As Jesus is going towards Jerusalem, he sets his face like flint. He’s determined to do the father’s will, and at this point in the gospel of Luke, there’s no turning back. Once he goes forward to fully do God’s will, he’s completely committed to it. There are three different kinds of asks in “will you follow me,” and Jesus gives three different responses, so that’s what I’d like to talk about in today’s homily. I think the one that we probably all heard that is the most disturbing is where the man says, “I will follow you, but first I must bury my father,” and Jesus says, “Let the dead bury the dead.” Are you guys at all disturbed by that? That was a little troubling and confusing isn’t it, why Jesus would say that? So that’s what I’m going to address and talk about, what the depth of the meaning is of this gospel.
This gospel is all about the call. These disciples that are called to follow Jesus, that he either calls them or they themselves initiate and say I would like to follow you. There are three things about the call. The first situation is, that there’s a man on a journey who says to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus says to him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” What he’s telling him very clearly is, if you follow me, there’s not going to be a lot of security that you’re going to find anymore in the world. The only security you’re going to find is in me. So, Jesus even said, “I, myself, have no place to lay my head because the only thing that will fulfill me is doing my father’s will.” So, the first part of the invitation to discipleship is that it will be difficult for us, and we will have to give up a lot to follow God’s will.
The second is the one to whom Jesus says, “Follow me,” and his reply is, “Well, let me go first and bury my father.” He answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead,” but you go and proclaim the Kingdom of God. Let the dead bury the dead. One of the Corporal Works of Mercy is burying the dead. It’s something that is very sacred in our faith and throughout Judaism, too, when Jesus was, at that time, burying the dead was seen to be a sacred thing. What Jesus is saying in this is, even more, important than any other thing that might be sacred in our lives, following Him comes first. When He says the phrase, “Let the dead bury the dead,” He’s basically saying anyone that doesn’t follow me or follow my will might as well be dead because I’m the way to live, I am the resurrection. He’s saying it’s your choice. You can follow me or you can be dead, and go back and bury the dead. We don’t know if his father was actually dying or if he was just kind of using this as a, “Yeah, Jesus what about this?” This is one of the points where Jesus kind of takes a moment and makes it extreme to help us see that there is nothing else more important in our lives than following Jesus, not even burying the dead. He’s making it very clear that if we want to follow Him, He is first, He is the first and the primary love of our lives and everything else takes second place to Jesus.
I remember when I was going into the seminary and I was discerning it when I was first just thinking about going and I felt in my heart that I was ready. My whole life I didn’t want to be a priest, so I kept saying, “No God, no God, no God.” Well now, all of a sudden, in my heart I feel ready and I’m going to go into the seminary. Then I began telling my friends about this, and it was amazing the response that I got because overwhelmingly my friends said, Don’t do it, you’re making a mistake.” It was crazy because I was at such peace with this already, and when I went back to kind of consult my peers, their response was, “Don’t do this. Your life’s gonna be over, you’re not gonna have any fun, we’re gonna lose you as a friend.” It occurred to me that, had I not said yes, had I listened to my friends who I cared about and loved, how different would my life have been. I think about the joy I have in the priesthood. I just thank God that I’m a priest and for what He’s done for me in my life. If I would have not said yes to that I might as well be dead.
There are a number of young boys I’ve worked with over the years to help into the seminary to discern priesthood and many of them do. When they go, they’re very happy and the rest of their lives are amazing. But some say no, and you just have a sense sometimes that somebody’s got a call to the priesthood. The ones that have said no, it’s been so difficult to watch their lives because they’ve turned out to be a mess. It’s been a pretty bad scenario. If we don’t respond to God, if we don’t listen to his call, we might as well be dead because we’re spiritually dead. His call has to come first in our lives.
Then, finally, we hear the one say, “I will follow you, Lord, wherever you go but first let me say farewell to my family,” and Jesus says to him, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and ever looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.” I was in the seminar for six years. I get to my last year I’m about to be ordained to be a priest and I started freaking out. I was almost having panic attacks about making this final decision, promising my whole life to be a priest. I remember really having a difficult time with this. I would pray throughout the year, and my spiritual director was just a wonderful man. He died about a week ago. He was my director for 16 years. I will never forget this line that he said to me. This was the final time that I discerned, yes, I’m going to go and be ordained. He looked me deep in the eyes and he said, “If you say yes to this, put your hand to the plow and never look back.” That struck me like a bolt of lightning, that if I say yes to this with God, I’m never going to question it again. I’m never going to doubt it again.
I was with a couple recently and they actually talked about how early on in their marriage they began to like think, “what did we do, we’ve got to be married to this person now for the rest of our lives”. The same thing applies to that, put your hand on the plow and never look back. I’m sure you’ve heard in marriages, you know, the phrase ‘the honeymoon is over. You get married, you’re all in love and then the honeymoon ends. Sometimes people say, “What am I doing? Why did I do this?” Those are the moments we have to go back and say, “No, I chose this with Jesus. I said yes, so put your hand to the plow and never look back.” You might be 40 years into your marriage and even questioning still. Remember those promises that you made. Put your hand to the plow and never look back. I think, too, with the idea of ‘let the dead bury their dead, God calls us in life to different things. He’s called me to the priesthood, he’s called some of you to married life, some to religious life, some to the single life, but we’re all called in our baptismal call to be holy, to be the people that he has created us to be and to let nothing prevent that.
But then within all those calls, Mother Theresa used to say, “We all have a call within the call, that God wants to do something unique and special with each one of us that no other person can do on the earth but you.” I think it’s important that when you discover that call that you let everything else go that would get in the way of it. Let that passion, let that love the Lord has given to you take precedence over everything. I think one of the most practical measures we have for this is Mass on Sunday. There are plenty of other things that are important in your life. I know that, and I know you’re all here on Sunday, so this is wonderful. But it’s a good example of, I’m going to choose this over everything else because it’s important. Then during your day, there are going to be different times in your day where God nudges you and you feel a little nudge of God and a call, and it’s so important that when God calls us, we respond. We’re willing to put aside anything else that might seem important. Jesus uses this phrase to make it very clear, “Let the dead go and bury the dead.” If I don’t follow the father’s will in my vocation, in my holiness, and in my day-to-day interactions, I may as well be spiritually dead.
I just invite you to let this be a moment now, I’ll give you a moment after the homily, just to think about your life and the times that you have said yes to the Lord. Maybe you’ve wavered, maybe you’re wavering now, but just to recommit yourself and say yes, and mean it with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul. If you’ve looked back, I just want you to take your hand to the plow now, look forward, and don’t ever look back. Let His call be what is most important in our lives.