As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” 59 And to another he said, “Follow me.” But he replied,”(Lord,) let me go first and bury my father.” 60 But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 And another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” 62 (To him) Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”
These verse are located along the way. As Jesus journeyed some people announced their readiness to follow him. They were clearly well-intentioned, but had not realized the nature of the demands the kingdom makes.
“I will follow you wherever you go…” We know where Jesus is going. Jesus is on his journey to Jerusalem. Would the person be as willing to follow if he knew Jesus’ journey and the things that will play out in Jerusalem? This first person expresses his readiness to follow Jesus. There is nothing wrong with the way he puts it: he is ready to go anywhere Jesus leads. But the reply shows that he has not reckoned with what this means. Jesus indicates that personal pleasure is not part of his travels: “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” Jesus’ comments imply that the follower will be like the leader. If Jesus has no place to lay his head, his followers shouldn’t expect anything better.
“Follow me” With the second person, it is Jesus who asks him to follow (akoloutheo). Jesus’ statement in v. 59 is exactly the same as he uttered to Levi in 5:27, “Follow me.” Levi leaves everything and follows. This man can’t. The duty to bury one’s father was part of obeying the commandment, “Honor your father and mother.” The duty of burial took precedence over the study of the law, the temple service, the killing of the Passover sacrifice, the observance of circumcision and the reading of the Megillah (Megillah 3b) – which itself discusses the public proclamation and teaching of the Law.
Joseph takes a leave from the Pharaoh so that he can bury his father back in Canaan (Gen 50:1-7). Tobit shows his faithfulness by burying the dead (Tob 1:16-20). The importance of a son burying his father and mother is illustrated by Tobias, Tobit’s son (Tob 4:3; 6:15). There have been some arguments that the father was not yet dead, that the son wanted to stay at home until he could fulfill this obligation. There are no indications of this in the text. But the burial duties of a Jewish son are not as simple as western culture admits. Green (The Gospel of Luke, 408-9) describes the Jewish practice more fully:
The practice of primary burial (in which the corpse is placed in a sealed tomb) followed by secondary burial (following a twelve-month period of decomposition the bones were collected and reburied in an ossuary or “bone box”) is well attested, with the additional twelve months between burial and reburial providing for the completion of the work of mourning. According to this reckoning, Jesus’ proverbial saying would refer to the physically dead in both instances: “Let those already dead in the family tomb rebury their own dead.” In either case, Jesus’ disrespect for such a venerable practice rooted in OT law is matched only by the authority he manifests by asserting the priority of the claims of discipleship in the kingdom of God.
The text is clear – the urgency of the gospel supersedes all other claims.
“I will follow you, Lord, but first …” The third person, like the first says that he will follow Jesus. Like the second person, he asks for permission (epitrepo — “let” in vv. 59 and 61) to do something first. In some ways these two would-be followers want to place conditions on their following. “I will follow you, but first….” This third person is asking no more than what Elisha asked of Elijah (1 K 19:20). Jesus demands more of his followers than Elijah did. Jesus points out that the kingdom has no room for those who look back when they are called to go forward.
In how many testimonies does the convert talk about all the evil things that were left behind in order to follow Jesus. Jesus also demands that we give up the very best things in our lives to follow him. Craddock (Luke, Interpretation Commentaries, p.144) says it well:
The radicalism of Jesus’ words lies in his claim to priority over the best, not the worst, of human relationships. Jesus never said to choose him over the devil but to choose him over the family. And the remarkable thing is that those who have done so have been freed from possession and worship of family and have found the distance necessary to love them.
These few verses outline many “calls” – Jesus: the call of God to go to Jerusalem vs. the call of the Samaritans (perhaps) to stay and take care of them. James and John: the call for revenge against the Samaritans vs. Jesus’ call to leave the unreceptive people and move on to another town. There is the call of self-pleasures vs. the call to follow Jesus. There is the call of family obligations vs. the call to follow Jesus. There is the call of socially accepted actions vs. the call to follow Jesus. There is the call of being good citizens which may conflict with the call to follow Jesus. If burying one’s parents was considered obeying the commandment to honor them, then we also have the call of the Law vs. the call to follow Jesus.
Frankly, none of us are going to make the cut to follow Jesus. Our desires for soft pillows and comfortable beds, for fulfilling family and social obligations, our patriotism will frequently have higher priorities than following Jesus – especially following Jesus all the way to Jerusalem and the cross. We might be willing to give up some evils in our lives to follow Jesus, but to give up all these good things – to put them as a lower priority than Jesus? That is radical discipleship, but Paul writes about doing this in Phil 3:4-11. He considers all his past, good, religious deeds as “rubbish”.
Perhaps the image of putting one’s hand to the plow and not looking back refers to looking back both at all the very good things in our lives like family and friends, comforts and satisfactions, “successful” programs; but also all the sins in our lives, which have been forgiven by Christ. We can neither wallow in our past sins nor boast of our past successes if we are to be fit for the kingdom of God.
Luke 9:57 I will follow you: In these vv.5-61 many commentators have again detected the presence of Elijah traditions. Verse 59 echoes the story of 1 Kings 19:19–21, where Elijah allowed Elisha to bid farewell to his family before following him. The significance of this passage is further supported by the wording in 9:61–62, where the phrase akolouthēsō soi (“I will follow you” in 9:61; cf. 1 Kings 19:20) appears with arotron (“plow” in 9:62; cf. ērotria, “he was plowing,” in 1 Kings 19:19). The contrast between Jesus and Elijah not only highlights the unique authority of Jesus but also points to the eschatological urgency present in Jesus’ ministry.
Luke 9:57-62: In these sayings Jesus speaks of the severity and the unconditional nature of Christian discipleship. Even family ties and filial obligations, such as burying one’s parents, cannot distract one no matter how briefly from proclaiming the kingdom of God. The first two sayings are paralleled in Matthew 8:19-22; see also the notes there.
Luke 9:60 Let the dead bury their dead: i.e., let the spiritually dead (those who do not follow) bury their physically dead. See also the note on Matthew 8:22. Some have suggested that Jesus’ demand not to bury one’s father aims at symbolizing the impending judgment on Israel (cf. Jer. 16:5–9; Ezek. 24:16–24). Nevertheless, the historical practice of secondary burial that requires the dead to be reburied after one year may be sufficient in explaining the urgency of Jesus’ note. The theme of judgment cannot be denied, however, in light of the immediate context of this section (10:1–16) and of the wider emphasis in Luke’s central section.
Luke 9:62 looks to what was left behind: The act of looking back in 9:62 may also be an allusion to the story of Lot’s wife, who “looked back” and “became a pillar of salt” (Gen. 19:26). In both texts verbs of looking (blepōn in 9:62; epeblepsen in Gen. 19:26) appear with the phrase eis ta opisō (“to the back” in 9:62; Gen. 19:26). The use of the Sodom story in its Lucan context (10:12) further supports the presence of this allusion in 9:62. Again, one finds the presence of the theme of urgency in the context of divine judgment.
- R. Alan Culpepper, Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995) 214-18
- Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke in The New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997) 400-409.
- Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (I–IX), Anchor Bible 28 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981) 827.
- Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, vol. 3 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991)
- Jerome Kodell, “Luke” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris, (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989)
- Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
- Eugene LaVerdiere, Luke, vol. 5 of the New Testament Message (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990) 129-33
- Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at www.crossmarks.com
- Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970