Sixth Sunday after Pentecost | Luke 9:51-62
“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” Jesus said to an unnamed would-be disciple. It must have been discouragement enough. We hear no more of whoever it was.
It’s an interesting saying, recorded also in Matthew’s Gospel, though not in the other two. Luke records two more strange sayings, one about letting the dead bury the dead and another about putting one’s hand to the plow but looking back, like Lot’s wife. None of the three sayings are quite as simple as they sound.
The words about foxes and birds together with the stories of Jesus walking up and down the countryside—the quintessential peripatetic teacher—form the basis for the notion that Jesus was homeless. Somehow we modern folk tend to view homeless people as having less to offer, while we buy into the idea that Jesus being homeless enhanced the gospel message. There is a double standard at play that we should drag out into the daylight and reject.
At the same time, there is another aspect to the image of a homeless Jesus: it does not jive with the rest of what we hear about him in the gospels. The earliest gospel written, Mark, plainly speaks of Jesus being at home in Capernaum—try reading the chapter two, and try to keep an open mind. Mark tells us that Jesus was at home when men famously came bringing an invalid on a stretcher and, by way of bypassing an insurmountable crowd, tore open the roof of the house and lowered the man on ropes to where Jesus sat. Nobody in the story complains about the roof or the mess, most likely because the house belonged to Jesus himself.
Why does it matter? It highlights whether we are reading scripture and paying attention to it or merely looking for confirmation of what we already think it says. God can knock loudly when God chooses, but the Spirit still requires an open heart and mind to be heard.
Elsewhere when Jesus makes extreme statements and hyperbolic exaggerations to make a point—pluck out your eye, cut off your hand—we get it. We understand that those sayings were meant to illustrate his meaning. Point out, as I have just done, that it is far more likely that a first century adult male Jew with education and training, family and standing, did have a home, as the plainest reading of Mark indicates, and you may find yourself facing hostile believers quoting Luke and Matthew.
We do not like anyone messing with our ideas. It makes us anxious, uncertain, and ornery.
While we’re messing with ideas, let’s look at another one that has to do with wandering, from Deuteronomy 26:5—My father was a wandering Aramean…
These words, built into Jewish religious observance and ritual, are a reminder of the humble origins of their people. Jacob, and his grandfather Abraham, came from generations of semi-nomadic people of the ancient Fertile Crescent region. In a real sense, these people, the ancestors of the Jews, had no place to lay their head but under their tents and the stars above them. These people, the spiritual ancestors of all of the peoples of the book, were not above sleeping on the ground, a stone for a pillow.
Many of us buy mattress toppers and shop for starter mansions, or at least we spend our free moments watching the people on television buying houses most of us cannot afford, splurging on makeovers of homes most of the world would think already palaces. What will our descendants say about us? My ancestors were idle consumers…
There is something nearly Buddhist about the three admonitions Jesus speaks. The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head… Let the dead bury their own dead… No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.
He is talking about attachment. He is talking about being present. If Jesus were using the language of Zen, these would be koans. What use is a house in the palace of God?
We hold onto our belongings and our habits as though we will live forever, and in holding on, we loose our grip on everything that is eternal. Whether our pillow is as soft as goose down or as hard as a park bench, it is good to reflect on another Jesus saying that is found only in the Gospel of Luke: The kingdom of God is within you.