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The time was soon coming when Jesus would send out the seventy disciples on a mission trip (Luke 10:1), even as He had sent out the twelve earlier. Though Jesus had chosen twelve disciples to be closest to Him, there were many others who followed Him. There was always a crowd wherever Jesus went, and some of them aspired to be one of His full-time disciples.
Luke 9:57, 58 tells us of one such prospective disciple, saying,
57 And as they were going along the road, someone said to Him, “I will follow You wherever You go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”
Matt. 8:19-22 places this story (and the next) much earlier in Jesus’ ministry. It is difficult to say which gospel writer recorded these events in chronological order. It was probably Matthew, because he did not seem to need a particular theme in his account. In Luke 9, however, these two stories of would-be disciples follows a specific thematic progression.
First, the disciples learn about the basis of Kingdom authority. Then Jesus teaches them about the proper use of authority to restore men, not to destroy the opposition. Luke then gives us the basic requirements of true discipleship, without which God will not grant authority in the Kingdom.
Matthew’s account tells us that the enthusiastic would-be disciple was a scribe (Matt. 8:19). As such, he was probably well schooled in the law, along with the customs and traditional interpretations of the law. His enthusiasm reminds us much of Peter, who was later to tell Jesus, “Lord, with You I am ready to go both to prison and to death!” (Luke 22:33). There are many who do not know themselves well enough to make good on their commitments. Their enthusiasm runs ahead of their ability—or even their willingness to sacrifice normal comforts of life to achieve a higher goal.
Jesus reminded the scribe in Luke 9:58 that discipleship (especially in those days) often required being away from home for long periods of time. Travel was difficult in those days. Peter, for instance, had a wife and mother-in-law (Matt. 8:14), and no doubt most of the other disciples were married as well. In fact, it was largely for this reason that Paul seemed to discourage marriage (1 Cor. 7:7, 8), knowing how difficult it was in those days to be away from home on lengthy mission trips.
There was also a deeper level of meaning to Jesus’ response to the scribe. To be a true disciple, one must adopt the mindset of Abraham himself, along with all of the men of faith, who lived as “strangers and exiles on the earth.” Hebrews 11:13-16 shows that they sought for “a better country, that is a heavenly one.” They did not consider the land of Canaan, nor the present earthly order, to be their true inheritance. Hence, they were unencumbered by worldly goods, house and land, and social security.
Foxes and birds could find security in building homes for themselves, but disciples must have higher motivations and aspirations. For this reason, Jesus chose few disciples out of all who came to hear Him. Most of those who listened and believed His words went home each night. But Jesus and the disciples depended upon their hospitality, and when it was lacking, they had to spend the night sleeping under the stars.
So Luke places this story immediately after they had been denied hospitality in Samaria. Thus, it was particularly appropriate to the situation. When hospitality was not shown, it seemed apparent to all of them that if the next village refused them hospitality, they might have to sleep on the ground that night.
Luke then gives us a second story to illustrate the requirements of discipleship, saying in Luke 9:59-60,
59 And He said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Permit me first to go and bury my father.” 60 But He said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.”
It is usually assumed that this man’s father had just died, and that he needed to bury him before following Jesus. Dr. Bullinger says that this was a euphemism for declining an invitation, based on the fact that after such a burial, Jews did not leave the house for ten days. However, George Lamsa, the Aramaic scholar, wrote a century ago that it was an idiom that means, “Let me take care of my father until he dies” (Idioms in the Bible Explained, p. 51).
The lesson is the same, regardless of how we interpret Jesus’ statement. Discipleship requires a shift of priorities that are not required of other people. Whether this means setting aside a customary ten-day seclusion or not waiting for one’s father to die, the demands are that disciples place their divine call above other important matters. In similar fashion we see the requirement of a king’s servant. When the king tells his servant to do something, he cannot tell the king to wait while he attends to more important matters. If a servant does not consider the wishes of the king to be his top priority, he will not be given authority and responsibility.
Luke gives a third illustration of the requirements for discipleship in Luke 9:61, 62,
61 And another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” 62 But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”
This metaphor refers to a farmer plowing his field. If he looks back to see if the row is straight, it shows a lack of confidence and competence. Those who look back at what they have done are in danger of swerving in the future, for one cannot watch the ox that is ahead and the field which is behind at the same time.
Some men rest on their laurels, as they say, instead of pressing ahead to finish new projects in the Kingdom. Others are weighed down by past sins, never accepting the forgiveness that comes by the blood of Jesus Christ (1 John 1:9). To be an effective disciple, one must settle the past, accept the provision that Christ has made, and move on.
This incident is not found in Matthew’s account (Matt. 8:19-22). It appears that both Luke and Paul knew this story, for it appears that Paul had it in mind when he wrote in Phil. 3:13, 14,
13 Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Paul had more baggage from the past than most people had in his day. Gal. 1:13 says,
13 For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it.
Though Paul obviously had many regrets, he was able to put it behind him and to grasp the mercy and forgiveness of God. This enabled him to put his hand to the plow without looking back, and thus he qualified as a true disciple of Christ.
This brings us to the account of Jesus’ commissioning of the seventy disciples, all of whom must have qualified for discipleship by the standards that Luke sets forth at the end of Luke 9.