‘And it happened, as the days leading to his being taken up above were being completed, that he turned his face to the journey to Jerusalem.’ (Luke 9:51) Or as the Jerusalem Bible has it: ‘He resolutely took the road to Jerusalem.’ That is, Jesus firmly resolved to do this; he set himself towards Jerusalem … to his being ‘taken up.’ As the preceding stories make clear, Jesus knew what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem (Luke 9:22, 44-45), and here we are told that Jesus chose freely and determinedly to go there. Today’s Gospel is about the call to discipleship, about our call to follow Jesus — a call to see in it what it means when Jesus says, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross everyday and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it, but anyone who loses his life for my sake, that one will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24)
In everyone’s life there comes a time, when we know what we must do … to live and have life, to be true to ourself, to be ourself. To ignore this, we risk losing everything: when we come across a bitter old person, if we can stop to listen, what we often find is that what has made them bitter is that they didn’t do what they knew they should when they could, and now it is too late, for they have run out of time. One could wonder how Jesus could choose to go to Jerusalem, knowing that there they would kill him. Well, the truth is: no matter which path we take, at the end of the road is our own end; there is no safe harbour where we can hide. To try and live ‘safely’ is to risk not living at all; such is no recipe for happiness. So, the question becomes: Which way will enable us to say at its end, that ours was a life well spent? When we know the answer, we have no real choice other than to ‘set our face’ in that direction and head off towards it. This is what Jesus is putting before us here today, and as he put it elsewhere, “I have given you an example, that you may do likewise.” (John 13:15)
Having set his face towards Jerusalem, Jesus’ journey along The Way took him into a Samaritan village. (Luke 9:52) The Gospel continues: ‘But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.’ (Luke 9:53) Jesus encountered opposition precisely because he chose to do what he had to do, which was to go to Jerusalem. When we set out on our journey, we, too, must expect that others will not support us in our decision — indeed, they may oppose us. When I chose to become a monk, I cannot remember how many times I heard people say, “What a waste?” And yet, for me to do otherwise, would have been the real waste … like my inglorious teaching career.
People will come up with all kinds of reasons why we should not answer our call and do what we have to do. If ours is to follow Jesus, some will remind us of our responsibilities, perhaps even using the family as a way of pulling us in: How could you think of doing anything else? (Luke 9:59) Then, they might point to its lack of security. But Jesus has already acknowledged this: “Foxes have holes and the birds of the sky nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere he may lay his head.” (Luke 9:58) Besides that, for the journey of life, it is not possible for us to have enough that we will not be challenged along its way; life is ultimately insecure. We need to learn to live with some insecurity — in any walk of life, but more especially so if we choose to follow Jesus.
What the Israelites had to learn on their Exodus journey was how to trust in Providence. We, on our journey, also need to learn how to do this. The privations of their journey saw the Israelites looking back to what they had left behind (Exodus 16:3), to where life was secure, while conveniently forgetting that the cost of that secure life was that they, too, were securely held in slavery. Security comes at a great cost; it will see us only having to slave to pay for it. Yet, had the Israelites not set out, had they not risked their all in so doing, they would not have come into the Promised Land where they could live in freedom. So, Jesus says to us: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and then looks back to the things left behind is fit for the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:61) Ours is a call to live and to have life. We will not come into it unless we learn how to risk it all to achieve it — we must do what we are called to; anything else falls short and is not worth it. (Luke 9:24)
When we set out there will be plenty who will try to entice us away with promises of a fat bank account, a posh career, a fancy address with a three car garage, and fine designer labels to wear. They will quietly tell us that Jesus never really meant us to forsake all these things … that it is only reasonable that we should have them, for they are good, necessary even. They never mention that the few who manage to get all these things often find themselves sitting amongst all they have acquired wondering with a sense of disappointment boarding on disbelief: “Is this it, is this all that I have slaved for the whole of my life?” Life is not just about having good things. Life is about living and learning how to do it in whatever place we find ourselves.
Following him — being with him, listening to him — will teach us how to do that. As Jesus will put it elsewhere: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” (John 14:6) “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry; whoever believes in me will never thirst.” (John 6:35) “One who remains in me, with me in him, is one who bears plentiful fruit.” (John 15:5) He is the way to living a fruitful life, a life that is worth living. His call to us is: “Follow me.” (Luke 9:59) When we hear his call to life, we must know he means, ‘Follow me now!’ We need to stop making excuses. For he will press on, whether we follow or not (1 Kings 19:20), and we will be left only with the cold comfort of knowing: “I should have done that.”