This part of Luke’s gospel is where Jesus resolutely sets his face towards Jerusalem. Jerusalem is where the great confrontation with the earthly powers is going to take place.
It was going to be the Passover, the greatest religious feast for the Jews, and everything that Luke considers important about Jesus’ life will happen there in a grand climax, the last supper, the betrayal, trial, crucifixion and the rising again on the third day.
It was a grand clash of kingdoms, in Jesus’ mind and worldview. The kingdoms of this world set in stark opposition to the Kingdom of God. They were going eyeball to eyeball, toe to toe.
There must be no distraction, no loss of nerve, no prevarication. The phrase “No-one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” is a direct reference to the great prophet Elisha (1 Kings 19:20) who when he was called was allowed a little respite to get his house in order before he followed Elijah, but Jesus says we can’t even allow that, the situation is so urgent.
Into this situation is uttered one of the most radical statements Jesus ever uttered. It is “Let the dead bury their own dead”.
Just as Jesus spoke of sighted people who were blind, so he spoke of living people who were dead.
Now in Judaism, the duty to bury one’s own father was one of the most sacred obligations, overruling even the Sabbath rules. For Jesus tp say something like that was really radical stuff.
But the symbolic meaning is clear. There is a way of living that amounts to living in the land of the dead. The saying also affirms that it is possible to leave the land of the dead. It is both an indictment and an invitation.
It is an indictment and an invitation that transcends time and space and is spoken to each one of us today.
Death as a metaphor for a way of living appears twice in the parable of the prodigal son. The Father says both “This son of mine is dead” and “This brother of yours is dead” to his angry elder son.
To state the obvious, the prodigal son was very much physically alive, yet his life in a foreign land is spoken of as equivalent to being dead. He came alive again when he returned to his family and was welcomed back into the loving arms of his family.
In fact if you remember that story, the prodigal son was very nervous about approaching his Father, it was his Father on seeing him in the distance ran towards his son and embraced him and proclaimed a feast to celebrate.
God running towards a person and embracing them is a lovely picture of what happens in baptism. No matter how tentative and nervous or unaware anyone might be, however young or old you might be, how deep or shallow our understanding may be, the embrace, the love is the same.
The Metanoia, the change of heart and mind is the beginning and the content of the way of Jesus. In the gospel reading Jesus also says “Follow me”. That is what he wanted.
So many Christian waste so much time grovelling at Jesus’ feet. He never never asked for any of that you know. He would rather you got up from your knees, and he’ll help you up, put you on your feet and help us to walk the path that he walked. To live as he lived.
If you want pointers to how to live as he lived, all the parables in the gospels are the direct teaching as to how to live as a child of God. It is a walk marked by compassion, forgiveness, but also of sacrifice and determination, courage and strength.