Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. A scribe then approached and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ Another of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’
Jesus doesn’t make it easy to follow him. One over enthusiastic scribe offers to go anywhere, any time, but instead of saying ‘Great!’ Jesus says that it’s not that simple, that there is a restlessness about his journey that will stretch the most committed follower. And then when someone else wants to wait before actually setting out, he is told to get on with it and leave everything else behind.
It’s not entirely clear what the second of these would-be disciples is saying. Has his father just died? Or is it that he has ageing parents and wants to look after them before committing himself to Jesus? Is Jesus really saying that following him means turning our backs on the responsibilities, even the vocations, that we already have – as those who are in relationships or in jobs that matter to us? Have we really to ‘leave everything behind’ for the sake of our calling to be disciples?
Many wrestle hard with competing calls on their time and energy. And many of these competing voices can readily be thought of as vocations. Being in a covenant relationship (like marriage), having a job, volunteering in the community, being an artist – are all things that might be understood as vocations. One person might have several such vocations. The model of the celibate priest is one simple model of vocation, but for most people, vocations are multiple.
In this same Gospel, Joseph of Arimathaea is celebrated as one who ‘buries the dead’, so perhaps this hard saying in chapter 8 is not urging us to set aside all other vocations in favour of following Jesus, but inviting us to see them all as part of that following. We will have decisions to make about how we follow the restless Jesus. But the decision to live all our roles in the light of his calling to us can’t and needn’t be put off.
O God, who has honoured me with many calls on my life, and has given me gifts and graces with which to bless the world, may I fulfil every task and love every person as you give me means. May my work and my ministry, my loving and my being, be shaped and blessed by my following of Jesus, and be strengthened by your Holy Spirit, today and always, Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Susan Durber is Minister of Taunton URC.