your final answer? Are you really sure? Because if you want to be my disciple, Jesus says, the way will not be easy. I think these three unnamed figures are mini case studies of the challenges of being a Christian.
The first case is the naïve follower. This is the enthusiastic person who is totally enamored with Jesus, at least on the surface, but perhaps hasn’t considered with any seriousness what following Jesus entails. This person declares to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.” It’s a bold, unqualified statement. But Jesus responds: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In other words, following Jesus means giving up one’s quest for security—the security of having a house to return to with a door that locks; or, even beyond that, the assurance that you’ll always have friends and family to welcome you into their homes. Those things, says Jesus, are not certainties we can invariably depend on. Why? Because the Christian way is a path that renders our comforts unstable and insecure—and that might include even where we live and sleep. How did the would-be disciple respond to what Jesus had to say? We’re not told, but we’re left wondering: did he stay true to his commitment to follow Jesus, or did he walk away dissuaded by Jesus’ response?
The second case study is the distracted follower of Jesus. Unlike the first person who approached Jesus directly, this person is called by Jesus and seems receptive to Jesus’ invitation—but not without conditions. He wants first to take care of his father’s funeral arrangements. Jesus’ response seems almost dismissive: “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” At the very least, Jesus is urging this would-be follower to remember that being a disciple means being called to a specific mission: to proclaim the kingdom of God. That proclamation, by word and deed, requires sacrifice on our part. It’s not enough, according to Jesus, to fit it into our already busy schedules where we have free time. No, Jesus’ words are a reminder that to be a Christian means that embodying the Good News must be our ultimate concern at all times, even when other circumstances close to home vie for our attention and commitment.
The third case study in today’s Gospel is that of the indecisive Jesus-follower. This person approaches Jesus and declares his intention to join him—but not right away. He wants first to go back to his family and say goodbye. He understands that being a disciple of Jesus will be all-absorbing and a life of sacrifice. But he’s torn because he loves his family. Perhaps he wanted their blessing. Or perhaps he wanted to convince them that he was doing the right thing. In any case, Jesus responds with these famous words: “No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” In other words, the call to be a disciple of Jesus is urgent. If our response is “Yes, we will follow,” then there’s no time for excuses and delaying. We must get on with embodying the Good News, even if our closest family members might think we’re a bit crazy.
I don’t think I’m off base to assume that some of you, like me, find that today’s Gospel of these three mini case studies hits close to home. I must admit that, like the first person, I’m sometimes naïve about what it takes to live as a Christian with integrity. I’m distracted, like the second person, by a lot of things going on, things that get in the way of devoting myself entirely to embodying the Good News. And like the third person, I’m indecisive at times; I have my doubts, and sometimes I’m very frustrated with the church, its structure and organization, and its decision making.
We may never totally overcome our naïveté, distraction and indecision. But we don’t need to be racked with guilt about that. The Way of Jesus is long. It’s a path to follow for the entirety of our lives. Often we will get distracted. Sometimes we’ll have significant doubts. But we don’t travel the path alone. The one we follow is actually present among us, in the faces of those who travel the path with us and especially in the faces of those we don’t know. We have each other to depend on. That’s what this congregation is all about—building friendships, learning to trust one another, finding a common purpose.
So as we continue along the Way of Jesus together, I hope that we will all come to say—despite our naïveté, distraction and indecision—"yes, I’m certain, I want to be a Christian!”